WASHINGTON, D.C.—A Western Michigan University alumna is on the frontlines of combatting human trafficking nationwide. President Donald Trump appointed Bella Hounakey to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
"It's an honor to serve not just our country, but to also be part of a bigger system that is working on behalf of vulnerable populations," says Hounakey, a Seita Scholar who earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees from WMU.
An advocate for refugee and foster children at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, Hounakey knows firsthand the horrors of trafficking. She was just 9 years old when her dreams of a better life in the United States were shattered by a trusted relative.
A betrayal of trust
Hounakey grew up in the West African country of Togo, where becoming a lawyer was more a daydream than a realistic goal for a young girl.
"My biological parents knew the community in which I was being raised didn't have the resources to get where I wanted to be," remembers Hounakey.
But her aunt—a confidant who introduced her to the Christian faith and often had her over for visits—offered her hope.
"She understood that I wanted a better education," Hounakey says. "When she came by and said that she saw potential in me and she wanted me to come with her to the United States, my parents sent me without question."
So she traveled to her aunt's house, two hours from her hometown in Togo. She anxiously waited four months until it was time to travel to her new life in the United States. Along with seven other girls related to her aunt through marriage, she boarded a plane to New Jersey.
Her aunt had a house in Newark—a seven-bedroom estate in a prominent neighborhood, something Hounakey had only seen on TV before. But the fairy tale came to an abrupt halt when she walked through the doors.
"When we arrived, there were 22 girls in the house," says Hounakey, who recalls sleeping with up to ten girls in a room. "That's where the horror started. We were working about 18 hours a day. We were just working robots."
Hounakey's aunt owned a hair salon where the girls were held as slaves in plain sight, working all day long creating intricate braids for customers. Each girl was given a false identity; the aunt would wake the girls up in the middle of the night to learn a script.
"We were children, so in order to live in the false identity that (my aunt) had assigned us, we had to practice," Hounakey says. "So, if you came across me at the salon and would ask, 'You're so young, why are you working here and why are you not in school?' we would have answers for you. We literally worked so hard to live a false life."
While the salon was like a prison, the house the girls stayed in was no better.
"You would think it was the braiding that was making (my aunt) money, but it was actually sex trafficking that was making her money."
For five years, Hounakey lived a nightmare.
"Hope is the worst thing to lose, because at that point you are not sure if there's any gateway for you," she says. "I never thought I would get a second chance. I never thought that I would be in the situation I am today."
She often fantasized about her freedom.
"I used to do this lady's hair," recalls Hounakey. "I did her hair for two years at the salon. She came the same time every single month, and I would look at her and just wanted her to know that I was in pain. She never really asked me questions.
"I was so upset at her because every month when she came, I would say, 'This month she's going to know that something's wrong and take me with her.' But she didn't. I wanted her to be this savior, and I was so angry at her."
On an early morning in November 2007, though, that changed. Hounakey and the other girls woke up to police and FBI agents in their house, helicopters circling overhead. Finally—a light at the end of the tunnel.
Hounakey and the other survivors who were still minors were placed into the foster system in Michigan while the case against her captors worked its way through the court system. And it turns out, the woman she longed to save her played a key role in their rescue.
"She was actually working for the FBI and helping with the investigation," Hounakey says. "She told me in court, 'I wanted to take you every single time I came, but if I did, we wouldn't have saved everybody.'"
A New Life
At 14 years old, five years after watching the door slam shut on her dreams of a better life, Hounakey finally had hope.
"I was highly thankful for the people of Michigan, because for the first time there were people that helped me without condition," she says.
While she was free from the shackles of modern-day slavery, however, the trauma of five years of torture remained.
Because of behavioral issues, Hounakey was in and out of foster care homes and juvenile detention centers.
Eventually she found support at a home in Grand Rapids and also reconnected with her faith. Hounakey found her stride and graduated high school, earning acceptance to WMU as a Seita Scholar, which supports students who have lived some or all of their teenage years in foster care.
"When I came to college, I left a community where I had support in my foster home with my mother, Laura Carpenter, but I was entering another community on campus where we shared the same struggles," Hounakey says. "I needed continued support … with Western, there was a whole community."
Seita Scholars receive academic, career, financial and personal support throughout their time at WMU. Nationwide, fewer than 3% of foster youth graduate from a 4-year college. Since the launch of the program in 2008, graduation rates for Seita Scholars have far exceeded the national average.
"I had a choice between Western and University of Michigan, and I'm very proud to be a Bronco alumni. I wouldn't have gotten this far if I didn't go to Western because of the community that's there," says Hounakey, emphasizing the University's focus on inclusivity in education, especially for vulnerable student populations.
"WMU makes sure they have the tools, they have the support, and they have the community they need in order to thrive instead of survive."
Indeed, Hounakey thrived at WMU—in part because of the care of Mark Delorey, who helped create the Seita Scholars program and now serves as a Foundation Scholars advisor.
"Mark is my forever father. He welcomed us. He assisted me in going to Spain. He wanted to make sure that I didn't miss out on any opportunities," says Hounakey. "I now speak five languages. He wanted me to pursue all my dreams."
Mission to Help
After earning bachelor's degrees in criminal justice and Spanish and a master's degree in social work, Hounakey is fulfilling that mission—advocating for the vulnerable and using her second chance to save lives.
"I had a professor in graduate school who would tell us, 'Do you want to be complacent, get an office job and work until you die, or do you want to make a difference?' And that was very motivating for me. I remind myself every day to not be complacent. People are depending on me to make a change."
Hounakey's appointment to the advisory council will last two years. During that time, she will draw on her experience to evaluate policies of government agencies and help them develop strategies to create awareness, prevent and root out human trafficking, as well as provide services to survivors.
"I feel that there's a great deal of responsibility to do better and become better for (victims)," she says. "Somebody somewhere is isolated and is experiencing the same horror as I did. I'm hoping that they could use me as a source of hope."
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