Shyima Hall is surrounded with the stuff of childhood, the childhood she never had.
Her daughter’s Minnie Mouse table and chairs sit on one side of her living room. Children’s books are tucked neatly on a shelf under the TV. A box of her own new book, a memoir titled “Hidden Girl,” is brought out and opened on her leather sofa.
It’s a world away from the one that first brought her media attention a dozen years ago, when she was rescued from a life of slavery in Irvine: a little girl sold in Egypt to a wealthy family who moved her to a gated neighborhood and made her their domestic servant.
The day she was rescued, Shyima was a scared 12-year-old who spoke three words of English, had never been to school and spent every day and every night washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning for the family and their visitors.
Today, she is a confident, poised and articulate 24-year-old woman with barely a trace of an accent who describes her own Arabic as “rusty.” She loves her job as an assistant manager at a store in the Desert Hills Premier Outlets near Palm Springs. She loves her boyfriend, Daniel Urquidez, with whom she shares a home in Riverside County. And she’s madly in love with her 16-month-old daughter, Athena.
“I’m happy,” she says, surrounded by photos of Athena on every wall.
Authorities saved Shyima on April 9, 2002. The next chapters of her life were not easy. Shyima had to save herself.
As she writes in her book: “My life … drastically changed course the day my parents sold me into slavery. I was eight years old.”
The seventh child in a family of 11 children, Shyima grew up so poor she didn’t have a bed or water for regular showers or a meal every night. But she didn’t know any other life. She loved her younger siblings, who were under her care. And despite the extreme poverty, she was content.
She remembers moments of happiness – like jumping off a stack of hay at the age of 7. Except that she landed on the edge of a sheet of glass, cut off all the toes on her right foot and underwent reattachment surgery without anesthesia.
“My life in Egypt was like that – simple happiness interrupted by unimaginable tragedy. It was an unsafe world. But it was my home.”
It would get worse.
One of her older sisters was accused of stealing from a wealthy family. And Shyima ended up paying for it. Her parents sold her to the rich couple, saying it would bring back honor to their family. Plus there was a $17 monthly payment the little girl netted her impoverished parents.
When she went to live with the wealthy couple and their five children, she worked long hours and ate one meal a day, the family’s leftovers. After two years, they moved to Orange County and brought her with them.
She lived in a storage room with no heat and no air-conditioning in the family’s three-car garage. The door to the house was often locked at night.
“If I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I couldn’t. I had to wait until morning.”
Snapshots of her life: Her clothes were deemed too dirty for the washing machine, so she had to wash them by hand. On a trip to Big Bear, she rode with the luggage in a tiny space behind the back seat. She wasn’t called by her name but was called “stupid girl” – or worse.
Then an anonymous someone – “a wonderful someone” – alerted authorities. And they rescued her.
“Before I was hustled out of the house, the Dad hissed into my ear, ‘Do not tell them anything. Say you do not work for me.’ ”
In her recently released memoir, Shyima refers to her captors as “The Mom and The Dad.” In U.S. District Court, their names are Abdel Nasser Youssef Ibrahim and Amal Ahmed Ewis-abd El Motelib. Both were sentenced in 2006 to federal prison after pleading guilty in what became Orange County’s first human-trafficking case.
The happy ending didn’t come right away. But it was a good beginning.
At first, she couldn’t believe the gentleness she was treated with at an emergency shelter, the Orangewood Children and Family Center – her matted hair brushed by a kind lady; no rudeness or hitting or slapping; her first pair of new pajamas (with a black, gray and white check pattern).
She was afraid to answer questions. For years, she had been told that if anyone ever stopped and questioned her, she and her family back home would be hurt. She even began to hope she would be returned to her family, who lived in a town near Alexandria, Egypt.
That hope evaporated when social workers got her biological mother and father on the phone. Her father shouted at her to go back to the people who “treated you right.”
“I decided in that single moment that, no, I was not going to go back to Egypt. I was done with my parents.”
Shyima lived in three foster homes.
The first two were with strict Muslim families, and she didn’t feel she fit in. Her third foster family adopted her. The younger siblings reminded her of the ones she left behind in Egypt, and she grew to love them. But there were issues, including financial troubles, so she went to live with a friend and her mother.
At last, Shyima found “true friends” who became her support team.
She had no mother role and was nervous when she unexpectedly learned she would become a mom. But she had her friends. And her own instinct to “act out of love.”
Today, her family is the one she created with her boyfriend and his family, their daughter and their close friends.
“When I say family now, that’s what I’m talking about. They are always there for me,” she says.
She’s also close to Mark Abend, an agent with Homeland Security Investigations who was involved in her rescue. Through the years, he has invited her to attend seminars across the country to share her story and talk about human trafficking. She dedicated her book to him.
One day, Shyima, now a U.S. citizen, would like to become a police officer or an immigration agent. She wants to help others trapped by human traffickers.
And that’s why she also wrote, with the help of author Lisa Wysocky, “Hidden Girl,” a memoir designated as a young-adult book.
“I would like to help young people understand that slavery still happens,” she said. “This isn’t just in history books. And they can help.”
In the book, she urges readers to be vigilant and report to authorities should they see something amiss with a child.
One day, when her daughter is old enough, she will tell her the story of her life.
“If a little girl like me can go through all the crap my parents put me through and be OK today, she will grow to be a strong person and be able to handle it.”
Shyima doesn’t rule out one day traveling back to Egypt. She has lost contact with everyone in her biological family, and for the time being, that’s OK. Her father died. She doesn’t know if her mother is alive. And she has no desire, for now, to see her.
Perhaps, in the future, she says, she may want to visit her younger siblings in Egypt.
For now, though, she won’t go searching for them.
She’s found her home.
BY ROXANA KOPETMAN / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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