Girl, 16, reunited with family after five years of exploitation

A teenage girl who has endured more hardship than most will experience in a lifetime has been reunited with her parents and three siblings following a childhood spent in slavery.

The past five years have been turbulent for 16-year-old Semira*, who has been trafficked for domestic work and forced to live and work on the streets to survive.

She was found by police on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and referred to Hope for Justice’s Lydia Lighthouse – an aftercare centre providing shelter, food, clothing, counselling, education and support for children who have been exploited.

A member of Hope for Justice’s staff said: “When Semira came to the Lighthouse, all she wanted to do was to get back to her parents. But she was full of doubt because she had lost all trust in people; everyone who had promised to help her over the past five years had lied or left her destitute. She was also worried that her family wouldn’t recognise her after five years apart.”

Faced with the reality that her poverty-stricken parents could not survive through subsistence farming, and concerned for the welfare of her mother who had fallen ill, Semira* had made the difficult decision to leave her home when she was aged 11.

She and a friend had been approached by a man while at their school, in the Oromia Region, who had offered them the chance to pursue a “life of luxury” in the city. He had promised them a salary which they could send back to their families to provide support.

Semira dropped out of primary education and travelled to Addis Ababa, where she was employed as a domestic worker – not the path to prosperity that she had been promised.

Following six months of child domestic labour, working long days, seven days a week, facing constant emotional and physical abuse, and never receiving any salary, Semira fled from the house.

She befriended a girl and the two street homeless children began to sell tea and coffee to earn a few birr. But their income was not enough to afford a bed for the night and their business ended after about one year.

Semira said: “I desperately wanted to go back home but I was ashamed. I had not seen my parents or sent any money home for 18 months.

“When a broker offered me domestic work in Addis for a monthly salary as well as an education, I said yes.

“But I was worked more than I could handle for about 12 months and I wasn’t given any money. Neither did they let me attend school.

“When I asked for my money, they told me that the food and shelter they gave me was good enough. They did not let me leave, so I escaped during the night.”

Semira was exploited as a domestic worker for three-and-a-half years, moving from place to place, never earning enough to send to her family or continue her education.

A staff member at Lydia Lighthouse said: “Devastated and tired, Semira sat at the side of the road and began to cry. She was found by a stranger who took her to the police, and who in turn referred her to Hope for Justice.

“At the Lighthouse, Semira received life skills education, counselling and support, which helped her to become more hopeful and to have a brighter outlook for her future.”

The team spent several weeks trying to trace Semira’s family, who had moved from their former home to a new village.

“When we finally made contact via telephone, her family did not believe us,” the staff member said, “They believed their daughter had died. The conversation between father and daughter was very emotional. Semira was in tears of happiness and at times, could not speak.”

Semira’s father said: “It is a real miracle to hear that our child is alive. We had no idea where she was or how to find her. Thank you for making it possible for us to see our child again.”

The family were finally reunited during the COVID-19 lockdown. Semira’s father has promised to provide for his daughter and has re-enrolled her at school. Hope for Justice has been able to educate the family about modern-day slavery to prevent re-trafficking.

*Name changed to protect identity of victim