Gerthon Saint Preux wanted only one thing as a teenager living in Haiti: to live the American dream. But after he arrived here, he realized he was living the dark nightmare of a child trafficked for labor.
A woman from his hometown said she would be his sponsor in the U.S., so Saint Preux left his family for the chance to go to college and one day support his loved ones. When he arrived, his sponsor put him to work at her store, and also gave him chores in her home.
There was always a reason why he couldn't start school. And when his visitor's visa ended, it only got worse.
"From there, I could see hell," Saint Preux told NBC 4 New York.
He worked at the sponsor's store seven days a week and then cooked and cleaned at her house, without ever being paid. He ate scraps and was forbidden to even sleep on the couch.
"She said I'm damaging the couch. I have to sleep on the floor, but the floor has carpet. I just put a pillow there and I sleep," he said.
The sponsor monitored Saint Preux’s phone calls and convinced him that police were his enemy, he says. Even though he interacted with people every day in her store, he never spoke up or asked for help. The terrified teen even considered suicide.
“I look for a truck to just throw myself under a truck. I don’t want to suffer -- I want a truck to just hit me on the highway and I’m done,” Saint Preux recalled thinking.
According to the State Department, men, women and children are trafficked to the U.S. for forced labor, involuntary servitude, sex and debt bondage. The top countries of origin in 2011 were Mexico, the Phillipines, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras and India, and New York City is considered a hub.
UNICEF estimates some 1.2 million children are trafficked globally each year.
At Atlas, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit
assisting immigrant youth, Executive Director Lauren Burke says that while children trafficked for labor have historically been held in secret locations, many today are working in public.
“A lot of my young people who were trafficked in restaurants as waiters or bus boys,” said Burke.
Saint Preux’s father rescued his son after several months. Because he was a victim of trafficking, Saint Preux, with Burke’s help, was able to bring his entire family to the U.S.
Federal agents investigated the case but Saint Preux said he did not want to see his sponsor prosecuted. He simply wants his story to help restore hope for one child and help put an end to human trafficking..