By Shelby Stewart
Rhonda was only 18 when she became one of thousands of women who were or are victims of human trafficking.
Since then, her story has been shared through Women At Risk (WAR), a Michigan based organization that helps past and current victims of human trafficking.
From 10 a.m.-4 p.m., May 5, the Goodrich United Methodist Church, 8071 S. State Road, Goodrich will host a Party with a Purpose to benefit WAR. They will be selling home made soaps, jewelry, home decor, scarves and various other gifts. Every $250 in sales supports a woman in a safe house for one month.
“I grew up in a religiously abusive home, the daughter of some very strict parents,” said Rhonda. “When I was 11 years old I sang in a church talent show and received a standing ovation and an encore. From that moment on I knew I would pursue music.”
Rhonda received that chance when she was 17 and a talent agency approached her and asked her to sing in a night club in Japan. Since she says she was more afraid of home life at the time than of the rest of the world, she happily accepted the offer and went on her first trip to Japan. Just after her 18th birthday, she traveled to Japan for three months. The club she sang in was very protective of her, and warned her of the Yakuza, which is the Japanese Mafia. In the three months she was there, she never saw any Yakuza members.
After being back in the states for only a month, a different talent agency offered her another opportunity to sing in Kokura in Japan, and she was just as excited as the first time to go to Japan.
“After I arrived, the agency took my passport and did not provide me with a work permit or a club in which to be showcased. Instead, working as a “hostess” in a hostess club,” she said. “The hostesses would line up in a row at the door and the men would come through and pick a girl to sit with who would then pour their drinks, light their cigarettes and chit chat with them.”
Rhonda admits that she enjoyed the time she worked there. She was always one of the first women picked due to her red hair and blue eyes, and she liked being the center of attention, but she was also bitter about not being in the club she had been promised to sing. The agency had repeatedly told her that it was not built yet.
“After a couple weeks the Yakuza came in, and I could hear all the gasps, with everyone’s jaw dropping,” she said. “They chose me to come to their table. I was very excited to be sitting with the Yakuza, as I’d only heard of the Mafia from movies.”
That excitement would soon fade, however, when after her shift a coworker had invited her to a dance club. The club had no employees, and the only people there were Yakuza.
After a bit of time, she began to fall into unconsciousness with the realization that her drink had been drugged and she had been set up by her coworker and the Yakuza.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hotel room that had nude Yakuza filtering in an out of it. Not only had she never seen a person with tattoos (which the Yakuza were covered in, easily hid by suits), but she had never seen a naked man before. Not only was she raped over 70 times by Yakuza and continually drugged to keep her subdued, but she was tortured in the preferred way of each individual man.
It took Rhonda days, and a failed escape attempt, to finally avoid being drugged by letting the water run out of her mouth to the bed and escape on her own. She ran from the hotel to a nearby apartment complex, nude and yelling Yakuza the whole time, until a young woman in the apartment complex let her in and called the police.
“You might think I was safe and that was the end of the horror, but no, it had just begun to emotionally continue,” said Rhonda. “The police came and got me at the girl’s apartment, and their cold, dark glares aimed blame and shame deep into my soul.”
Rhonda says that she was not only treated that way by the police, but by hospital staff as well. She was told not to persue a case against the men because they would kill her and her family, so when she flew home, she was watched over by secret service men to ensure their safety. But back home, Rhonda was met with the same treatment, being forced to confess what had happened to about 50 family members so they wouldn’t blame her parents for what had happened. She says this was done to shame her.
But through WAR, she says she has become a survivor and is becoming a thriver more and more each day. They offer her and many other women mental care after the fact, and she says it has helped her heal more than the year and a half she spent in psychiatric hospitals.