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'I turned obstacles into opportunities': Human trafficking survivor becomes US citizen 20 years later

Harold D'Souza
Posted at 7:26 PM, Jun 14, 2023

CINCINNATI — A full circle moment for a man who came to the United States in hopes of a better life, only to become a victim of human trafficking.

Once a modern-day slave, Harold D'Souza is now an American citizen 20 years after coming to the country. He said he has reached the ultimate freedom of his life.

“I have no words to express my feelings, emotions and sentiments,” D’Souza said at his naturalization ceremony on Wednesday.

D'Souza first came to the United States in 2003 for a job at a local manufacturing company where he was told he would make $75,000 per year. When he and his wife arrived in Cincinnati, they quickly learned that wasn’t the case. Instead, he was working at a restaurant where he wasn’t getting paid.

"What Harold and his family went through was a severe form of labor trafficking," said Maria Busch, state anti-human trafficking coordinator with the Ohio Department of Public Safety. "They were basically tricked into working a job that was different from the one they were originally told that they would be working."

His trafficker took his documentation and didn't pay him, despite his working 15-hour days.

"We didn't get paid a single penny for 18 months," D’Souza said. "I didn't know the culture. I didn't know how this country operated. I didn't know the law enforcement agencies. I was manipulated and trapped."

His two sons were just 4 and 7 at the time. D’Souza felt helpless and the situation broke him down physically and mentally.

"My trafficker would snap his fingers like this and tell me, 'Come here illegal,'" he said. "So, what happens in the mind, body and soul, you think you're a criminal."

Despite coming to the U.S. legally, D'Souza was living in fear. He finally got the courage to go to the police. And now, 20 years later, he’s an American citizen.

Former FBI agents, law enforcement and case workers who helped him throughout his journey were all there Wednesday to celebrate with him.

“Harold is that special case — he and his wife both have come full circle and it's just amazing,” said Carol O’Brien, Attorney General for Law Enforcement.

For years, D’Souza didn’t want to speak out about what happened to him. But now, it is his mission to be a voice for the voiceless victims.

"Harold has been a key partner of the governor's human trafficking task force," Busch said. "They've done things like provide training to key stakeholders who are in a unique position to identify potential victims of labor trafficking."

Busch said the state is incredibly grateful to D’Souza and his wife for the ways in which they have served the state of Ohio’s anti-trafficking response.

"Their experience has been invaluable to assisting in our efforts to respond to human trafficking in Ohio," she said. "For example, they have trained hundreds of Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers, specifically on labor trafficking, how they can intervene and specifically how they can intervene for those who are for national victims of labor trafficking."

In 2015, former President Barack Obama appointed D'Souza to serve a two-year term on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. As a member, he helped craft the group's first report completed in October 2016.

D'Souza also speaks regularly at colleges and community forums across the U.S. and has shared his story back in his home country of India, too.

He and his wife Dancy established a nonprofit called Eyes Open International. The organization aims to make people across the world more aware of human trafficking and to educate people who might be vulnerable, so they don't become victims.

Busch said many people aren’t aware of the prevalence of human trafficking in Ohio.

"It absolutely is happening here, and we have cases all over the state," Busch said.

Immediately after the ceremony on Wednesday, D’Souza caught a plane to Washington D.C. Thursday morning to participate in the release of the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), which assesses government efforts around the world to combat human trafficking.

"It's not about my story. It is about the people who are out there," he said. "You should not be scared. There is hope. Do not be scared, be resilient and fight for your freedom. We've got to help our victims and survivors."

If you or anyone you suspect is a victim of labor exploitation, call the National Human Trafficking hotline number at 1-888-373-7888 or visit their website for more resources.

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