Ex-slave talks to UF students

Rama Ibrahim, left, a UF sophomore, talks with former slave Beatrice Fernando on Friday at Turlington Hall.

Published: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Former slave Beatrice Fernando shared her story of modern-day slave trafficking Friday afternoon and encouraged University of Florida students to do their part to help end slavery.

"This whole world is asleep," Fernando told about 20 UF students in Turlington Hall. "We need to wake up."

Fernando spoke about her experience being a slave in Lebanon and her newly formed aid organization, the Nivasa Foundation, which helps raise awareness and stop slave trafficking.

"Just sharing my story is not enough," she said.

Fernando is looking for people to sponsor her program and donate $37.50 a month. The money will help keep mothers from choosing to work potentially dangerous jobs.

Three UF professors who are experts on human trafficking were scheduled to be part of a panel discussion that included Fernando, but all canceled Thursday morning for various reasons. Instead, Fernando chose to address the audience on her own.

The activist, born in Sri Lanka, is the youngest of 12 siblings. After her husband left her with their 2-year-old son, she says she was forced to live with her parents. Fernando left her son with her mother and took what she thought was a housekeeping job in Lebanon that promised to give her family a better life.

Instead, Fernando says she was enslaved for four months and was routinely beaten and starved by her employer. Mentally and physically exhausted, she says she continued working in hopes of seeing her son again.

Desperate to escape, Fernando says she leapt from a four-story balcony, crushing her spine and breaking several ribs, but leaving her "prison" behind.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Fernando says she woke up from a 21-day coma freed from slavery, but now trapped in a wheelchair.

Three months later, she was reunited with her son.

"But my story didn't end there," Fernando said. "Your whole family is affected. Your whole life is affected."

Today, Fernando, now able to walk, lives in Massachusetts and travels around the U.S. spreading awareness about the existing slavery problem.

Human Rights Awareness, an on-campus organization, worked to have the advocate come to Gainesville. Fernando was paid $2,000 for her three-day visit, $500 less than she normally charges, according to Jessica Ponn, president of the organization and a UF senior.

Her visit was part of three events that Human Rights Awareness put on this week in hopes of heightening awareness about modern-day slavery.

"We wanted to bring Beatrice to Gainesville because she has such a powerful and enlightening story to tell about an issue of tremendous global importance," Ponn said.

Six UF organizations and two Gainesville church groups donated money to bring Fernando to UF, Ponn said.

Rama Ibrahim, a UF sophomore studying political science and religion, was one of those in attendance. She said she was shocked by Fernando's words.

"I wasn't expecting for that many slaves to exist in the world," Ibrahim said.

More than 10,000 people have heard Fernando's story in person, and countless others have heard her story over the radio or on TV, she says.

"Today, I am planting a seed in your head," Fernando said. "So anytime you see something, you will question, 'Is it slavery?' "

To donate to Fernando's foundation, go online to http://nivasafoundation.org/.

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