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Apr 6, 2019

Trans national migration

Co-produced with PRX Logo

We examine the record of one of the toughest immigration judges in the country, including the surprising way her decisions benefited transgender asylum-seekers. Then we follow one transgender woman who flees El Salvador for the United States to try to claim asylum.

Our final story takes us to Turkey, and focuses on a small but growing group of refugees seeking a new life: young Afghan women fleeing abuse, forced marriage and persecution in their homeland. Reporter Fariba Nawa tells the story of Hoor, who made the dangerous journey into Turkey alone, only to be assaulted by an Afghan man in Istanbul. Against all odds, Hoor sought justice for her abuser and ultimately prevailed.

Credits

Our first story about an immigration judge who ruled on hundreds of cases involving transgender asylum seekers was reported and produced by Patrick Michels and edited by Brett Myers.

Our second story about a transgender woman who fled El Salvador was reported by Alice Driver. It was produced by Casey Minor with help from Emily Harris and Amy Isackson and was edited by Brett Myers.

Our story about Afghan female migrants was reported and produced by Fariba Nawa and edited by Taki Telonidis.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Let's be real. Everybody loves tote bags. Everybody. And Reveal has a brand spanking new one. It's beautiful, and much bigger than our last one. All this month, we're entering people into the running to get one of these totes for free. All you have to do is sign up for our newsletter. Just text the word NEWSLETTER to 63735 and follow the prompts. You can text STOP at any time, and standard data rates apply. At the end of April, we'll get in touch and send out totes to the winners. Again, to get in the running, text NEWSLETTER to 63735.

 

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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: In downtown Los Angeles, at the corner of Sixth and Olive, a long line of men and women in suits and families with small children stretches out the front doors, down the block and around the corner. This is immigration court. What happens inside is a bit of a mystery, because hearings are often closed to the public. Decisions are rarely published, and most judges aren't allowed to talk to the press. But today, we're going to hear from one immigration judge who served for 20 years. She just recently retired, which is why she's allowed to be interviewed. Reveal's Patrick Michels is on his way to meet her, but first, Patrick stops by that line of people waiting to get in to the court, and chats with two lawyers.

 

Patrick Michels: Hi, excuse me. I'm a reporter covering immigration for a radio show called Reveal.

 

Al Letson: He's curious if they know the judge he's about to interview, Lorraine Munoz.

 

Patrick Michels: I'm actually, I'm going around the corner to interview a former immigration judge.

 

Speaker 4: Oh good. Which one?

 

Patrick Michels: Lorraine Munoz?

 

Speaker 4: Oh wow.

 

Speaker 5: Oh wow, interesting.

 

Speaker 4: Okay.

 

Speaker 5: Yeah.

 

Speaker 4: Yeah, okay.

 

Patrick Michels: Why do you say that?

 

Speaker 4: No, I'm not going to say anything.

 

Speaker 5: Yeah, no comment.

 

Speaker 4: No comment.

 

Al Letson: That's the kind of reaction Patrick got from a lot of lawyers he asked about Judge Lorraine Munoz. She has something of a reputation. She's known for being tough. Her rulings had a huge impact on one specific community, transgender people who had fled their countries, because they were afraid for their lives. They came to the U.S. seeking asylum, and almost every time, Judge Munoz turned them away, rejecting more asylum claims than almost anyone else in the country. How can one judge hold so much power, and was she fair? That's what Patrick wants to find out.

 

Patrick Michels: Lorraine Munoz never planned on becoming a judge.

 

Lorraine Munoz: The only lawyers I ever knew were what you saw on TV. I had never met a lawyer in my life. That's a good thing, I guess.

 

Patrick Michels: She grew up in East L.A. as a second generation American. Her grandparents immigrated from Mexico. She taught elementary school while she studied law at night, and when she got her degree, she was an advocate. She represented immigrants, farm workers, and refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Honduras. Then, when her son was just a few years old, her husband died. She knew about a government job with better pay and more security. In 1997, she became an immigration judge.

 

Lorraine Munoz: I was a single mom. I had a child to raise, and the immigration court was hiring, but I was shocked at how many people thought it was like, "Oh, you're selling out."

 

Patrick Michels: It was a huge shift. As a lawyer, she represented individual immigrants, fighting to get them status. As a judge, she was the gatekeeper.

 

Lorraine Munoz: I was no longer an advocate. I now had a responsibility to maintain a system.

 

Patrick Michels: She spent a few days at Judge School, then found herself on the bench in her own courtroom.

 

Patrick Michels: The first time you sit up there in your own immigration court running the show, what's that like?

 

Lorraine Munoz: Really awkward. It's so self-conscious. You're sitting there, and everybody's staring at you.

 

Patrick Michels: The stakes were high, and she was under pressure to move through her cases quickly. She started hearing them so fast, people called her court the Rocket Docket.

 

Lorraine Munoz: There really were lists that were published every week on where your cases were, how many were over 60 days. These were countrywide.

 

Patrick Michels: Her court got a reputation, not just for how fast she'd churn through cases, but also because of her decisions.

 

Patrick Michels: I've got the numbers here, because I wanted to quote them. 2013-2018, you've made 617 asylum decisions.

 

Lorraine Munoz: Wow, okay.

 

Patrick Michels: And rejected 600 of them, which is a pretty high denial rate. Did you recognize at the time that that was a high rate compared to other judges?

 

Lorraine Munoz: Well, I don't know that report, so I can't really say how it's analyzed, but I was in a detention center by then.

 

Patrick Michels: Well, she wasn't in a detention center. What she means is she only saw people who were being held detention, and judges across the country tend to reject those cases more often. Still, in that six year snapshot, Judge Munoz denied 97% of asylum claims, meaning she turned people down 40% more often than the national average.

 

Patrick Michels: And we've got another window into her courtroom. A lawyers' group sued the Justice Department to see complaints filed against immigration judges. After years in court, when the DOJ finally released them, the judges' names were redacted, but one lawyer figured out how to un-redact them, including nearly 800 pages of complaints against Judge Munoz.

 

Patrick Michels: Most are about the way she treated people in court. One lawyer described a hearing as "an inquisition," and said Judge Munoz was "unfit to be on the bench." Another described overwhelming hostility, sarcasm, and intimidation. Judge Munoz tells me people just misread her.

 

Lorraine Munoz: Yes, I was a tough judge, if that's how you want to characterize it. I was a demanding judge. I have standards. It's just something that I felt was a duty to do your best, and I demanded that from my lawyers. And not everybody likes that.

 

Patrick Michels: These documents show she wasn't only tough on lawyers. That's because in immigration court, you're not guaranteed an attorney, so lots of people represented themselves.

 

Interpreter 1: The moment I stood in front of her, it was so difficult. I didn't know how to explain my situation to her. I felt lost.

 

Patrick Michels: That's [Rosio 00:07:40]. She's a transgender woman from Guatemala. We're not saying her full name, because her applications for permanent status are still pending, and her lawyers worry she might be punished for speaking out about Judge Munoz's court.

 

Interpreter 1: Well, I tried to explain to her the things that had happened to me in my country, but she simply said that she did not believe any of it. It was a story that I was simply repeating from others that had been in front of her. She said that she already knew this story. Her way was always cold, rude.

 

Patrick Michels: Immigration courts deal with all kinds of human suffering. War, genocide, political persecution, and that suffering gets divvied up unevenly. New York judges get the majority of asylum cases from China. Judges in Miami decide most of the cases from Haiti. And for years, Judge Munoz saw a huge portion of asylum claims from transgender women like Rosio.

 

Interpreter 1: The moment I was in front of her, she made an assumption about me, saying she didn't believe that I was a transgender woman.

 

Patrick Michels: From inside detention, without a lawyer, Rosio managed to submit almost 200 pages of evidence with her asylum claim. She says she suffered horrible abuse in Guatemala, that her father attacked her with a machete, that gang members threatened her, and that police raped her, all because she was transgender. But in court transcripts, when Rosio tries to testify about that violence, Judge Munoz never really lets her explain what happened.

 

Patrick Michels: At one point, the judge asks Rosio for details about a trip she took in Guatemala, and Rosio tries to explain what happened on that day, that two policemen kidnapped and raped her. But Judge Munoz cuts her off saying, "I don't know why you feel that's important." In the end, she ruled that Rosio's story was not credible and ordered her deported.

 

Interpreter 1: This destroyed me. Seeing her face, the way she looked at me, the way she'd talk to me. I knew I was going to lose my case.

 

Patrick Michels: Attorney Talia Inlender has worked on hundreds of cases in Judge Munoz's court.

 

Talia Inlender: It was a hostile environment for family members, witnesses who came, and it was, of course, most hostile for people whose lives were in the hands of Judge Munoz.

 

Patrick Michels: She says it was bad for lawyers too. Some would refuse to take cases before Judge Munoz.

 

Talia Inlender: It literally deprived people of council, because they knew that the experience was going to be so difficult in front of her. Some people gave up their cases, because they just didn't want to have to deal with the trauma of sharing their story in that environment. Some people ended up being detained for years.

 

Patrick Michels: She says the judge would sigh, or get up and leave in the middle of someone testifying about something traumatic. And she says it was worse for her transgender clients. When one transgender woman struggled to explain an incident in her past, Talia says Judge Munoz asked if her memory had been impaired by hormone therapy. And with trans women, Judge Munoz insisted on using the wrong pronouns, calling them sir and addressing them by their former names.

 

Talia Inlender: The judge would say, "If Pee-wee Herman were in my courtroom, I wouldn't call him Pee-wee. I would call him Paul."

 

Patrick Michels: After she started seeing more of these cases, in 2011, Judge Munoz says she asked her bosses for guidance about which pronouns to use, but never heard anything. She says she even asked one of her clerks to research what the law said about it, and didn't find anything. And she says there was a practical reason why she referred to transgender women using male pronouns like he and him, that she had to keep the written record consistent.

 

Lorraine Munoz: It's not a social issue. I'm not in there trying to change the world. I'm just in there trying to deal with the law.

 

Patrick Michels: One of the big complaints against her was that she didn't understand the basics, that gender identity is totally separate from sexual orientation. Immigration officials are trained about this, but judges don't get that training.

 

Lorraine Munoz: I'm not an expert on trans, and the history of cases were based on just gay asylum cases, so when trans evolved as a more common type of case, we didn't have any training or background or materials.

 

Patrick Michels: Talia and other lawyers I talked with say if Judge Munoz wanted help, she could've read their evidence and listened to experts who explained that discrimination against transgender women is different from discrimination against gay and lesbian people.

 

Talia Inlender: I will say, there certainly is more awareness generally in society now than there was 10 years ago, and yet, there's still a line, I think, between mockery. It felt like an attack.

 

Patrick Michels: For years, ICE sent hundreds of trans women before Judge Munoz, a judge with one of the highest denial rates in the country, a judge who records show regularly cast doubt on people's gender identity. After years of filing complaints and seeing no discipline, no change, a few lawyers decided to fight back. They picked a case that was scheduled for Judge Munoz's court and set it up for an appeal. They wanted to force higher courts to say she was wrong.

 

Speaker 9: I think I've got this. Was the same IJ on all three of these cases?

 

Speaker 10: Yes, your honor.

 

Speaker 9: Miss ... Miss-

 

Speaker 10: Judge Munoz, your honor.

 

Speaker 9: Judge Munoz, yeah.

 

Speaker 10: Yes, sir.

 

Patrick Michels: Arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015, lawyers described the case of Carey Avendano-Hernandez, a transgender woman who'd been raped by police in Mexico. Judge Munoz denied her claim, ordering her to return to Mexico partly on the basis that courts there were beginning to legalize gay marriage. She reasoned gay marriage was a sign the country was safer for transgender people, but the lawyers who challenged her argued that reasoning was flawed.

 

Speaker 10: In addition to refusing to refer to the applicant by their preferred pronouns, the judge doesn't seem to understand the difference between what it means to be a transgender woman and a gay man, and that difference is, of course, crucial.

 

Patrick Michels: Lawyers had evidence showing the risks for trans women are especially grave. As many as three quarters of trans women in Mexico have been a victim of violent crime, most often sexual violence. After awhile, the judges heard enough.

 

Speaker 11: All right, thank you very much.

 

Speaker 9: Thank you all very much.

 

Speaker 11: We appreciate the arguments by everyone.

 

Speaker 9: Very well argued.

 

Patrick Michels: The court ruled that Judge Munoz and the Board of Immigration Appeals, or BIA, which also denied the case, had been wrong, that the law should recognize there are distinct risks that transgender women face. I asked Judge Munoz about that.

 

Patrick Michels: One of the things that the Ninth Circuit said was that your court, that you and the BIA both-

 

Lorraine Munoz: Missed the ball.

 

Patrick Michels: What'd you say?

 

Lorraine Munoz: Missed the ball.

 

Patrick Michels: Yeah, that there is a distinction between sexuality and gender identity.

 

Lorraine Munoz: I really didn't feel that I understood the difference.

 

Patrick Michels: The appeals court ruling was a landmark for transgender immigration law. Now, immigration judges would need to treat trans people as their own protected group, and lawyers now use that precedent to win transgender asylum cases all over the country. But in Judge Munoz's court, the ruling did not seem to make a big impact. Remember Rosio? Judge Munoz rejected her asylum claim months after the appeals court ruling. After that, Rosio spent another nine months back in detention. Then, she used that precedent from the Ninth Circuit to file an appeal.

 

Interpreter 1: It was the best thing to ever happen to me.

 

Patrick Michels: With the help of a lawyer, Rosio was assigned to a different judge, and she won.

 

Interpreter 1: Thank God. I've received so much help since the day I got out. I work now. I've moved ahead. I go to school. My entire life is so much better.

 

Patrick Michels: Now, Rosio lives in L.A. and goes to cooking school, something she says she couldn't do in Guatemala, because of discrimination. Two years after the appeals court ruling, Judge Munoz retired, and talking to her, you can tell she found her time on the bench frustrating. She told me the job wears you down, eats away at you. She says she's thought a lot about her legacy and the complaints against her.

 

Lorraine Munoz: When you hear something over and over and over again, if you don't address it, if you don't embrace it and question it, then you're just being naïve, and that's just not responsible. Yeah, I've had to think about it. I've concluded that it's a handful of people who are very vocal. I'm okay with it.

 

Patrick Michels: Since Judge Munoz retired, the department has grown. The Trump Administration has hired more than 170 new immigration judges. I reached out to the President of the Union For Immigration Judges. I asked her whether these new judges get any training about using the right pronouns and about the dangers transgender people face around the world. Her response? A big no.

 

Al Letson: That's Reveal's Patrick Michels.

 

Al Letson: How are transgender people fairing in immigration court these days? When we come back, we'll meet a transgender woman from El Salvador, just as she's about to travel north to ask for asylum. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: We just heard about how one recently retired immigration judge had a dramatic impact on transgender people and their ability to gain asylum in the U.S. What's happening now? Trans people are fleeing their countries, because they feel their lives are at risk. In our next story, reporter Alice Driver meets a transgender woman in El Salvador's capital city of San Salvador. Her name is Estrella Pérez Mendoza, and she's about to start her journey north. Here's Alice.

 

Alice Driver: It's dark out, around eight or nine at night, and I'm in the back of a taxi, driving through the streets of San Salvador. The taxi stops, and I catch a glimpse of Estrella. She's working on a street corner. Sex work is one of the only options for transgender women here. It's almost impossible for them to get other jobs. Estrella wears a short black dress, high heels, rose-colored lipstick and blush. Her hair is long and straight.

 

Alice Driver: When I ask if she can take a break to talk, she reaches into her purse to pull out a pair of jeans, then stands behind a bus stop to put them on. We walk to a noisy donut shop so we can talk. She tells me that this will be her last night in El Salvador, that tomorrow, she'll take a bus north. I ask her about her plan.

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:19:37].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:19:38].

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:19:38].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:19:38].

 

Alice Driver: She says she'll travel through Guatemala, then cross in to Mexico. Her goal is to get to the United States, where she thinks she can have a different life.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:19:59].

 

Alice Driver: She has dreams to open a business, maybe a restaurant, to work, to study. She says that she wants to be someone in life.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:20:16].

 

Alice Driver: "I wasn't born in the wrong body," Estrella tells me. "I was born in the wrong society." Under the bright lights of Mr. Donut, I notice a jagged white scar near her neck. She tells me a gang member attacked her with an ice pick. He also punctured a lung. She says she went to the police, but they ignored her. That's when she realized that if she stayed in El Salvador, she might not survive. Estrella's bus leaves in just hours, and even though we just met, I ask her if I can come with her, to follow her for part of her journey. She says yes.

 

Alice Driver: It's three A.M., and Estrella and I are boarding a bus to leave the only country she's ever called home. Vendors walk up and down the bus selling snacks and water. Estrella's wearing a purple top and dangly gold earrings, sitting silently and keeping to herself. Even so, other passengers stare at her. I don't record much, because I don't want to make her even more conspicuous. Later, when I ask Estrella to tell me about her childhood, she says she doesn't want to share much detail. It makes her too sad.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:21:37].

 

Alice Driver: She tells me, "I grew up in a big family, but unfortunately, there wasn't love or togetherness like there should be." Her mother died when she was seven. She was close with her younger sisters and nieces. She loved wearing their dresses, and making clothes and food for their dolls. But other family members didn't understand that, and they bullied her. As a teenager, she realized she had a choice.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:22:10].

 

Alice Driver: She says she could dress as a man and live in the closet her whole life.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish]

 

Alice Driver: Full of suffering when she looked in the mirror and saw a person she wasn't.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:22:38].

 

Alice Driver: Or she could be happy wearing makeup, dressing as a woman, the way she wanted to.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:22:50].

 

Alice Driver: And she says she decided to do what made her happy.

 

Alice Driver: When Estrella decided to live openly as a transgender girl, her father took away her house key. A sister told her to go far away, where no one knew her. They disowned her, so she left the small town where she'd grown up and headed to the capital San Salvador. She was 15.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:23:27].

 

Alice Driver: At first, she says, she had to sleep in parks. She didn't have money or work, but she met other people like her, and after awhile, an older trans woman took her in.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:23:41].

 

Alice Driver: Estrella says this woman told her, "You can stay in my house if you want." But what seemed like kindness came at a price.

 

Alice Driver: After awhile, the woman started telling her she had to work, had to pay rent and food. One day, the woman brought her a new outfit. It was short, way more revealing than what she normally wears.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:24:06].

 

Alice Driver: The woman called a taxi to take her out to a street corner. From that night on, Estrella was a sex worker.

 

Alice Driver: Even after she moved out on her own, Estrella says she was constantly harassed for being trans. Gang members controlled the building she lived in and the street she worked on. She said she had to pay them what they called rent, really extortion money. If she couldn't pay, she says they threatened to kill her, and she knew they were serious. They'd already killed two other trans women for not paying. Then came the icepick attack. It took Estrella over a month to recover.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:24:52].

 

Alice Driver: She says so much had happened to her in El Salvador just because she was trans. She wondered how many more threats and attacks she could survive.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:25:14].

 

Alice Driver: She says they say that cats have like seven lives, "But I'm not a cat."

 

Alice Driver: On the bus ride out of El Salvador, we drive through inky darkness. Estrella leans over and asks me, "How do you say asylum in English?" 18 hours after we started, we arrive in Mexico. Estrella checks in to a hotel in Tapachula, and I say goodbye. I don't know it at the time, but it'll be the last time I see her for more than a year.

 

Alice Driver: Estrella makes it to the U.S. border a few months later, crossing at the San Ysidro port-of-entry in Tijuana, the same one that made headlines last fall when the U.S. Border Patrol used tear gas on migrants from a caravan. A lawyer who works with transgender asylum seekers told me that more trans women are traveling with caravans, because it's safer, but Estrella is alone. She pays a taxi to take her to the border crossing, then walks the last few hundred yards to turn herself in.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:26:26].

 

Alice Driver: She remembers that everyone else was going by with their suitcases, and she just had her passport in her hand. She asks for asylum, then is arrested and detained for seven months, living with men. She says she worked cleaning the facility for a dollar a day, and saved up her dollars to buy cookies and Coke and ramen. Finally, she gets a hearing date, May 2018.

 

Judge De Paolo: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you give her this afternoon will be the truth and nothing but the truth?

 

Interpreter 2: Yes, I swear.

 

Judge De Paolo: Thank you. Have a seat.

 

Alice Driver: The next morning, Estrella appears in court. Her lawyer's volunteering. This is his first immigration case, but Estrella's lucky to have a lawyer at all. Asylum seekers who come to court with attorneys are more likely to win their cases. Through an interpreter, Estrella tells her whole story, up through the moment she decided to go.

 

Interpreter 2: They told me I could be kidnapped during this trip, raped, or forced into prostitution again. I had no other option. I knew that if I stayed in my country more time, I could lose my life.

 

Judge De Paolo: Okay, so you left?

 

Interpreter 2: Yes.

 

Judge De Paolo: Okay. We need to take our afternoon break, okay?

 

Alice Driver: During Estrella's testimony, Judge De Paolo is businesslike, but also supportive and engaged. It seems like Estrella has a shot at asylum, but it's hard to tell.

 

Judge De Paolo: Miss Pérez, let's talk a minute about what we've got here, okay?

 

Estrella P-M.: Okay.

 

Judge De Paolo: I don't have a crystal ball. I can't read your mind, okay? I have to follow rules that are all I have.

 

Alice Driver: After more than two hours, the judge makes her ruling.

 

Judge De Paolo: I'm going to grant you asylum, because I find your testimony to be credible. I'm going to find that the harm you suffered did rise to the level of persecution, that the government was either unable or unwilling to protect you from acts of violence that certainly put your life at risk in El Salvador, all right? Based on the-

 

Alice Driver: After the hearing, I get in touch with Estrella to see if she wants to talk, but she says she's too traumatized to talk any more about what she's been through. A few months later, she writes me on Facebook. She tells me she's enrolled in English classes, and she wants to tell me about her new life.

 

Alice Driver: I fly to San Diego to meet her. It's an unbearably hot summer morning, and I'm waiting for her at a city bus stop, pacing nervously. Bus after bus comes by. People get off and head to a nearby park. I realize I'm not even sure if she'll come.

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:30:11].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:30:11]. Thank you.

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:30:12].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:30:13].

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:30:15].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:30:16].

 

Alice Driver: Estrella looks amazing, dressed in a business suit and smiling, her hair long and curled. She tells me how happy she is. She has a new job at a pizza shop. She's enrolled in community college. She has friends. She goes out dancing. We spend the day together doing incredibly normal things, like stopping by the grocery store so that Estrella can find her favorite drink.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish] soda?

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish] soda.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:30:47].

 

Alice Driver: She tells me she knows Coke is bad for her, but she loves it. At one point, I tell her how happy it makes me to see her like this.

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:31:04].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:31:11].

 

Alice Driver: [Spanish 00:31:16].

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:31:17].

 

Alice Driver: She says she knows. She remembers when we first met, how badly she was doing. She was so afraid, but she's not anymore.

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:31:27].

 

Alice Driver: Later, Estrella tells me, "Thank God I'm here. This is a country with many opportunities."

 

Estrella P-M.: [Spanish 00:31:44].

 

Alice Driver: "Where I feel like there's no discrimination. Where I can work, where I can grow."

 

Al Letson: Since coming to the U.S., Estrella has taken another big step towards a new life. She legally changed her name to Michelle, and while Michelle's had a positive experience, we also want to be very clear that violence against transgender people is a problem in this country too. Advocates say more than two dozen trans people were killed last year in the United States. Alice Driver, a reporter based in Mexico City, brought us that story. It was produced by Casey Minor with help from Emily Harris and Amy Isackson.

 

Al Letson: As we heard, transgender women are fleeing their homes, because they're afraid of what will happen to them if they stay. Up next, women in Afghanistan face a similar choice, but even after leaving their country, they're still being targeted. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: With so much focus on the southern border of the U.S., it's easy to lose sight of the big picture of migration around the world. According to the latest statistics from the U.N., there are more refugees in Turkey than any other country, three and a half million. Among them is a small but growing group of women who are fleeing their homeland, and now are trying to start a new life there. Fariba Nawa is a reporter and author based in Istanbul.

 

Al Letson: Fariba, who are these refugees?

 

Fariba Nawa: Well, these refugees are girls and women who are fleeing Afghanistan by themselves. They're mostly in their teens and twenties, and they're running from forced marriage, sexual assault, domestic violence, family honor, various types of abuse. They hire smugglers to take them to Iran, then Turkey, crossing deserts and mountains to get here.

 

Al Letson: Fariba says these women are fleeing because of what 40 years of war in Afghanistan has done to the men.

 

Fariba Nawa: Many men are frustrated by the fighting and unemployment. Many are addicted to drugs, and they take it out on their women. I've been seeing more women fleeing, and so has the U.N. In 2011, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported that about 3,500 Afghan women asked for asylum in the west. Last year, it was almost 40,000.

 

Al Letson: In 2017, Fariba decided to help these women, so she created a small network using smartphones and WhatsApp. She named the group Life in Turkey, and invited women who had come to Turkey alone to join. They leave messages for Fariba, asking for advice.

 

Sahar: [foreign language 00:34:54].

 

Fariba Nawa: This is Sahar, an Afghan performer who fled Afghanistan because she was threatened for singing on stage. When she came to Turkey, some Afghan migrants beat her, saying she brought shame to Afghan society for singing.

 

Fatima: [foreign language 00:35:10].

 

Fariba Nawa: And this is a woman named Fatima, who ran away from an abusive father. She's been sexually harassed on the job in Turkey. And we should note that we're not using the full names of the women in this story, because they continue to face threats from Afghan men in Turkey.

 

Al Letson: These women trust Fariba because she's a refugee herself. Her family fled Afghanistan in 1982, after the Soviet Union invaded, and they were given asylum in the U.S. She was 10 years old then. Fariba lives in Turkey now, and reports on migration. She says she feels a personal connection to the Afghan women who ask her for help. Especially one young woman, who contacted her on WhatsApp in August of 2016.

 

Fariba Nawa: Her name is Hoor. This was her first message.

 

Hoor: [foreign language 00:35:59].

 

Fariba Nawa: Hoor tells me she's 16 years old, and that she'd run away from Afghanistan. Her father had died, and her uncle took over the family. The uncle forced Hoor's mother to remarry, and then took all the bride money. He was going to do the same with Hoor and her sisters, so she ran away, but it was clear from the message that something had gone wrong.

 

Hoor: [foreign language 00:36:26].

 

Fariba Nawa: She tells me she made it to Turkey, but then an Afghan man did something to her. Then she says, "I don't know what to do. I get very tired of life. I just don't want to live."

 

Hoor: [foreign language 00:36:42].

 

Fariba Nawa: [foreign language 00:36:43]. And that's me trying to give her support. I'm telling her I wish we were close so I could give you a hug.

 

Al Letson: Fariba took an interest in Hoor's story after that first call, and since then, has followed it closely.

 

Fariba Nawa: Hoor arrived in Turkey back in the summer of 2016, when the country was in chaos. There was a failed coup against the government and terrorist attacks. Despite the violence in the streets, Hoor was relieved to be in Istanbul, because she almost didn't make it. Back in Afghanistan, she hired a smuggler to get out of the country. She started her journey crossing battlefields and mountains, but some of the money she was supposed to give him was stolen, and in a small Turkish town called Van, Hoor was taken hostage. She told me the story a couple of months after she left that first message on WhatsApp. She's petite, with a calm voice and expressive eyes.

 

Interpreter 3: They held me as a prisoner, and if you don't pay them the money you owe, you'll be held captive for life there. You either work for them, or they'll take you as a slave.

 

Fariba Nawa: That's when another smuggler came into the picture. His name is [Rasul 00:38:08], and he found out about Hoor because a relative of his was also being held captive in the same place. He decided to help both of them. He paid Hoor's ransom, and she was freed. Hoor took a bus to Istanbul, where Rasul met her.

 

Interpreter 3: He was soft-spoken. He said, "You're one of our own, our honor. Whenever you want to pay me back, it's no problem. Until you find another home, you can stay here." Seeing that, I said, "He's a good person."

 

Fariba Nawa: Rasul won her trust. He brought her to a neighborhood in Istanbul called Zeytinburnu, where a lot of Afghan migrants settle and find work. He had a small shop there, where he ran his human smuggling business. Rasul gave Hoor a room in an apartment he shared with his wife and baby daughter. He found her a job as a seamstress. One of the first people Hoor met in Istanbul was an Afghan guy named [Fata] [inaudible 00:39:11]. He works with refugees, and I meet him in Zeytinburnu one afternoon.

 

Fariba Nawa: [foreign language 00:39:18]. How are you?

 

Fata: Good, how are you?

 

Fariba Nawa: Fata remembers meeting Hoor at a café. She was with her smuggler, Rasul. All seemed good.

 

Fariba Nawa: How was he treating her in this café?

 

Fata: I could see that he was behaving like a father, I can say. Or like an older brother. Actually, she was behaving like that. She was respecting him.

 

Fariba Nawa: Fata had met Rasul before, and thought Hoor was in good hands.

 

Fata: I never saw something un-morally with him. His family was a migrant, a refugee in Pakistan for years. Then he need to come to Turkey with his older brother to work. For me, he was someone who was surviving in this world.

 

Fariba Nawa: But just one day after their meeting in the café, Fata got a call from Hoor. She was panicked and upset, and asked that they meet on a street corner near the café.

 

Fata: She was crying, saying that this guy, Rasul, "He kicked me out of the house. What should I do?" And then she said that, "I'm going to tell you what happened, but I'm so ashamed. You are also an Afghan man."

 

Fariba Nawa: Fata realized that she was too embarrassed to tell another Afghan man the details, and in Afghan culture, it wouldn't be right to bring Hoor to his home, so he called his friend Stella Chiarelli. She's from Brazil, and has lived in Turkey for a decade. Stella told Fata to bring Hoor to her place.

 

Stella C.: I mean, in the moment that I saw her, when she arrived to my house, I already knew that there was something really bad that had happened.

 

Fariba Nawa: Through the tears, Hoor told Stella that the smuggler Rasul raped her. She later told me the same story.

 

Interpreter 3: I was in their house, and one night, when his wife wasn't home ... She had gone to her father's house. I was in my room sleeping, because then I was working at a clothing factory, working 13-14 hours. I was very tired. He was standing above my bed, asking to sleep with me. When I refused, he forced himself on me, just like that.

 

Fariba Nawa: I got to know Stella through Hoor. Stella's hard-wired to help anyone in need. She works with United Rescues, a small organization that helps refugees.

 

Fariba Nawa: Tell me how you knew that she was telling the truth.

 

Stella C.: I asked her if she was in pain, and she told me yes. And afterwards, I gave her some painkillers and I told her to go take a shower. And then she showed me that she was bleeding a lot, so it wasn't only the emotional part that was really obvious that she went through something so traumatic, but I also saw physically that something had happened to her.

 

Fariba Nawa: Stella took Hoor to the police to report the rape, and they sent her to the hospital for a medical exam. Doctors confirmed that Hoor was sexually assaulted and collected evidence. Hoor named Rasul as her rapist, but she didn't want to pursue the case, because she was afraid. The Turkish Government placed Hoor in a secret shelter, but there, she couldn't talk to Fata or Stella, and didn't know Turkish to communicate with anyone else. It was all too much for her. Losing her virginity before marriage meant she lost her honor.

 

Interpreter 3: In Afghanistan, when a girl is raped, she has no other options. She simply kills herself. She finishes it, because she's done with all of her options with saving face. And I am a girl from Afghan society. That's why, when I was in the police shelter, I found some acid and drank it. But they reached me in time and washed my stomach. The second time, I cut my wrist. I got eight stitches, and now you can see the scar.

 

Fariba Nawa: Stella took Hoor out of the shelter for a few days and applied to become her guardian. Turkey's social services insisted that Hoor stay in a protected location, where Rasul couldn't get to her. They put her in an orphanage for teen girls. A few weeks after, Stella and I went to the Zeytinburnu Police and asked if Rasul had been arrested.

 

Stella C.: They were really not concerned at all about it, and especially because it was an Afghan refugee girl who had no family here. I really thought that they would never arrest the guy.

 

Fariba Nawa: But three days later, Stella received a message from the police that Rasul was in jail, and Hoor needed to identify him. She did, but right before his trial, Rasul's wife found Hoor near the orphanage and threatened to hurt her and her family in Afghanistan. Hoor feared for their safety and changed her mind about testifying. Threats against family are common in rape cases in Afghanistan.

 

Fariba Nawa: A month later, Hoor had more bad news from Afghanistan. She'd talked to her mother on the phone. Her mom was pregnant and very sick. Right after that call, Hoor left me another anxious message on WhatsApp. She said her mom was so weak, she could barely talk. Two days later, her mom died in childbirth. This changed everything. Hoor felt that she had nothing to lose anymore. She was ready to testify against Rasul.

 

Interpreter 3: I knew at that point that there was no one he could hurt. I didn't have to stay silent anymore. That's why I went and I said, "This is the guy. Yes, this is the guy, because I don't want dirty men like him ruining other girls' lives and playing with other girls' lives."

 

Fariba Nawa: A couple months later, Hoor testified in front of three judges. According to court records, Rasul claimed the relationship was consensual. Hoor was relieved when it was over, but she was doubtful she'd see justice, and she figured the trial might drag on for months, which is often the case. But days later, Rasul was convicted on rape charges and sentenced to 10 years in an Istanbul prison. It was a surprise to all of us. I sent a letter to the Turkish prison asking Rasul for his side, but I didn't get a response.

 

Fariba Nawa: After the conviction, I went with the Afghan refugee worker Fata to visit Rasul's neighborhood.

 

Fata: I think this used to be his shop, this place. But now it's changed. It's something else. It's stationery now.

 

Fariba Nawa: Where? Which one?

 

Fata: This one. The one in front.

 

Fariba Nawa: We're here to see Rasul's friend [Tamim] [inaudible 00:46:42], an Afghan businessman. I want to know what he thinks of the conviction. We meet in a bare room with other Afghan migrants. They serve us tea. Tamim says he knows Rasul as a decent man. It must've been consensual, and if this was Afghanistan, Hoor and Rasul would just have to get married. The others agree, and one guy even says he was deported from Belgium because a girl accused him of sexual harassment. Fata sits in the corner, quiet but with a tense look on his face. Afterward, he unloads.

 

Fata: All the problems back there in Afghanistan we have is all this because of men doing these kind of things. But in Afghan culture, normally when you talk about rape, sexual harassment, they always blame women. This is what I hate also from my culture.

 

Fariba Nawa: After Rasul's trial, Hoor was moved to a safe house in Turkey's capital Ankara. There, she began to feel safe, and tried to put the past behind her. She got a certificate in cosmetology and a job in a high end beauty salon. She even applied for asylum to a third country. Then, one day, the phone rings. When she answers, it's Rasul calling her from prison. Somehow, he'd gotten her number.

 

Interpreter 3: He called me and said, "Come and marry me, and release me from here. If you don't, I'll find your sisters and find you, and kill you. I won't let your sisters live." Sometimes when I'm walking, I keep wondering if one of his supporters will attack or kill me.

 

Fariba Nawa: Hoor was in shock. She told her friend Stella, who told her to keep calm and record Rasul if he called again. And he did. He's telling her to drop the charges, and he'll take care of her, drive her to wherever she wants. She listens calmly and lets him say more. Rasul says his freedom is in her hands. Hoor's lawyer tells the judge Rasul called her from jail, and the judge gives him 10 more years. It's almost unheard of in Turkey to get such a long sentence for rape.

 

Fariba Nawa: A year later, I decide to check in on Hoor, so I go to Ankara. She takes me to her favorite Afghan restaurant. We eat fried eggplant, rice, and kabobs. We don't discuss rape, death, or war this time. I ask her when she'll tweeze her eyebrows, an act of womanhood in Afghan society. When I first met Hoor three years ago, she kept her head down, voice lowered. Now, she was confident, telling me stories about her housemates and work. She laughed, a sound I'd been waiting to hear.

 

Al Letson: That story was from Fariba Nawa, a journalist living in Istanbul. She's also the author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan. These days, Hoor is a student at a Turkish university, and she recently found out that her application for asylum has been accepted by the U.S.

 

Al Letson: Patrick Michels and Casey Minor produced this week's show, with help from Amy Isackson, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Emily Harris, and Fernanda Camarena. Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to Marilyn Pittman for production help on Alice Driver's story, and to Oscar [inaudible] and Noah Arjomand for their help with Fariba Nawa's story.

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by the Dynamic Duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando "My Man, Yo" Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor-in-Chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Commorado 00:51:15], Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 23: From PRX.