Silent No More
Once a victim of sex trafficking, Barbara Amaya is working to raise awareness of a danger that exists even in the suburbs.
Barbara Amaya spent a lot of years keeping quiet. She’d gotten used to it. A victim of human trafficking at a time she should have been in middle school, she spent the next decade following orders.
Don’t use your name.
She didn’t tell her neighbors in Arlington, where she’s lived for 25 years, that she’d spent her teens through her early 20s selling sex to strangers.
She didn’t tell people at Northern Virginia Community College, when she enrolled as an older student. She didn’t tell her boyfriend, even when he became her husband. She didn’t even tell her daughter, now 28—and she says she is closer to her than anybody.
Amaya didn’t describe herself as a victim because she didn’t realize she’d been one. At least not until one evening in 2012, when she saw a newscast about members of the MS-13 gang in Alexandria being prosecuted for forcing young girls into prostitution. The TV reporter talked with police about how the gang had found and recruited its victims. How those victims had been threatened and were made to feel that everything—everything—that happened was their fault.
She stared at the TV. “That’s what happened to me,” Amaya says today from her office at Seraphim Global, an Arlington nonprofit that provides health, education and social support for vulnerable populations. “I had a name for it, and I was very angry. That was the first time I ever thought of myself as a victim.”
Amaya says she started running away to D.C. at age 12 after being abused. For a while, she was returned each time to her family home; then she was taken to a correctional facility. Every time she ran away, she found her way back into the District, where she eventually met a sympathetic woman who offered her food and shelter in her apartment. There was a man there, too. He acted nice enough, and Amaya says she was needy. So she stayed.
“After the abuse I’d already experienced, it wasn’t that far of a leap,” she says. “I probably would have robbed a bank if they wanted me to.” But what they had in mind was prostitution. Weeks later, on the corner of 14th and I streets, she saw more money exchange hands. She had been sold, she says. Soon, she was driving to New York with a new trafficker, a man named Moses. She was just shy of 13.
Now 61, Amaya still has the same long, blond hair she did back then. She speaks purposefully and quickly, jumping back and forth between decades. There is much she wants to say and questions she prefers to answer before they’re asked, such as: Why didn’t you leave?
“It’s called trauma bonding,” she explains, and it happens to many victims. Moses was nice to her and made her feel special. Then he beat her up. He had a pistol and he made sure she saw it. Then he acted loving again. “I was completely isolated,” Amaya says. “I grew up while I was being trafficked.”
Her memory of the 1970s is full of holes, “like Swiss cheese,” she says, adding that trauma does that to people. Drugs, too. Amaya says she was addicted to heroin for years, craving numbness.
There were many moments, though, that remained clear, and she wrote about them in a book, Nobody’s Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery and Transformation. She pieced together her time as a trafficking victim for the first part. But her life had new chapters, too: marriage, divorce, a daughter. College. Myriad medical issues, including the uterine cancer she was treated for starting in 2006. All were related, she suspects, to physical trauma she suffered while being trafficked.
She does remember clearly that moment in 2012 when she heard the newscast and had the epiphany that plunged her into activism and speaking out. “So much happened that night,” she says. “It completely changed the trajectory of my life. I’ve taken my life back.”
One of her first calls after hearing the news story was to an organization in D.C. that helps homeless and runaway youth. Amaya says she wanted to help. “They asked me if I could speak.”
She has never been a fan of public speaking. She sweats and her voice shakes. Nevertheless she spoke to the staff about what had happened to her. Since then, she has spoken to groups of kids and adults. She delivered a TEDx talk. And she has talked to legislators about bills that would make it easier for human-trafficking victims to vacate their arrest records for prostitution.
Her own stack of records was inches thick, she says, but New York’s law gave her a path to clearing them. She wanted a similar path in Virginia and approached her state senator, Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), whose district includes part of Arlington and who had been chair of the Virginia Commission on the Prevention of Human Trafficking.
“Really what we’re trying to do is not re-victimize the victim,” Ebbin says. “[Barbara] was a passionate advocate.”
In 2013, Ebbin sponsored a bill aimed at vacating convictions for victims of forced prostitution. Amaya, he says, “inspired and testified in support of the legislation.” The bill met resistance from the State Crime Commission and some members of the General Assembly, he says. It didn’t pass.
When she speaks to groups, Amaya projects a slide in the background: a photo of herself at the beach at age 12, just before she ran away for the first time. “I want people to know exactly how young I was,” she explains. “I was a child.” Although cases such as hers have been reported in all 50 states, many more go unreported because, like Amaya, victims do not always readily identify themselves as such.
Even so, this region identified 530 cases of human trafficking between 2013 and 2017, according to Kay Duffield, coordinator of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and director of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative. And that’s only a small percentage of the real number, she says.
Amaya, who now speaks around the country and in 2014 won Arlington County’s James B. Hunter Human Rights Award for her advocacy, is a member of the task force. “It is so important to have a survivor’s voice—someone who lived through it and has come out the other side,” Duffield says. “You can point to her and say, yes, a person can go through horrendous things but be healed and live an amazing life. She’s such a great example for others.”
Gail Hambleton, director of interfaith partnerships for the Global Peace Foundation, has asked Amaya to speak many times as part of the Safe Haven campaign for the Foundation’s Interfaith Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking. “People tend to stereotype victims and survivors,” Hambleton says.
Amaya—being white, blond and from the suburbs—helps to disprove certain stereotypes. “People are really able to connect with her,” Hambleton continues. “Vulnerability is the common factor. Her story gets through to people that this can happen anywhere in America.”
Amaya still gets nervous every time she speaks before a group. But she does it anyway. She says she hopes that speaking out will help victims, especially, realize that they are not alone.
“When this happens, they think, ‘I’m the only one,’ ” she says. “Nothing’s going to change if people don’t know it even happens.”
Madelyn Rosenberg is a writer and children’s book author in Arlington.