By Lizz Vensas
Collegiate Staff Writer
Silence filled Professor Hillery Haney’s small classroom. All students had their eyes drawn to the front of the room. Rosine Hounakey stood with a certain amount of confidence. With the room at full attention she began to speak. Her voice was strong, pure and unwavering.
“This is where I am from, Togo,” she said, pointing at the map of Africa.
Rosine had done this before, talking about her life story, being as open as possible. She only choked up once, when talking about her father’s death and the banishment from her village. When speaking in front of a big group it can be hard to keep your composure. It is a lot easier to talk one on one.
Rosine lost her childhood to human trafficking, no one can give that back to her. Her focus now is on her kids and getting a degree from GRCC. Her goal is to work to educate other women and give back to her community.
“I don’t like it when people assume that I have come from some war-torn part of Africa,” Rosine said. “Not everyone went through the war or has AIDS. Just like in the United States, we have our good and bad.”
Rosine grew up in a middle class family in the small country of Togo, Africa. She shared a home with her younger sister, older brother, dad, and mom.
Rosine attended school up until seventh grade. She loved to learn.
At the age of nine Rosine’s father became sick with a hernia. Even with two surgeries, he was in pain and started to become forgetful.
In 2003, when she was 12, Rosine’s Aunt came to the family and offered to take her to the United States for a better education. Her family thought this was a great opportunity for Rosine. She could go live in America and become the hope of the family. They also trusted her aunt.
Akouavi Afolabi, the aunt, was a well-known, rich woman in their village. She had a son with Rosine’s uncle. His name was Dereck Hounakey. Although Afolabi and Rosine’s uncle did not stay together, her dad watched out for Dereck like he was part of their family.
The first step was to forge marriage papers for Rosine. Part of Afolabi’s business was helping pay for men to come to America. A man would win his visa through the lottery and as long as he would agree to marry one of her girls, she would pay the way.
So at 12 years old Rosine married a man that she never met and soon after they went their separate ways.
She took a plane and ended up in Los Angeles, California. Dereck, who had gone to the U.S., picked her up and took to a house with one other girl. The next day she started braiding hair.
“Of course I was excited to be here,” Rosine said. “Anyone that heard of America wanted to go there. It was the land of opportunity and I just wanted to have my own opportunity.”
Soon after getting to California Rosine was taken to New Jersey and placed in a house with about 10 other girls. They all shared a small living place.
Instead of going to school Rosine was forced to work in hair braiding salons for up to 16 hours a day. She would wake up and have to be ready to leave the house by 6 a.m. in the morning. Sharing cooking space and bathrooms all before they had to go. Their breakfast would be a small bowl of rice. That rice would have to last them through the end of their shift.
All the money that was given to them through tips went straight into the hands of the Afolabi and Dereck. She was a modern day slave in USA.
“I remember being very sick one day,” Rosine said. “After the long day of work I just came home and went to bed. That wasn’t what Dereck wanted though.”
Rosine explained that even though Dereck had four other girls making him dinner he was furious when he found out where she was. When he got home he took a piece of a tire and beat her with it, giving her scratches all over her body.
The next day she had to go back to work.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” she said. “At first I thought, okay in this country you work and go to school. Maybe I will go to school after the summer, but I never went.”
Rosine thought it was weird that her cousin would do this to her. They shouldn’t do this to anyone, but Dereck was her biological cousin.
For three years Rosine lived in this constant cycle of work and abuse. More spirited than the other girls, she got into trouble more than they did. Dereck and his mother would tell the other girls not to talk to her because she was the devil.
She always wanted to go back to her parents. She knew she had a better life before. The entire time she was over here Afolabi lied to Rosine’s mother. Telling her she was too busy with school to talk.
When she was 15 Rosine’s father took a turn for the worse. At the urging of her mother Afolabi brought her back to Africa.
“They let him die,” Rosine said.
“An operation for my father would have only cost 200 dollars. I would make 500 dollars in a week.”
Rosine only spent five months in her village; she received no closure with her father’s death. She was not even able to see his burial.
Before they came home Afolabi spread lies about Rosine to the community, saying that Rosine had started doing prostitution and had been misbehaving. She even went as far to say that she had robbed a bank. As a result Rosine and her family were banished from the community.
With no home in either the United States or Africa Rosine had nowhere to go. Around this time her husband from her fake marriage found her. Although she knew he was drunk, at the suggestion of her mother she let him take her back to the states.
She moved with him into an African community in Iowa. It was not long before her husband started emotionally abusing her and running around with other girls. He was a drunk who saw her as nothing more than an animal.
At 15 years old she was pregnant with her first child. One night after drinking, her husband pushed her into a bed post. Instinctively she slapped him in the face and that was the last time he laid a hand on her. The next day the head of the community came to talk with her.
“He said that my husband had the right to hit me,” Rosine said. “That’s Africa. As long as he puts nice clothes on you and feeds you, he can hit you.”
Three months before her 18th birthday, at 5 a.m. Rosine got a knock on her door. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents had broken up a human trafficking ring in New Jersey. The girls told them she was out there. They took her and her two sons, Dovene and Djifa, to the police station to tell their story. They were all taken to Michigan and put into the foster care system.
All people involved with the Human trafficking ring were prosecuted and were sent to jail.
“I don’t know what those people really deserve,” she said “They asked if we thought they should go back to Africa. I was never really sure. The punishment might be worse but then they could also buy their way out there.”
Currently Rosine lives in Grand Rapids with her sons. They go to church on Sundays and play out in the park on nice days. She also attends GRCC College and works for Michigan Works, helping people to build resumes and find jobs.
She wants to become a doctor, but is not sure if she can wait that long. All she knows for sure is that she wants to help women in the community. Especially help women from the African community realize that they are strong.
Professor Haney was thrilled to have Rosine speak to her French class. Having taught her for the past two semesters she has grown close to her, like she has to all of her students.
“When I first heard the story my heart skipped a beat,” Haney said. “I was overwhelmed with emotions. I felt, happy, sad and encouraged all at once. What she is doing is important. Not only is she bringing awareness to this subject she is showing her strength.”
Rosine has told her stories to several classes and church groups. She also shared what happened with her to her sons.
“I talk to my sons about what happened,” Rosine said. “People think they are too young, but they need to know what happened. You can never lay a hand or curse at a woman.”
“You have to deal with the cards that you are dealt. I tell them this today so they remember tomorrow.”