Shyima Hall was eight years old when her mother and father sold her into domestic slavery. At the time, Shyima lived with her parents and ten siblings in her native Egypt, but her story – and her slavery – continued in the United States, where 18,000 people are trafficked every year and held illegally.
Shyima was not sold as a sex slave nor did she buy her way out of the country with false promises of a bright future. Shyima’s older sister had worked as a maid for a wealthy Egyptian family in Cairo; when her sister stole from the family, Shyima was sent in her place to pay off the debt. When the wealthy father encountered his own legal difficulties, the family emigrated to the United States, using false documents to bring Shyima with them.
Hall shares all the grim details of her captivity – physical and emotional abuse by her captors and their children, lack of proper food or medical care, her “room” in a corner of the garage, long hours tending to all the domestic needs of a large family even though she was only ten years old herself. Of course there was no schooling and lots of secrecy. She knew even then it was wrong, and “vowed that someday I would do what I could to change that. No one, not a single person, ever deserves to have their life, their freedom, stolen” (65).
Thanks to someone who made a phone call, Hall’s ordeal ended: “Someone – a neighbor maybe, or a mom who had seen me at the park, or possibly someone who had seem me with the boys at the pool – someone, a wonderful someone, made a phone call” (75). That “someone” is unfortunately never identified even though his or her role is critical to Hall’s freedom and should be a key focus of any group discussion of Hidden Girl. Someone noticed something not quite right and took action.
Hall details her rescue by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, her several foster homes and eventual adoption, her progress through school and the life she began to lead as an independent adult – the pretty, confident young woman pictured on the book flap. She befriended the ICE agent who took on her case, even speaking to other agents about how to conduct rescue operations. “Speaking was scary for me, but it was empowering, too” (164). She suggested that it would have been helpful to have an Arabic-speaking woman in the patrol car and not just on the phone, especially for girls from a culture in which they are not supposed to speak with any men outside their immediate family.
By the end of the book, Hall has her sights firmly on her goal: becoming a police officer or ICE agent so she can “make a difference in areas where change is needed most” (p. 229).
Hidden Girl may serve better in social studies than literature classes. The writing is often repetitious and significant characters are not fully drawn, from the evil captors to the Good Samaritan who made that critical phone call, but the book offers numerous points of discussion about modern-day slavery, which remains an international scourge. Hall’s captivity is tragic, but her willingness to share her story shines a bright and very personal light on the human reality that often hides behind numbers too large to be grasped.
Reviewed by Karen Leggett Abouraya
Published in Africa Access Review (February 19, 2015)
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