Human trafficking is a relatively new term for an age-old human practice of treating people like things. It’s a phrase that wasn’t even widely used 25 years ago when a bright 9-year-old girl from Bangladesh nicknamed “Kushi” was abused, along with many other family members, at a remote farm in Oakville, and then rescued and embraced by the Grays Harbor community.
So, whatever happened to Kushi?
Her saga and that of her American foster parents, Hoquiamites Bob Martin and Betsy Seidel, is filled with so many twists and turns it would not be an exaggeration to say the answer to that question could be a book. And, someday Kushi Begum, who now goes by her full name, Khurshida, hopes to write it.
Her life would make a good movie, too. It’d be a tearjerker filled with a variety of villains and heroes, and would demonstrate the power of forgiveness and unconditional love triumphing over the legacy of abuse. And, it seems headed for a great ending. But what Khurshida has experienced in her more than three decades of living is so incredible that critics would likely label it “unbelievable” if they didn’t know it was true.
Now at 33, Khurshida, who graduated in December from Puget Sound Community College where she served as the student body president, has faced her past. And thanks in part to an inspiring speech class, has found her voice, her passion and her mission — to advocate for the survivors of human trafficking and help them heal.
“I also teach officials, business leaders, educators and community members and youth about what to look for and what actions to take to combat modern-day slavery,” she said.
“How is it that this white man in his 50s with this teenage wife and all these Bangladesh children with forged papers, didn’t arouse anyone’s suspicion at the airport?” she asked. “The signs were there. We were terrified and never made eye contact with anyone — which is an obvious sign of victims.”
Khurshida has not only encouraged other trafficking survivors, she’s inspired her own niece, Yasmin Christopher, now a Seattle University law student, who lived through many of the same horrors, to also become a spokeswoman for those who have endured human trafficking.
“Without her, I would have never had the courage to speak up at all,” Yasmin says of her inspiring aunt.
ALL GROWN UP
Khurshida is definitely all grown up now. She’s well-spoken and elegantly beautiful. She lives in the Olympia area, back last Sunday from a two-month trip to Bangladesh, where she married Rubel Mina, whom she had met there four years ago during a trip to share her homeland with Martin, Seidel and her son, Rasun, now 11. She’s now “working like a mad woman” to find steady work so she can demonstrate that she can support her new husband so he can join her soon.
Beginning in the summer of 2010, she and Yasmin first shared their story at Hidden Creek Community Church in Olympia. Not long after, she was invited to join then-Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and various social justice organizations to speak at numerous human trafficking forums across the state and even in Nebraska and in Dallas, Texas, where she spoke with celebrity Jada Pinkett Smith.
“For me, learning to forgive was key to moving on with my life and to discovering that my experiences — hellish as they were — can be used because I can understand where a survivor of human trafficking is coming from,” she said. “Forgiving doesn’t mean that what was done to me was OK. It just releases me from the anger and years of self-destructive behaviors,” she explained.
Through learning to forgive the man who had enslaved her and many family members, as well as forgiving her birth parents — now deceased — for selling them into that life, Khurshida says she’s been energized and ready to move on.
In addition to grasping the concept of forgiveness, the unconditional love and support of Seidel and Martin who swooped in to see how they could help 25 years ago when the plight of Kushi and her family came to light, has made a lasting difference in her life. They have truly become her parents and the grandparents to Rasun and are ecstatic about her marriage to Rubel.
“He’s an amazing young man who loves Kushi and our grandson so much. It’s perfect,” Seidel said.
Twenty-five years ago, Seidel, now retired and an enthusiastic community volunteer, was then a popular and energetic English teacher at Hoquiam Middle School. She first learned of Kushi from a story in The Daily World in 1988.
Kushi and her relatives had been enslaved and threatened by her then-brother-in-law, Stefan Christopher, at his Oakville farm. Their plight was revealed when Kushi’s teenage cousin, Runia Gazi, hanged herself April 9, 1988, when the adults were out for the afternoon. After discovering her body, the terrified youngsters ran from the remote farm in Oakville desperately seeking help.
Once the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office was called in, the bizarre, slave-labor existence, wrought with abuse of every kind, came to light. “It was an absolute nightmare,” Khurshida said. “If my cousin didn’t commit suicide, I honestly think we’d be dead. I don’t know that we would have gotten through that.”
Some background: Christopher traveled to Third-World countries for his work with World Bank. Kushi’s family was very poor, and when approached by Christopher, her father decided to have Kushi’s sister marry him and sell the rest of the children in hopes of a better future in America as Christopher promised, she explained. Her sister was 11. Christopher was 47.
In all, he brought nine family members in addition to Kushi to live at the ramshackle remote farm in Oakville.
When it was clear that the family needed help, Seidel and Martin, then a chemical engineer at ITT Rayonier, offered their assistance. The couple learned that the children could use some clothes and help learning English. And, that the little girl, Kushi, suffered from an eye injury caused by an accident with a scythe in Bangladesh.
So, the couple jumped in, providing shopping trips and fun outings as well as working with the local Lions Club and Aberdeen eye doctor Charles Thompson. The injury to Kushi’s eye had caused it to turn white with glaucoma. The couple helped arrange for an operation and a prosthetic eye to be fitted.
Then as other Harborites stepped in to help the other youngsters and young adults, Martin and Seidel became Kushi’s foster parents.
As the Grays Harbor Prosecutor’s Office worked hard to unravel the story to build their case against Christopher, prosecutors discovered that Christopher had abused the children even before he brought them to the U.S. Prosecutors described what the children had been through as “physical and psychological torture.”
But the case was difficult because the young victims and witnesses didn’t know English very well and were terrified to testify in the same room as Christopher, Seidel explained.
“Thank God they don’t make abuse survivors sit in the same room anymore. Things have changed so much since 1988; it’s so much better,” Seidel said. So instead of traumatizing Kushi and the others any more, the Prosecutor’s Office plea-bargained the case, with Christopher pleading guilty to two counts of indecent liberties in 1989. He was 52. He served 18 months and now lives in Eastern Washington.
In the meantime, Kushi flourished in the Martin-Seidel home — making friends, riding dirt bikes, enjoying family gatherings and attending Hoquiam schools. Her English was improving and her gregarious personality developing.
But then after nearly a year there, her social worker deemed that the home wasn’t “culturally relevant” for the dark-skinned Muslim girl.
Her “normal” life was about to turn upside down again. In a long and cumbersomely complicated chronicle, Kushi and her foster parents’ lives suddenly included contentious meetings, court dates, rallies, more legal action and even intervention from Congress via then-Washington senator Slade Gorton. Daily World stories about the little girl from Bangladesh were picked up by the Associated Press and printed across the nation. Even Paul Harvey’s radio show featured Kushi.
Because of immigration issues, Kushi went back to Bangladesh and then returned, settling back in with Martin and Seidel after all the bureaucratic dust had settled. She lived there from 1990 to 1994.
But then, during junior high, a different type of storm ensued. Like many children who are sexually abused, the onset of puberty brought confusion and flashbacks of the horrors she’d been through as a little girl.
“I hit my teenage years and everything was coming back to me,” she recalled.
“I had nightmares, disassociations; I was reliving my past. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to hurt myself. I had several suicide attempts. I ended up in bad relationships,” she said. “I never knew what I went through until then. I had literally blocked it out,” she said.
Although Martin and Seidel made sure Kushi was in counseling all those years in their home, the rebellion of every kind, eating disorders and numerous suicide attempts made them realize they couldn’t protect her from herself.
Kushi spent the next few years in various psychiatric hospitals, group homes and foster homes. Throughout it all, Martin and Seidel stayed in contact and were always there as her Mom and Dad.
“We love her,” said Seidel. “I’ve always told Kushi, ‘I love you. I always have and I always will.’ She’s our daughter. She’s definitely had a unique background, and she’s a survivor whom Bob and I are very proud of. We’re very excited for her husband to come over. They are lucky to have each other.”
“It’s really amazing with Bob and Betsy,” Khurshida says. “I put them through a lot. I wasn’t the easiest kid to raise. I went through this phase — it was very bad.
“Mom and Dad have given me unconditional love and they never gave up on me. They were always there for me. It’s that unconditional love that makes all the difference.”
Khurshida is available to speak to high schools, colleges, courts, police departments, businesses and church groups that would like to hear her story and receive further education and training. She can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently working on scheduling some dates to speak at Grays Harbor College.
“I feel like we’ve come full circle,” Seidel said. “Twenty-five years ago I saw a photo and read a story in The Daily World about some children who needed help and I wanted to do what I could. It’s been quite a journey, but now here we are with Kushi in the newspaper again because she’s taken what she’s been through and is now helping others.”