A Congolese refugee living in Lexington contacted a national human-trafficking hotline last April, saying she was being held in servitude, according to a federal lawsuit.
Claudine Nzigire Chigangu alleges in a lawsuit, filed Feb. 24 in U.S. District Court, that she was forced into domestic servitude by another refugee living in Lexington named Sifa Ndusha. The lawsuit says Ndusha took control of her money and immigration documents.
The lawsuit said Ndusha violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
In addition to the federal civil lawsuit, Ndusha has been charged in Fayette District Court with a felony charge of fraudulent use of a credit card involving $7,309.13. A police report does not identify the victim, but Chigangu's attorney, Colin Lindsay, said it was his client's credit card. Lindsay said Chigangu had no comment beyond the allegations in the lawsuit.
Ndusha told the Herald-Leader that she denied all allegations in the civil lawsuit and in the criminal case.
"I never did that," she said.
According to the lawsuit, in the summer of 2007, while both were living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ndusha asked Chigangu if she would like to visit Uganda with her to take English classes. They ended up staying in Uganda for nearly four years, and Chigangu said she didn't get to attend English classes. She said she was forced to stay home and take care of Ndusha's house and children. Chigangu said she was not allowed to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the lawsuit, Chigangu said Ndusha created a false name and birth date for Chigangu when they came to the United States as refugees in 2011.
The lawsuit says Chigangu and Ndusha came to the United States in 2011, and Chigangu worked as a domestic servant for Ndusha, typically spending 18 hours a day cooking, cleaning and caring for Ndusha's children.
Chigangu was able to escape on April 29, 2013, after calling the national human-trafficking hotline telephone number, the lawsuit says.
According to statistics provided by the Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition, an anti-human-trafficking organization, there have been 41 cases of labor trafficking identified in Kentucky from 2006 until this past February.
"While sex trafficking gets most of the press and public attention, trafficking victims are also growing our vegetables, busing our tables and cleaning our hotel rooms," said Lindsay, the attorney representing Chigangu. "Human trafficking is nothing more or less than slavery."
The lawsuit claims that Ndusha falsely told officials that Chigangu was her sister and that Ndusha took control of Chigangu's food stamp card and ATM card which was set up for her through the Kentucky Refugee Ministries program. Chigangu had no access to her identification papers and documents which were obtained through the refugee program, the lawsuit claimed.
The lawsuit said Chigangu worked at a hotel in Lexington with Ndusha, in jobs arranged by the Kentucky Refugee Ministries program, from April 28, 2012, until February of 2013. The lawsuit alleges that Ndusha forced Chigangu to immediately give Ndusha money she earned at the hotel.
The lawsuit says Ndusha used fraud or coercion to cause Chigangu to remain in the home against her will. Chigangu is asking for unspecified damages.
Ndusha said she never misrepresented Chigangu to authorities as her biological sister; she said she told them that Chigangu was as close to her as a sister and they lived together as a family and shared finances. She said Chigangu was free to move about as she pleased. Ndusha said she has a modest lifestyle — having worked as a housekeeper while getting her master's degree at Kentucky State University — and would never engage in human trafficking. In fact, Ndusha said, she was an advocate for anti-human trafficking efforts.
Ndusha said last week she had not hired an attorney. She said she is unfamiliar with the court system and hasn't known how to respond to either the federal civil lawsuit or the criminal charge.
Meanwhile, Barbara Kleine, Lexington office director of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries program, said she was aware of the lawsuit but could not comment on specific clients.
Generally speaking, Kleine said, refugees go through a screening process before they arrive in the United States. That process has more than 30 steps, including multiple interviews by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she said.
Once refugees are admitted to the United States through the State Department and come to Kentucky, Kentucky Refugee Ministries provides resettlement services mandated by the U.S. State Department.
The organization provides initial safe housing, helps the client to apply for Social Security cards and to get food stamps, open bank accounts and find employment, Kleine said.
Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears