5 Former Slaves Who Are Changing the World

Former slaves such as Somaly Mam, Simon Deng, and Iqbal Masih have stood up and fought for human rights.

We’ve all learned about the courageous acts of former slaves in American history like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman—but while the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 officially put an end to slavery in the United States, human trafficking is still at critical mass and rising in many parts of the world, with more than 27 million people enslaved today. The modern-day human trafficking trade needs new heroes to speak up for themselves to put an end to the abuse and exploitation. Here are five inspiring former slaves who’ve stepped up to the challenge.

1. Iqbal Masih
He was sold into bonded labor at a carpet factory in his native Pakistan at the age of four. For six years, he was forced to work twelve-hour days in a dark room, tied in place to the carpet loom he worked on. He was never permitted to go outside, and was fed so little that he looked like a boy half his age.

At ten, he ran away from the carpet factory to hear a speech by the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), and realized that he was entitled to the same rights as any other citizen. He refused to return to the factory, and began to travel the world, visiting rallies, meetings, and even elementary school classrooms, to tell the story of the abuses he had suffered as a child slave, imploring others to help fight for an end to human trafficking.

Iqbal was honored with many awards for his bravery, but tragically, he was assassinated at the age of twelve. His murderer was never found, but many believe that it was a member of the “Carpet Mafia,” attempting to silence his criticism of the industry. Iqbal’s short life served as an inspiration to many—including a young boy named Craig Kielberger, who was inspired to start a nonprofit organization called Free the Children to help free child laborers in honor of the brave young boy who’d lost his life.

2. Hadijatou Mani
Though slavery has been officially outlawed throughout Africa, the practice still persists in certain regions, including Niger, where over 43,000 tribal members are estimated to be enslaved. Hadijatou Mani’s story is typical of her tribe: she was sold into slavery at the age of twelve for $500, and spent over a decade working without pay in her master’s fields. She was raped and beaten daily.

After Mani was finally set free at the age of twenty-four, she decided to take action—not just against her captor, but against the government that had allowed the abusive practice. Mani brought a lawsuit against the Niger government, claiming that they hadn’t enforced their anti-slavery laws to protect her.

In October 2008, after a long trial that featured Mani’s heartbreaking testimonials, Mani won the case—a landmark ruling in the human trafficking world. A regional tribunal forced the government to pay Mani $19,000 in damages, and the decision has put major pressure on Niger’s government to finally put an end to human trafficking within its borders.

For Mani, the case was about more than her own enslavement—it was for all who faced the same abuses. “Nobody deserves to be enslaved,” she said in a statement. “We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same. I hope that everybody in slavery today can find their freedom. No woman should suffer the way I did.”

3. Simon Deng
Born in a small town in southern Sudan, Simon Deng was abducted at the age of nine, torn from his family, and forced to work for a family in northern Sudan’s Arab militia. Deng was never permitted to attend school, and instead spent his days journeying across the desert with heavy pails of water for the family he worked for—a job normally delegated to donkeys. When he was too exhausted to work, he was beaten into submission.

Deng was much luckier than many of his fellow slaves: after three and a half years in captivity, he managed to escape with one of his fellow tribe members. Deng, now forty-seven, is a United States citizen who works as a lifeguard on Coney Island. But his primary mission is raising awareness of human trafficking in Sudan, both through speeches and as the leader of the Sudan Freedom Walk, a 300-mile trek from the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City to Capitol Hill. The 2006 Freedom Walk served as Deng’s personal protest of the human rights abuses in Sudan, and drew support from members of Congress and the NBA alike.

“Back in Sudan, my people are walking for months to get to a place for safety; they are walking months to go and get to a place where there is shelter; they are walking for days and days to get to places and find there is no food,” he explained. “If they are [walking], then why should I not do it here too?”

4. Somaly Mam
Somaly Mam, a Cambodian orphan, never knew her parents. She doesn’t even know how old she is. She endured a miserable childhood of abuse at an orphanage, and was forced into marriage with an older man. Around the age of sixteen, she was sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she was beaten, raped, and abused by pimps and clients more times than she could count. When she finally escaped the brothel at age twenty-one after a friend’s murder, Mam vowed to devote the rest of her life to helping other sex slaves go free.

Since that day, Mam has aided the escape and recovery of sex trafficking victims in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam through her nonprofit organizations, the European-based AFESIP (translated as “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances”) and the Somaly Mam Foundation, based in the U.S. As a speaker and activist, she shares her own story to publicize the important cause of sex trafficking, and works with government officials to lobby for the passage of anti-trafficking laws. She also solicits other former slaves and celebrity spokespeople to talk about sexual slavery. Since escaping the brothel, Mam has helped more than 4,000 former sex slaves to go free in search of a better life.

5. Given Kachepa
Given Kachepa, an orphan from Zambia, was a member of a children’s choir in his homeland. When a charity organization asked the child singers to move to Texas and perform there, Kachepa thought his life had turned around. The organization claimed that he would receive an education and a salary, that he would be able to send money to his siblings at home, and even help pay to build a school in Zambia.

But everything he’d been told was a lie: when Kachepa arrived in the United States, he and his fellow singers had no access to money or education. They were forced to perform up to seven concerts a day, and were forced to go without food when they misbehaved. The couple that ran the charity made plenty of money off of the boys’ performances, but instead of using it to help them, they kept every penny for themselves. In America, supposed land of the free, the children were being kept as slaves.

After Kachepa had been forced to sing in the choir for a year, the INS caught on and convicted the couple running the operation, letting the boys remain in the United States. Kachepa found a loving foster family to live with, and is now attending college. Today, Kachepa is committed to speaking out against slavery, and frequently shares his own story at lectures, rallies, and in the media, in hopes that he might make others aware of the cause.

“In my heart, I resolved to help rid the world of human trafficking,” he told BlackNews.com. “I do not want anyone else to suffer the mental brutality and psychological trauma victims endure.”