Beyond Picket Fences

Content warning: The stories throughout this issue may be especially activating for some readers. Many of these pieces involve descriptions of traumatic experiences including sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, queer/transphobic violence, in addition to the violence of states and false borders.

I had to change my name for my own safety. My family was originally from Ukraine and we were dirt poor with no future. My younger sister and I tried everything we could to get our family out of poverty by doing odd jobs, bartending, stripping and eventually prostitution, but it was never enough.

We finally got a chance to immigrate to America as models through an online advertising agency, which paid for everything from processing of passports to air fare, accommodations and everything else. We should have known that it was too good to be true, but desperate people usually have limited or no options, so we agreed and unknowingly signed our lives away.

When we got to the United States, the first thing they did was give each and every one of us a bill showing how much it had cost to bring each one of us here plus interest, and told us we had to pay it off. They then immediately took our passports and we were taken straight to a brothel where we were to pay off our debts. All kinds of clients would come and pay very well to do whatever they wanted to do to us, like we were animals. It was as if we were modern-day slaves with no control over our lives. We were beaten, raped and even starved at times until we had enough. 

Without going into much detail, we managed to get away with no passports or any identifying documents on us, and since we did not know anyone in the U.S., we ended up on the streets. My sister and I are still stranded here without any documentation showing who we are and where we are from— that’s why we took on new names and identities. Though we are homeless, we much prefer this life since we at least get to make our own decisions, and any money we make from prostitution we get to keep and send a little back to Ukraine. As we speak, we are still living on the streets of San Francisco with little or nothing. We do occasionally go to shelters for a warm meal, socks, soup and other necessities, but most of our time is spent on the streets because even in the shelters, bad things still happen to women—my sister was raped in a shelter once. 

Before we got to the U.S., all we knew was what we would see on television with the picket fences and well manicured lawns. On TV, the people seemed so friendly, giving and warm. The buildings were so tall and magnificent it was unbelievable. In real-life San Francisco, there are still good people who come and visit us with food, clothes and even phones, and then there are some truly despicable ones who will beat you up for the fun of it. All in all, I’d rather be here than back home because here we at least manage to send money to our father back home. Since our mum passed on, he takes care of our youngest brother and my child, whom I left in search of greener pastures.