Bella Hounakey and Laura Hassan

Recorded April 16, 2021 Archived April 15, 2021 35:40 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddv000670


Bella Hounakey (27) talks with her friend Laura Hassan (42) about her upbringing in Togo and the memories she has from her childhood in her village. She talks about being trafficked out of Togo at 8 years old and talks about reuniting with her family and spending time with them years later.

Subject Log / Time Code

BH and LB reflect on what they thought was their first time meeting, only to realize LB was one of the rescuers that got BH away from her trafficker.
BH reflects on her childhood dreams and what she thought her life would be like. She remembers her village in Togo.
BH describes her village in Togo, remembering the sense of community, the constant breeze, and the farms. "It was a village but it felt like an island."
BH talks about her first experiences with pain, how her life differs from what she thought it would be, and how she defines happiness for herself.
BH remembers the first time she saw her dad, 8 years after she was trafficked out of Togo and into the US.
BH talks about her family, who joined her in the US. She recalls how it felt to reconnect and rebuild relationships with them.
BH talks about worshipping with her family again in their native language.
BH shares what she hopes her legacy will be.


  • Bella Hounakey
  • Laura Hassan

Recording Location

Virtual Recording

Partnership Type

Fee for Service




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00:02 My name is Laura Bremen, hasson, I'm 42 years old. Today's date is April 16th at the Friday in 2021. I'm speaking from my home in Fauquier County Virginia, and I'm speaking with Bella Luna K. And Bella is my friends.

00:25 Thank you. Laura. My name is Bella. Luna K. I am 27 years old. I am. Today's date is April 16th. 2021 Allure. I'm speaking to you today from Grand Rapids, Michigan. And Laura is my recording partner.

00:54 And what's my relationship to you? You are my friend.

00:59 You're my friend. I'm glad that's great.

01:13 Oh, my name is Laura, Laura Bremen, hasson. And so Bella, I was really honored when you asked me to talk with you today. And we wanted to you, you asked me if I would sit down with you and talk with you about our friendship, which began a long time ago and then revived in a total surprise. That was really amazing and delightful to both of us.

01:48 So I will just come, I'll just go ahead and get started with our questions. So the first question is, how did we meet how to do first meet, we start up. How do we first meet at work?

02:05 So this is very funny and Laura. Thank you again for agreeing to speak with me today.

02:18 Although, our paths didn't cross. When we first met you still have has a strong presence in my life. I think this year, I'm going to talk about my state. I think God has been trying to show me the in things, and I think you coming back to my life. Although, we met decada decada go. It's just the evidence of how everything is intentional and how God moves and works on purpose. We met, when I was officially without interaction at when you wear involved in a trafficking rescue as part of your job Duty a long time ago, you and I didn't speak then in fact, I didn't even know you existed. Then until this year 2021 or 2020, Florida, 20, 20 20, 20 last year.

03:18 I spoke at I spoke at an event online, was an online virtual event. And I think he was with Department of Labor and Ali reach out to me. I just, you know, congratulated me and then you follow up your email. And you said hey, I wonder if you are a part of those young women that were rescued a few years ago. When a law enforcement rescue, some individuals experiencing human trafficking and to my surprise. I just confirmed with you that in fact, I was one of those girls that you were a part of the rescuing event that day, so

04:04 We have since connected and it's just been a series of fortunate unfortunate circumstances, but I've been, you've been a great friend throughout both good and bad.

04:19 Yeah.

04:22 Yeah, dude. I just want to briefly say that it was really incredible. When I heard you speak at the it was the US Department of Labor, International labor Affairs Bureau event. It was last fall because it was covid. I was listening from a bubble bath. Bubble bath about human trafficking and you are just Stellar. You were the best speaker on the panel articulate. You are thoughtful. You are clearly a young woman with a great sense of purpose who been able to

05:06 Convert an experience of great, Injustice in great, difficulty into a life of of meaning and maturity. And I was really impressed with you. And I remember, I just reached out at first on, on LinkedIn because, like, that's what you do in DC. Like, you know, exactly is like, so we started talking and I noticed that you actually worked at the US government agency where I had worked about 10. 15 years ago. You were working on your working right now on a child protection issues with children who are unaccompanied coming from other countries into the US. And at that time I've been working on and anyway you were just you were fabulous. I just want to put that in the record. You were so good.

06:06 If you would be on an Advisory board for traffic and then I woke up in the morning and I was like, oh my gosh, Bella's from Togo and was rescued around this time. I was like, oh my God. Oh my gosh. I think she might be going back to you as a little girl. When I first annoyingly met you at a hotel in New Jersey. Even before that when you were a child, what were your hopes for your future? And what did you think you would do? When you first grow up?

06:51 You know, Laura.

06:54 This morning. In fact, I was looking at a picture like that, mission that I drove. I didn't admit it. Since you drive to Michigan yesterday, to clear, my mind, a long drive, and I came here, and I saw a picture of myself. The last photo I took before I separated from my parents. I was 8 in that picture, and I just remember that little girl having so much dreams of, you know, one particular path that I wanted to pursue. I used to watch this show. I can't even remember. Is that Mary ma? That's what it's called. It was a lady who's there. Who was an attorney, but she I didn't I know that she always used to dress up and that's the only thing. The reason why I wanted to be an attorney because you're used to always dress that I wanted to become just like her when I grow up. And so that's why I aspire to be when I was a little girl. And I didn't even know what that meant. I just know that.

07:54 I still had to swim in. That was, it seemed like she had her life together and she had a dog. She was an attorney and she had a big house and she will go hang out with her girlfriends and then do go to church. They were involved in their Community. Although my world didn't look like that. Although, you know, I'm from a small village in Cocoa, you know, you don't most people don't have dogs. As pets here. I am dreaming. This is way before I even your funeral thought of coming across continents to come to America. This is what I would think about that. Perhaps I could beat her this morning. I was looking at this little girl, although she didn't have today. I don't have everything. I had a dream to have. I'm so thankful for life. I'm still thankful for the people. I need my life. Doesn't look like that woman. I saw on that show, but it is somewhere.

08:54 In other ways. I feel like I have a lot of grace and mercy and other way.

09:01 Bella, tell me about what your life looks like. When you were little girl in the village in Togo.

09:08 Wow.

09:11 I was my community was different. I know my neighbors. It was a very simple life and if I knew now what it is, then the cliche saying, I think I would have stayed there and follow whatever dream I had been in that Village. I knew my neighbor, I play sports. If I was lost, no matter how far along, I went in the village. Somebody will bring me back home to my parents. Remember at one situation. I walked far far far looking for something. Think I would have been like 5 and I got lost and I was like, at least four or five blocks away from my Village, and I didn't know how to get home. But my say, my name is Bella, I gave them my last name, and they walked me all the way back. She might I didn't even have a dress, my Village.

10:11 I'll have addresses. I didn't even know. It was a stranger who just knew my last name, and with my family is, and they walk me all the way back to my Village. I will go to school and I'll come home. We live in this bed compound and it was a bunch of families, me, cook and Cher full together. We play together and we didn't have anything. Laura. We didn't have anything we lives and a little home with other families didn't have much. We were so happy. I was with my parents are still loves at so, protect yourself safe. I didn't think I liked anyting. I think that I would have been just as happy. I think I was just as happy that age. I think I was five at the time. I think I was just happy just as any little girl.

11:06 And America who had access to TVs in all this first world thing. I think I was just happy being having the minimum as much as somebody in another country have access to everything.

11:23 Because this is all, you know, audio, I want to ask you. Can you tell me what your village looks like?

11:32 My Village. I think it consisted of maybe like

11:37 Maybe Laura no more than 500 people.

11:40 There was a man-made lake by it and there's it was a have coconut, trees is a lot of chicken, a lot of farms cuz I can culture is a week ago in my country, especially in the village. There was a breeze that you always felt is like nature and see, you always feel the sense of clean. It was just clean, you know, we used to get the water from the well, so I will go sit by the water and sweat people get the water out. And then when we go to school or walk to school herself, it would be a bunch of kids, maybe seven of us. And we'll just held her hands together every morning, but walk to the school, which is no more than a block away from where we are lives.

12:29 And then during the weekend, we will go to the church and we are apart. We were part of a group. I was a part of a group. I was asking a Catholic church, and then we would we have like activities and we'll watch the church leaders and they will walk again. Everything you did with the other community or families together.

12:53 When the very first time I saw somebody white was in my Village and we all ran to wear them. And then we would, we were so curious because this is an isolated village where nobody awesome action sequence. And if you see somebody knew it's likely that they are stranger because it was a village but I felt like an island is so I can give you a visual if it was a village. Now. What do people typically? See Villages ask about my Village is called I find which was in a steam like an island.

13:26 The chicken, you don't need an alarm. The chicken, will wake you up in the morning, or the goats, or the cows, and then you can decide if you want to see them or not, but there was always something to do that brought happiness.

13:43 That's really beautiful, Bella, and need some.

13:46 It's really striking to me that has a child. You grew up in a place of that, you experience of the place of great, love and safety and place of love, and safety and beautiful, you know, friendly kind of nature, you know, about the chickens in the goats and the cocoa trees. And then when you were lost in that, in that little place, people would take you right back home safe, and it's, it's really it's heartbreaking. To me to think that

14:25 You were LED away from there by someone that you knew and someone who knew how to take you back home.

14:38 Anyway, that's not a very good question. Let me try again. That wasn't a question. Let me try again. How has your life been different than the life that you imagined when you were that little girl in that you call it a village in Togo?

15:01 Wow, well for one thing and

15:07 Then I didn't know pain.

15:10 But I later new pain, right then. I didn't know, I think I was still Shield it from what I thought the world look like. And then when I knew, when I started throwing up after I left my Village and everything that I had experience of hotel, now, I often go back to my safe space, is always the memory of that environment, how you make me feel safe. Like almost my Escape. Now, my life doesn't look like what I am saying stuff at all, but I think there's

15:45 Is Terrell and there is some comparison is comprable to what I would have wanted to look like because essentially I feel that today. I'm in a position where although I don't have the dog or the plant or children, or husband, or any of that that that's supposed to Define me as a person. I think, somehow I'm still in a position to help people by bringing a witness to what he needs trafficking is, do what people who have survived, I survived traffic. I am able to talk to people who see themselves as authority figures and countries and people who have passion to to stop. Modern day slavery, people who say, you know, what no child who is 12:00, should be marrying. A 40 year, old people who really want to protect children. In those people who are most the most vulnerable.

16:45 Those people I feel like today or do I don't have what I dreamed of that supposed to make me happy because of what I dreamed of as a child. Now today. I see myself as being a position where I have access to people who I can teach using my experience, using my voice and letting them know that you know, I'm here and you can hear me and I need you to hear me Frank. I'm so sorry. I don't think my life is significantly just friend. I think that I had to redefine What happiness is

17:28 So,

17:31 Another question that we had talked about asking and you dream about being happy, what it means to be happy.

17:41 When you came to the us as a child and you started a new life here and all that, all that happened as you moved forward in your life. Here in the US. What were some moments where you experienced happiness? May be happy to sit would like a resident of your, you know, of the happiness. You, none of the tiles are all the happiness. Laura, you know, God works in amazing ways because

18:14 This has been a tough week for me.

18:16 And this morning, when I woke up, I was going through pictures. And I saw myself as a little girl. I'll send you the picture. I took this recording the little girl and all that memory came back. And then then I kept going, I saw a picture of

18:30 Like, when the first time I left my parents, like this person. I let the last message. My dad. I was eight.

18:38 And then the next time I saw my father, I was 16.

18:43 And,

18:45 And this is after everything that transpired in my life.

18:50 The first time I sneeze happiness like I did in the village cuz it was no longer. It wasn't just a memory that I keep trying to cling on to hold on to you. The first time I saw my father again, was when I was going to say is Moore High School. He's coming here to testify in court, for my human trafficking case.

19:14 And you know, they keep talkin about you were going to we're going to bring your dad over here and not it was such a fart memory and I know that my parents, I always question if you ever loved me, right? And the first time it was all like, see radical and then even when I was driving today or 4, I thought I was here. If I didn't think I was going to see my dad cuz you just want, my wasn't registering it. And then I said, up there for, I'm going to die was Sixteen at the time. And the last time I saw him, I was little girls eight. And then I saw my dad and he looks older. I was like, I expect you to look how I did my last memory of you. You look so much older and he ran towards me. She got off the plane that somebody was telling him, to check his bag, check his back. When he doesn't speak English. He spoke French, but he was going to be outside, like, you know,

20:12 Back home, when you come back from somewhere and he is forever. My dad just running towards me and I was like, I was frozen cuz I couldn't move.

20:22 In the here and here and here and here. And that's just being used to do that. When I was in the village, every time you came back from where we were ran to work, and I'm on my way, leaving the school will go to arsenic in Alliance.

20:34 And we ran it here. Annie Wrangler to hurt me and then he stopped me and I I was a kid. So I moved. Do I stay doing more? Do I stay with me and grab me?

20:47 In my world stops.

20:51 Because, For the First Time.

20:54 Ice Bears at happiness again, and I'm sorry, I'm being a little Terry is taking me back into Memory Lane.

21:02 Lower. Because then I get to see my dad again.

21:08 And we just hug each other. He was, you know, he was he was kneeling and then we hug each other for a very long time.

21:18 And that dead here. My dad never had ice cream. So here I am. And here is my father. I think he was 40 something. Then.

21:33 And I took him to get ice cream. All of, you know, and I'm 16 and high school at least play soccer. And I'll see my friends have their parents. Pick them up from school as a regular American teenager that you see on TV. And here I am at 16 and if my world was just so much going on and I used to hope that my dad will come to my soccer game or my choir concert on, you know, one of my friends. But I knew that I was a consistent reality for me that I have to redefine what parents met in my life. Doing my dad, a hug me that day, I placed him in that reality. So when I'm playing soccer, I would Envision him.

22:18 And so that was the first time I'd seen his happiness again.

22:32 That's really powerful, LOL. It's really beautiful.

22:37 What was it like for you when your parents came to the US and you started rebuilding a relationship with them in the same place for the first time since your childhood was difficult. And

22:55 My dad came first for the trial.

22:59 And he left, he was just here temporary for the child. So, he that, and this would have been in 2000-2009 cancel, the trial, they left, and then,

23:16 Going back to the village and he brought my pictures back. So that the man who found me in the village, when I was much younger, could see me again. It could recognize me because I was at 5, so I got to talk to him. I didn't remember his face, but he said, hope you're not lost again, cuz I'm not there to fight you. And I said well, as other people are helping me. Now, when I get lost.

23:45 So my dad can that time and went back home and then she is later my entire family join me. But, you know, now I'm an adult. I was super adult now. I think I was a freshman in college.

24:03 So, I had to last mess with my siblings. That was.

24:11 So now, you know, my youngest sister at the time who was 2 when I left she was now 10:00 or 11:00 and then my siblings, we all be connected as adults. And that was an interesting dynamic because we're not children anymore. So we have to get to know it's in the complete stranger that was supposed to be related. We have to get to know each other. We have to know our lives and you know, I didn't have a lot of time.

24:42 Because I was a freshman in college. So now my eye. You know, there's too many chapters open at 1 and I can only focus on the chapter that year which was when I was in college. So I didn't live in the house with them. I came home. So I kind of felt weird had to build a relationship. Would they lie? Why don't you like? We never had a sibling fight. We never had that. You were my socks. Know I didn't fight but then we have to get to know each other. And in that that I think that's still going. I think that says I'm still getting to know you. And so, you know, I have four siblings, the three of them know each other very well. And then he and I have to reintegrate all the wheels to share everything.

25:36 I'm so too when you started getting to know your siblings again, when you were 19 years old. What was something that you really wanted them to know about you?

25:51 And I really really like chocolate eating chocolate.

25:57 So on my birthday, I wanted them to give me Jack plate or Christmas, that way. I wanted them to know that you no interest in and I wanted to lay there. And just the first thing was that, I wanted them to know that I like chocolate. So they didn't like sugar ice cream or candy didn't like that. And here I am. I love sweet. Love sweet. And they're like, no this this is too much sugar. That's what this is. This is too much sugar and I'm like what is no such thing as too much sugar. And so that is the first thing that was the first thing is that I bought them a bunch of chocolate and they were like, what is this? They know that it's possible for humans to consume that amount of chocolate at one setting.

26:50 And so the second and Laura was that, you know, I knew how to drive. And so all these little things that was so insignificant in my life. I wanted them to know about me cuz I think I was sharing a little bit of myself with them and then I was getting their responses and seeing how what they like, but if there were big, they have to start over here. Also,

27:22 So in starting over as a family, you starting over as a daughter, starting over as a sister. What were some of the things that they really bonded deeply about with your siblings? What were some of the things where you found a really Life, Giving commonality with them used to go to church together and, you know, I thought that, you know, where adults grow up, you pick up your own interests, including ascribing to subscribing to a Biblical Doctrine and my siblings. I didn't know, they didn't know if I still remain a Christian if I still have my face and we would and that's something that seems that we reconnected back. So we will sit down on Sundays and we'll still sing all of our worship songs.

28:20 But I forgot cuz they think that was such a long time ago, but I worship is the one way that we used to connect, you know, in our language is. So we were

28:37 It was seeing Our Song and we will sing it and we will sing one song and I needed language. There was singing in French and so every Sunday when I came home, there will be singing it. Take us back to our village on Sundays.

29:01 When we was saying, you know.

29:04 A song.

29:06 That's really really beautiful Bella.

29:10 What's your what's your family's native language in Togo? So short story. My mother is half gone in so she has a different dialect and my father still believes that because you grew up in Togo we speak Eric and treat as well. So we will sing songs. And anyway, I just want to say one of the really interesting things about our initial meeting many years ago was that

29:41 I didn't know what a wintry were and when we got to the hotel and I was a social worker for the US government and so we were waiting at the hotel for you all to come. I was like a safe place for y'all to be and and they had this board up the paper up on the wall, in the hotel room and it had what they thought your names for an English and then also like in your native languages and and what they thought your Ages were and who they thought each of you were related to only have 10 minutes. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I didn't I didn't even know that tree in a way existed and then and then you all come into the room, you speaking this language and and later in my life. I actually ended up learning Centre and away and it was like you. But you were the first person to introduce me to that language and became kind of a weird foreshadowing of

30:41 My life anyway, but I also

30:46 I,

30:49 I'm just I want to I guess. Yeah, I don't know if I am doing a very good job of steering the conversation but

30:59 Let me see what final question. We should ask my first of all on audio just so we have it for posterity sake. I just want to say, you know, what a what an honor it is to spend to see that like you and your life have made such an incredible. I don't know. You've taken every gift that you've received. You'd even taken every hardship that you've encountered and you and you really made this incredible life for yourself. And and it's just with stunning. It's really beautiful and thinking about all that you've experienced and where you come from and and what your life is held.

31:44 What kind of Legacy do you hope to leave for your family, or for your community?

31:57 I just wanted to know if fly the year is 2060.

32:04 And I hear this back. I want to really feel like

32:09 I live my purpose.

32:17 I want to look back and said.

32:20 That I have given Society.

32:24 Everything that God intended for me to get it.

32:28 That I have serve people the right way that I have changed something that would that would make somebody.

32:36 Somebody's life a little better.

32:40 So that another Village in Togo, where a little girl might be lost. I hope that my efforts.

32:51 Are helpful. So that somebody else will find her back to her people or her family are interest.

33:00 I hope to touch many people so that.

33:05 They can be in positions where they can be like that man in my Village that help children.

33:13 Or people who are lost that came to their homes, where they'll be safe.

33:18 And so that is something that I really, really, really hope that could be my legacy.

33:28 A minimal.

33:31 I know that like as soon as possible because it's really been amazing. Even in the brief time that we've reconnected now and it develop friendships. Like, you have you have a heart that has really been purified by your suffering. It's a heart that has become more resilient and I'm stronger because of what you've experienced and that's really rare. It's hard. It's hard for people to get up and and make a new life when they've experienced difficult things. But you you've done that in and just unbelievable way. And so, I have no doubt that like in your professional life, you know, is you're working with unaccompanied and Refugee children for the federal government. I have no doubt that you're doing that at a professional way, but it takes someone really you need to do it from the heart and to put in their personal life as well outside of the confines of the bureaucracy.

34:29 And in there to do in the depth of their own lives and their own life. And and I see that in you and it's what's makes me really, really honored to be your friend and to be able to get to know you and accompany you and look like with you.

34:47 Laura, I couldn't have chosen a better partner.

34:51 You know, how to touch my heart that I can't have. This is such a great honor.

35:01 It's really my honour. I kind of still can't believe that you chose me to ask you some questions, but thank you for asking me. And and I hope that

35:11 I hope that little girls around the world are listening, and they get to hear your story. And, and they hear not only about your accomplishments, but about your heart, when they can be encouraged, are you lying from you?

35:26 Thank you, and I want to thank story crops for having me today, and Laura. Thank you.

35:34 Thank you, Bella.