Interview with Shyima Hall
This young mother and author talks about her years as a slave to an Orange County couple who smuggled her in from Egypt.
In 1998, eight-year-old Egyptian Shyima Hall was given to a couple in Cairo to pay off a $30 debt. For the next four years, she worked 20 hours a day as a slave, cooking, cleaning and never attending school. Two years into her capture, the family who enslaved her moved to Orange County and smuggled Hall in with them. Here, her life only became worse, with Hall not even allowed outside for fear of authorities discovering her.
Abdel Nasser Eid Youssef Ibrahim and his wife Amal Ahmed Ewis-abd El Motelib, whom Hall simply calls the dad and the mom, forced Hall to take care of their five children and clean their house, while denying Hall an education or any kind of normal life. But after two years in the U.S., a concerned neighbor called authorities and reported the strange goings-on, and Hall was rescued.
Now, after rebuilding her life, getting an education and becoming a mother herself, Hall has written a bestselling book, Hidden Girl, about her experience. So we sat down with this new U.S. citizen for the details that led to Orange County’s first human trafficking prosecution.
Describe your life in Egypt before being enslaved.
I had five brothers and five sisters. I was number seven. I don’t remember my father being there much, but my mom was always there. We lived in a very poor neighborhood and we all actually lived in one room. But it was home. I was really happy with my brothers and sisters and mom. I had friends, too.
Did you go to school?
No. When my mom tried to enroll me, they told her I was too old at the time.
Did you know there was such a thing as human slavery?
No. But in Egypt, at age 14, you’re a woman, and your parents can marry you to somebody. You can start working as a maid at that age, too. It’s the law. So in Egypt it seems like a normal thing, or something we hear all the time: the dad giving up his daughter to a man.
How did you get sold into slavery?
My older sister worked for this family as a maid, but she worked by choice and got paid. But one day she stole money from them and they called my mom to their house. I went with her because I was helping watch my little sister. So I was in the room as they argued back and forth. They finally decided that my sister would not go to jail, but they wanted something in return. They wanted a younger child to take her place as a maid so they could teach her how to do things their way. I didn’t think that would be me. But my mother ended up leaving me there. She explained it to me, that I was paying my sister’s debt so she wouldn’t be taken to the cops. That I was taking one for the family, so to speak.
What was your new home like?
The family was very wealthy in Egypt. They had a big home, five kids, and other relatives living there as well. My job was to take care of the kids, cook, clean, and do whatever else I was told to do. I knew I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. They had a guard and a tall gate, so leaving wasn’t an option. Their house was also on a mountain and nothing came by or through. But I honestly never considered walking away, because I was doing what my parents told me to do.
In the late 1990s, they moved to America. Why?
They came to the U.S. because the dad was in trouble in Egypt and had to flee the country. It’s very complicated. It involved money he owed and the government.
They had to smuggle you in. How did they do that?
A friend of the family who owed them a favor pretended that he was adopting me and wanted to show me where he lived. I was very quiet on the journey here because I was told not to speak to anybody or I’d be taken away by police. We took three airplanes, then he gave me to the family and they drove me to the house. They showed me where everything was and where I’d be sleeping and that was my first day.
What was your first impression of America?
Honestly, all I really thought about was how green it is here. I was amazed by it. You don’t see much green in Egypt, unless you go to Cairo or something.
How long did you think you’d be with them?
My mom had originally told me that I would only be with the family for a few months to pay my sister’s debt and then I’d be back home. So I thought I was coming back home very soon. But when I was taken away to America, I figured I’d be with them for at least five years. And I didn’t think I’d ever be going home again.
It seems like these people didn’t even think of you as a person.
Right. They made sure I knew I worked for them and that I belonged to them. They saw me as below them.
Did you know that it was wrong?
I believe so, because I didn’t like where I was or anything that was happening. It seemed not right that God would choose one person as better than another and that this was how someone should be treated. So I knew something wasn’t right. And they also knew it was wrong, because they always told me not to speak to anybody or I’d go to jail and I’d never see my family again.
Did the fact that you were in the land of the free have any effect?
No, because they always had Arabic TV on and even if they had English I didn’t understand it. We’d like to believe it would somehow seep in, just from being here. We grew up in Egypt being told that the U.S. is not a good place. It’s the enemy. That’s how we grew up and that’s all we heard, so for me the U.S. wasn’t the land of the free, as I know it is now. It was the land of the enemy.
Did the family who enslaved you have a problem living in the U.S.?
The family seemed to live fine in the U.S. The kids went to school. And the mom even went to school to learn English. So it didn’t seem like they were hiding at all.
Why did you never try to escape when you were here?
I didn’t speak English. And I was always told that I would be beaten and taken to jail by the police if I ever stepped outside the house. So that right there stopped me. I really believed I would get beaten up or go to jail. It got to the point where I just assumed this would be my life.
What was a typical day like?
I would get up very early to get all the kids’ clothes and lunches ready, as well as their breakfasts, before they woke up to go to school. I would also wake up the youngest ones, two twin boys, and get them ready for school – get their teeth brushed, get them dressed. Also, I’d help the junior high and high school girls get ready for school, even though they were older than me. Then I’d make the mom and dad breakfast when they got up. Then I’d wash clothes and clean the house downstairs. Then I’d make them lunch, because they were always home; they didn’t work. Then I’d have five bedrooms upstairs to clean after that and by the time I was done, the kids were back from school and I’d have to help them with snacks or other things. Then I’d make dinner. My day never really stopped.
How were you rescued?
It was an anonymous tip. A neighbor called the police and told them that there was a girl who didn’t go to school and never went outside. I learned later that the police surrounded and watched the house for three days to verify what the person said. Then they knocked on the door and the dad opened it since I wasn’t allowed to. I was in another room and I heard a lot of screaming, then the door closed. The dad went upstairs and yelled at his wife. But then the door slammed open again and the police came in with a warrant. They pushed the dad out of the way and pulled me out of the house. I was put in a police car and taken to a group home.
Were you scared?
Yes. After all, you had been told that the police might beat you and take you to jail and now here they were taking you away. I was very scared. It seemed like the worst possible thing to happen. And they had no way of communicating with me until the next day when they brought in a social worker who spoke Arabic. But in the group home I did feel like they did their best to help me.
How long did it take to come to the realization that this might be a good thing and your life would be better?
Two years. That’s when they opened the case up again and started to build the case against the people who enslaved me. They took the time to go back to my family in Egypt and interview them, and the case ended in 2007, two years later, when the couple was sentenced.
Their sentence seemed light for their crimes.
Their sentence wasn’t as big back then as it would be today because mine was the first human trafficking case in the county, so they [had no precedent]. So the mom got two years, the length of time she had me in the U.S., and the dad got three years. They pled guilty.
Did their short sentence anger you?
Honestly, I was glad they got something and didn’t get away with it. Especially because I didn’t know how it worked here. And I have to say again that [the authorities] didn’t really know how it worked either. It was the first case of its kind.
But your case set a precedent.
Yes. Because of my case, the law has changed a lot. Now, the penalty for anyone convicted of human trafficking is many times what my captors got. So it is sad that they only got a few years, but at least it is helping others.
Why did you choose to stay in the U.S.?
I chose to stay in the U.S. so I could get an education. I didn’t want to go home and be put in the same situation again. My family wasn’t happy about my choice, though. They said I was dishonoring them and the family, and they were angry that I left the people who put a roof over my head. So they were very upset. But I know I made the right choice. I have a great life now.
You also now speak English very well, and have an education. Was that hard?
Yes. I went to home school for a few years and then I went to public school. I started school in eighth grade. I didn’t know basic math or English before then, but I really wanted an education, so I made it happen.
What are your goals for the future?
I became a U.S. citizen because I wanted to become a police officer. Citizenship was my first step. I had a great mentor, an I.C.E. agent [U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement], who helped me through a lot of tough times. He was in charge of my case and was a really good person and advisor to me. So he inspired me to reach out and help someone else the way he helped me.
For more information about Shyima Hall’s
experience as a slave in Orange County,
read her book, Hidden Girl, available online