BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
After having suffered through being a human trafficking victim and then becoming homeless, Corona’s Shandra Woworuntu uses her experiences to help others and advocate for human rights.
Woworuntu co-founded the Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program, which teaches trafficking victims such skills as cooking, creating art projects or children’s educational books, hospitality, housekeeping and babysitting. And now she’s been nominated for the prestigious L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth award.
Woworuntu, who had completed college in her native Indonesia and worked as an analyst and trader for an international bank, fell on hard times after the country underwent an economic crisis.
At age 24, with a 3-year-old daughter, Woworuntu was eager for work. She was reading a newspaper and came across an advertisement for a job opportunity to work in the hospitality industry in the United States, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Woworuntu applied for a job in Chicago. The requirements were simple. She would have to speak some English and pay approximately $3,000 to the agency for the job—which she did.
Woworuntu’s plan was to leave her daughter in the hands of her mother for six months, which would allow her to raise approximately $30,000 while working in the United States.
But Woworuntu was not flown to Chicago. She landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens and was greeted by a man named Johnny Wong. Woworuntu was placed in a van with others from Indonesia and driven to a hotel in Flushing, where she was then placed in another van in exchange for money.
Woworuntu realized the situation that she was in when Wong took her to a house in Brooklyn and was greeted at the door by a woman that went by “Mama-san,” which means the madam of a brothel. When the door opened, she saw a 13-year-old girl, who was on the ground being beaten by men.
Each day, Woworuntu’s situation became worse as she was forced to take part in sexual acts with strangers and forced to take drugs and drink alcohol.
But one day, she realized that there was a small window in the bathroom of the property where she was kept through which she could fit her petite body. She informed the girls that she planned to escape and took Nina—the only other girl who was small enough—with her. Using a spoon and fork, Woworuntu freed herself and Nina and took a taxi to a hotel in Manhattan. Upon arriving, she called a man named Steven Tio, who—according to one of the victims—sets you free at a low cost.
However, Woworuntu found herself in another difficult situation after she realized that Tio was not who he said he was. He bought her new clothes and then asked her to marry him. Woworuntu refused and Tio told her that he would contact Wong. Woworuntu instead ran away, but was unable to take Nina with her.
Woworuntu contacted the police, but she said that her limited English and homeless appearance resulted in her not receiving any assistance. She then found herself sleeping in parks and subway stations, asking for food to get by.
One day, she was greeted at a park by a Navy officer, who bought her food and coffee and helped her obtain assistance. With the help of Detectives Eugene Jung, Jose Segura and Kevin Hui and other law enforcement officers; supervisors in charge of her case at Pitt Street; and Safe Horizon, an organization that helps with immigration services, Woworuntu was able to direct law enforcement agents to the brothels where she was held. Both Wong and Tio were arrested.
Although justice was served, Woworuntu continued to undergo hardships, living in homeless shelters, but she eventually overcame her obstacles and was able to bring her daughter to the United States permanently. She was later appointed by former President Barack Obama as part of the Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
Along with Ima Matul and Randall Roca, Woworuntu created Mentari, an organization that helps survivors reintegrate into their communities and helps them enter the job market. Due to her dedication to helping and advocating for the victims human trafficking and domestic violence, Woworuntu has been nominated as a 2017 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth honoree.
“My passion and compassion were shaping my work to make sure survivors will be able to reintegrate to the society and live independently,” said Woworuntu. “Prevention is the best way to reduce the number of victims and to end human trafficking. I educate and raise awareness to my communities about human trafficking because I don’t want people to have the same horrible experiences like me.”
The Mentari program—which also provides services, resources, education, training, advocacy initiatives and mentorship—is located in Astoria. For more information, call (929) 354-3000.
From now through November 29, the public is invited to visit WomenOfWorth.com to vote for Shandra to become the National Honoree and receive an additional $25,000 for Mentari.
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144, firstname.lastname@example.org or @reporter_ariel.