From human trafficking survivor to national security adviser
Kidnapped by traffickers in Honduras at 14, Suamhirs survived the ordeal only to find himself held captive by U.S. immigration authorities. Now a U.S. citizen working with the IRC, Suamhirs tells his harrowing story—as he says, “to inspire you to help.”
September 14, 2018
At age 14, Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman was kidnapped in Honduras and smuggled into the United States by human traffickers. Locked in a windowless room, beaten and plied with drugs, he was raped 197 times before the police raided the house where he was held hostage. Suamhirs was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and later placed in countless foster and group homes where he experienced bullying, discrimination and further trauma.
”Everyone failed to ask me a simple question: what do you need?” says Suamhirs, now 28, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a licensed behavioral psychologist working with the International Rescue Committee’s human trafficking response program in Washington state. “Now the U.S. is failing to ask this simple question to the families fleeing from Central America: What happened? Why are you fleeing? What do you need?”
Every Saturday, his day off, Suamhirs spends eight hours with teenage boys from Central America recently separated from their families at the border. “I want to help them have a normal childhood,” he says. “I cook dishes their mother or father would make for them. We play soccer, go to the beach and learn about the American culture and English language.”
Suamhirs also helps them understand that their current situation is not their fault. The boys ask him, “How do I deal with bad thoughts… of not being welcomed, of not being wanted, of not being loved?” He tells them that their families love them and that it is OK to feel this way, that it is OK to cry.
Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, 28, at his home in Seattle. A program coordinator with the IRC’s Anti-Trafficking Response Network, he travels the country advocating for survivors of human trafficking. Suamhirs holds four degrees and recently received a scholarship to earn his behavioral psychology license in Washington state.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC
“Let me help you to channel this energy in a positive way, so you can still think of your mother as your mother, your father as your father,” he tells them, “and you still feel love when you are reunited with them.”
Suamhirs does not tell them the full story of his own harrowing life, but he agreed to share it with a colleague at the IRC, and to allow a transcript to be published on the IRC website. “I am telling my story because I want to inspire people to do something to change this situation,” says Suamhirs. “These immigrant families don't come to the U.S. because they think that they have the right to be here. They come here to seek protection; to better their lives. We're not asking the right questions because our immigration system says they are guilty right off the bat.”
Here is Suamhirs’ story, a horrifying tale but one with a happy ending…the kind of ending he wants for children waiting to be reunited with their parents and to restart their lives in a better place, a safe one offering hope for the future.
In Honduras, I started working at age 9 to help support my mother and three brothers. At first, I was selling grocery items door by door. One day, I knocked on the wrong door. It was the first time I was sexually assaulted. I left the house, crying as I walked to the bus stop without a T-shirt, because that’s what my attacker used to clean himself.
Five years later, I met my traffickers.
Suamhirs (center) on his 14th birthday in Honduras, months before he would be trafficked to the U.S.
Photo: Courtesy of Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman
It was on Jan. 3, 2004, when I was working at a pizzeria as a waiter. Two men who I had seen before came into the restaurant. That night, they sat down at one of my tables. They ordered, they ate, and then they left. About an hour later, I made my way to the bus stop to go home when the same men approached me.
They started to talk to me about regular things until the conversation became sexual, to the point where I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I started to walk as fast as I could, but the next thing I knew, I felt a wet shirt over my mouth and nose and a knife to my side. And then I was gone.
I was thrown into a back of a van. That moment, before I passed out, all I could think about was my family. What was going to happen to them? I was the main person who was bringing food to the table.
I woke up several different times in the van. I had an I.V. stuck into my arm. Every time I woke up they would hit me or put the wet shirt over my mouth and nose and I’d fall asleep again.
“They all came to rape a child”
I don't know how long it took them to get me to the U.S. The next memory I have is waking up in a house and to a very foul smell. It was horrible. And to my surprise, it was me. I starting yelling and banging on the walls. The two men came into the room, punched me, and I passed out.
I woke up to the feeling of someone touching me. I was clean. There was a man and a woman next to me in the bed who were looking at my body. The man stood up and went to the doorway, where one of the traffickers stood. He pulled out a roll of money. I realized I was just bought.
I woke up in a different room, darker with no windows. A man and a woman came into my room and said in broken Spanish, “You're going to do whatever we ask you to do. If not, your family will die.” They used my mother and brothers’ names.
I tried to keep my family alive: I had their lives in my hands—I had to protect them. For the next six months, I think the lowest number of people I saw in one day was four. The highest number was about 13 or 14 people in one day. They all came to rape a child.
I was given three plates of food a day. I was given Viagra and cocaine. After a few weeks, I started to fight. I refused to take the pills. I refused to eat because they started to put the drugs in my food. After a few days of not eating, I started seeing things. I started talking to my family, I started talking to my best friend. He was right there with me, joking around as if I was back in Honduras.
There were so many times I contemplated suicide. There were so many times I told myself, “I'm going to die here.” One day I made a knife out of a beer can a man had left in my room and started hurting myself, asking my family for forgiveness.
On July 27, 2004, there was a sudden, loud knock on the door. I snuck under my bed when I heard shots. My chest was pressed to the ground and I could feel the vibrations when the police stormed into my room.
An officer pointed his gun until he realized something was wrong with me. He picked me up and took me outside. There were 100 police cars, a helicopter, a fire truck and ambulances. I should have felt safe, but I knew I wasn’t free.
I was taken to the hospital in San Diego—apparently I had been held captive in California—where they did a quick evaluation and asked if I had cut myself. I said yes, and was sent to a mental health facility. I was given medication that put me to sleep. No one told me why I was there, what the meds were, or what was going to happen next.
In 2015, Suamhirs was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. He was the youngest national security adviser ever appointed by the Obama administration.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC
A social worker at the facility called Child Protective Services to arrange for foster care. She also called the Department of Homeland Security so that I could get support as a victim of human trafficking.
Instead, I was turned over to ICE. I was taken to Brownsville, Texas, where I was kept in a holding facility for four days.
I was held in a cage. It was freezing cold. That’s why people refer to that place as the “icebox.” You can’t process your emotions, because all you can think about is the cold. I didn't escape my traffickers—I was back in the same room, in the same dark place without the ability to leave.
I saw kids sleeping on the concrete floor with space blankets. Some kids had to share. There were at least 30 kids; no one was older than 16. There was a kid no more than 11 years old from El Salvador who kept yelling "Mama, Mama, Mama, soy yo. Mom, Mom, Mom, it’s me.”
I remember talking to a kid from Mexico who told me that, when kids do get to leave, it’s like a cow leaving the ranch. They leave to die. None of us were told what was going to happen next.
“I was the cow…”
Three or four days later, I was the cow leaving the ranch. I was placed in a different facility where I was told if I didn’t follow the rules, I would go back to the icebox. No one wants to go back to the icebox. It was like my traffickers telling me if I didn’t do whatever they asked of me, they would kill my family.
After a month, I was ordered back to San Diego, placed at the highest-level mental health institution in the state of California because the judge believed that as I had been raped so many times I was likely to perpetrate violence on someone else. Once again, I felt like I was being criminalized for something horrible that had been done to me. From the moment I was taken out of the house where I was raped, to the moment I was taken to the icebox in Texas, to the moment I was transferred to a mental health institution, no one ever asked me what I needed, what I wanted. I didn’t ask to be here; I never wanted to come to the U.S. I wanted to go home.
Suamhirs volunteers on weekends to work with children separated from their families at the U.S. border. He cooks Central American food, takes the boys on field trips and helps them prepare for court hearings.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC
Back in San Diego, I was placed in a group home, and then in foster care. My foster father didn’t like immigrants, but for some reason, he didn’t know I was an immigrant. A month later, my social worker called to remind him about my appointment with an immigration attorney. He thought I was an ‘illegal’ and so he took me down to the border with Mexico and handed me over to the border patrol.
Suddenly I was in ICE custody again. It must have been three or four hours before someone found the record of my immigration case and realized there had been a mistake. ICE called a social worker to pick me up, and I was taken to live in a temporary shelter before being placed with another foster family.
The federal authorities looking into my case were able to find my mom. She thought I was dead. I was so happy she was alive. It was difficult to stay in touch with her because it costs a lot to call Honduras. I was only allowed to speak to her 20 minutes a week.
I had to testify against my traffickers, but I was terrified. These were the people who sold me, who threatened my family. I told the district attorney’s office that I didn’t want to testify, but they said if I did, the traffickers would go to jail and I could go home.
But that didn’t happen. My mom signed paperwork in English that she didn’t realize would terminate her parental rights, and I became a legal orphan at the age of 16.
Hola! means hope
I love my mother and I love my brothers. But I can tell you that since the moment I was kidnapped, I knew my life would never be the same. I don't have the same relationships with them. I have been broken down so many times, but there were so many more times I found hope and love.
Now I live in Seattle. I’m a U.S. citizen. Here I walk down the street and see signs saying “refugees welcome.” I see people volunteering to help refugee families and speaking out against cruel and inhumane policies.
Suamhirs with his puppy, Lilly. The dog is being trained to detect seizures and assist with other health and emotional needs after Suamhirs was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2014.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC
But I think the most beautiful thing I have seen was at the beach, where I take the boys I mentor on Saturdays. There was this little American kid in the water, and he kept talking to them and saying “Hi, hi, hi!” My boys didn't speak English and they didn’t understand. I explained to the kid why they were not replying, and he said, “Oh, okay.” Then he said, “Hola!” That small moment had so much humanity, more than I would ever be able to give or be able to explain to anyone.
There’s a quote from Martin Luther King that has always stuck with me: Make a career in humanity. Commit yourself to a noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.
Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman was the program coordinator for the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network at the International Rescue Committee in Seattle until 2020. In 2015, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Today, he continues his work as a Partnerships Manager at the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Unit at King County Department of Community and Human Services.
Suamhirs recently reunited with his younger brother, Jordi. Jordi had been detained by U.S. immigration authorities after fleeing Honduras, where he and his family had been targeted with violence because of Suamhirs' prior work as a national security adviser. A federal judge upheld Jordi's right to seek asylum in the U.S., and now he is free on bond, living with Suamhirs as they await a decision in his case.