Every year, more than 300,000 young people in the United States are considered at risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. While national statistics are lacking, the available data shows that Black girls are disproportionately at risk of being trafficked. Earlier this year, 31 missing children were located across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Back in 1992, Dallas resident Keeya Vawar was one of those at risk young people who ended up actually becoming a sex trafficking victim. Like many young people who are trafficked, Keeya ran away from a troubled family situation when she was just a teenager. That decision would lead her down a path that would change her life forever.
Decades later, Keeya is a proud survivor, advocate and soon to be published author. Her memoir, One Thousand Elsewhere, will be released in January. Keeya hopes that by sharing her story, and working in tandem with local advocacy groups, she can help meaningfully reduce the prevalence of the modern day slavery that is human trafficking.
Keeya’s problems started at home. An unstable veteran father with post traumatic stress disorder who became addicted to drugs in an effort to cope. A mother and older brother who were the targets of his physical abuse. And then Keeya, who became the victim of his abuse after she turned 13.
For years, Keeya dreamed of running away. “I just didn’t know how. I felt isolated with my family,” Keeya told Dallas Weekly. “I just knew I needed money.” So she began working three part-time jobs after school to save up for her eventual escape.
By the time she was 15, Keeya had saved enough to buy a plane ticket to Atlanta. She had been lured there by an older man who she met through friends at a nightclub. He was a representative from a record company. When he brought her to the house where she would be staying, he made the deal quite clear.
“He told me that they would take care of me but that if I wanted to stay I would have to hook everyone up,” Keeya said. “I kind of knew what was happening, but I didn’t really know what was happening. They brought me lingerie from Victoria’s Secret and told me to put it on. And that was how the night went. There were multiple men but no other girls there. Just me.”
The evening was a traumatic experience for Keeya, but she stayed with the group for almost a year, largely out of fear. “Their bodyguard, who had a teardrop tattoo, threatened to kill me if I told anyone,” Keeya said. “So I stayed because I felt threatened, but in a weird way, I ended up developing friendships. When we would travel, they would always tell people ‘this is our little sister.’”
Around Christmas in 1992, Keeya came back to Dallas to visit her mother, who had landed in a homeless shelter and was unable to take care of herself. One of her traffickers had even bought her the ticket. But she didn’t tell her mother exactly what was going on. She went back to Atlanta at the beginning of 1993. There, she managed to separate herself from her original traffickers, but fell under the influence of a pimp and continued to be sexually exploited.
“Eventually I got sick of hiding and lying,” Keeya said. “There were too many situations where I felt like I would end up in some sting operation and ruin my life. I wanted to go to college.”
Keeya saved up enough money to get an apartment with her mom, who moved to Atlanta before the end of 1993. For a time, she got straight jobs working retail. But that didn’t last long. After she moved to Baltimore for a new job, she got an offer to work at a popular strip club, ElDorado. Keeya was a good dancer to say the least — she’d been in a few music videos for Atlanta-based rappers — and the opportunity to make more money proved too alluring. It didn’t take long before she was back to turning tricks.
“I started getting high off the lifestyle,” Keeya said. “My clients were doctors, lawyers, policemen, even wanted criminals. The club I worked at was a den of corruption. A character based on the owner was featured on the TV show The Wire.”
“I started getting high off the lifestyle,” Keeya saidKeeya Vawar
Keeya kept at it even after she moved back to Atlanta to be with her mother. But the lifestyle began to take a toll on her. While dancing at the famous Magic City strip club, a pimp tried to kidnap and coerce her into his service. She ran away at the first chance, but decided she had had enough. She moved to New Jersey in 1996 and stopped turning tricks. But it wasn’t a happy ending. The next year, she had a mental breakdown and was nearly hospitalized.
“I developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and ADHD,” Keeya said. “A wonderful cocktail of dysfunction that I think of as battle scars.”
Keeya’s road to recovery from the mental, emotional and physical strain she endured during her years as a victim of sex trafficking was a long one. “It took years for me to realize what had really happened to me,” Keeya said. “Back then, it wasn’t even called sex trafficking. I was merely a juvenile delinquent.”
Indeed, human trafficking wasn’t made illegal in the United States until 2000, when the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act made it a federal crime. But the passage of that law did not change the fact that Keeya’s mental health struggles were far from over.
While Keeya is happy and healthy today, she was hospitalized five times over 20 years due to mental illness. She had to spend years developing coping mechanisms and learning to navigate her trauma. The stigma regarding mental health in the Black community was a part of what kept her from making progress sooner.
“After I was first institutionalized, for a while I was just going to church, and, you know, really it wasn’t because I was anti-therapist,” Keeya said. “I just didn’t realize that it would actually help me. In the Black community, it’s stigmatized. So it was something that I didn’t want to identify with.”
These days, there is a better understanding of the prevalence of human trafficking, greater availability of resources for sex trafficking victims and more acceptance within the Black community of therapy and psychiatry.
“I really feel like many more people should embrace therapy, especially coming out of the sex trafficking space,” Keeya said. “I don’t look at it as something to be ashamed of, but something to be proud of.”
In terms of places where at-risk or formerly trafficked people can go to get support, Keeya points to organizations like Unbound North Texas, which provides a wide range of services to trafficked youth. Last year, Unbound opened a drop-in shelter in Fort Worth where trafficking survivors can seek assistance and resources. But its status as a one-of-a-kind facility in an urban area of millions of people demonstrates just how much work is yet to be done.
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“Imagine how many children and people are affected that go undocumented,” Keeya says.
— If you are a human trafficking survivor, know someone in need of assistance, or would like to learn more about how you can help end human trafficking, Keeya recommends the following local organizations: