September-October 2015

Human Trafficking in Montgomery County

Trafficking is happening here--in massage parlors, nice hotels, even a town house in Rockville

What is significant, Vandenberg says, is that five of these 138 labor trafficking civil suits—or nearly 4 percent—were linked to Montgomery County. Four alleged labor trafficking violations at homes in the county; the fifth dealt with a domestic servitude case in nearby College Park in which a Montgomery County resident played a role.

One of the five civil suits tied to Montgomery County involved a diplomatic official from Tanzania, just to the south of Mwaka’s home country of Kenya. The defendants—Alan Mzengi, then a minister at the Tanzanian Embassy, and his wife, Stella—lived in Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring during a period from 2000 to 2004.

The plaintiff in the suit, Zipora Mazengo, said she was given an employment contract by the Mzengis that was ignored. She charged that her passport was taken from her, and that, in addition to long hours of housecleaning and taking care of the Mzengis’ children for no payment, she was forced to work weekends in an African food catering business that the Mzengis ran on the side.

The suit, initially filed by Vandenberg in 2007 when she was an attorney with Jenner & Block, represents something of a landmark case. Pursued by other attorneys from Jenner & Block after Vandenberg left the firm, Mazengo received a confidential settlement from the Tanzanian government in 2013, marking the first time a foreign government agreed to settle a human trafficking case in which a member of its diplomatic corps was involved, according to Vandenberg.

A sixth Montgomery County labor trafficking suit is expected soon: Attorneys working for Mwaka are planning in the next month or so to file a civil action against Njuguna and, perhaps, the Kenyan government.

WHEN MWAKA was first approached about coming to the U.S., her father was concerned because he knew what can happen to women in similar situations. “The only reason he couldn’t say no was that I said, ‘I’m OK with it,’ ” Mwaka says.

Once Mwaka said yes, Njuguna started the paperwork to bring her to the United States, including a passport that Mwaka says was processed without her knowledge. She says Njuguna retained possession of the passport both in Kenya and in the U.S., except for brief periods going through customs on the way to this country. But while cleaning the house in Rockville, Mwaka found it—and took it with her when she left Njuguna’s residence early last year.

On her one visit to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to obtain a visa, not long before her June 2010 departure to the United States, Mwaka was given a 10-page booklet outlining her rights, which she did not show to Njuguna. The booklet, whose distribution was required by a 2008 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, includes the phone number of the

Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center—which Mwaka used four years later in planning her escape.
Vandenberg counts the booklet as a rare victory in the fight against labor trafficking: “That little booklet is responsible, I think, for the surge we’re seeing in reporting.”

In May 2014, a CASA attorney acting on Mwaka’s behalf sent a demand letter to Njuguna and the Kenyan ambassador to the United States at the time, saying Mwaka was owed more than $265,000 in unpaid wages and overtime for her four years of work. The letter offered to settle the matter for $210,000. Neither Njuguna nor Kenyan officials have responded. The Kenyan Embassy also did not respond to several requests for comment from Bethesda Magazine.

The civil suit that is expected to be filed this fall would likely include those claims for back pay. Attorneys at the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery, whose Washington office is representing Mwaka on a pro bono basis, declined to comment on the case. Njuguna left her post at the Kenyan Embassy last summer, and is currently believed to be residing in Kenya.

Legal action was not at the top of Mwaka’s mind when she finally left Njuguna. “All I wanted was to get out of that house—for me to feel like I’m free,” she says.

But an initial feeling of relief soon gave way to emotional turmoil. “I was seeing everything playing over and over—I’m hearing her coming and screaming,” Mwaka says, referring to Njuguna. “I couldn’t sleep.” She visited a counselor, and also saw a psychiatrist.

Mwaka currently has a part-time job as a cashier in a Montgomery County restaurant, and is looking for other part-time work. She would like to be able to bring her daughter, now 7 and living with Mwaka’s parents in Kenya, to the United States.

After several years of being largely unable to communicate with her parents, she now talks to them often. “They don’t really know what I went through,” she says. “I just kind of kept it to myself.”

Louis Peck (louis.peck@bethesdamagazine.com) has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national levels for four decades.