At age 18 and with the blessing of her family, Sajina Tamang left her home in Nepal to work as a housekeeper in Lebanon. Finding work abroad was her ticket to self-sufficiency, one of the few career paths open to a rural girl in one of the world's most impoverished countries.
But instead of a haven, Tamang found horror. Her employer beat her, abusing her for two years, officials said. Eventually she was thrown from a fifth-floor balcony, suffering multiple injuries and left for dead. Aid workers found her and helped her return home, but pelvic and hip fractures left her in constant anguish, requiring that she be carried almost everywhere. Her chances of a job, marriage or productive life were virtually nil.
Then, her luck turned. The delicate features and sweet demeanor that made her a target of human traffickers also brought her to the attention of Operation Walk Chicago, a team of health care professionals who travel to developing countries performing free joint replacements — routine operations here, but medical miracles in destitute corners of the globe.
Tamang's injuries were too complex for the Chicago surgeons to attempt in Nepal. Still, they couldn't turn their backs.
"Maybe it was because she was a young woman and I have a daughter," said Dr. Victoria Brander, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "All I could think of was, 'We've got to do something. If not me, who?'"
That is how the now 23-year-old found herself on a plane, traveling from Katmandu to Delhi to New York to Chicago. She underwent pelvic and hip reconstruction surgery at Northwestern in July, followed by intense therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, learning how to reuse joints and muscles long stiffened by idleness and pain. She's scheduled to return home to Nepal next month.
Her odyssey offers a glimpse into the sordid world of human exploitation, but also into a deep reservoir of human kindness that rarely makes headlines. After that first meeting in November 2010, it took another 18 months and a collaboration of some 40 doctors, nurses, physical therapists, volunteers and donors to fulfill the singular goal of restoring both Tamang's mobility and dignity.
"I always had hope," she said, through an interpreter. "But I also knew that I was poor and couldn't afford help. I couldn't have ever imagined something like Operation Walk."
Poverty and slavery
Tamang's quality of life could be salvaged — but not in Nepal, which has a per capita income of less than $500 and ranks among the world's poorest countries.
The intractable poverty is also why human trafficking has flourished, according to a 2012 State Department report. Girls like her — young, slight, demure — command a particularly high price, especially in India and the Middle East.
It didn't take long for Tamang to realize that the job wasn't what was promised. When she refused to comply with her employer's demands, it only further enraged him.
"They wouldn't pay my salary and I had no money," she said. "They would beat me ... they wanted to kill me."
After being thrown from the balcony, she was found by Amnesty International workers, who got her to a hospital, where she remained unconscious for five days, Tamang said. Doctors tended to her injuries and she eventually found her way back home in 2008 but was unable to walk for a year, she said.
What happened to Tamang is sadly predictable, experts said. About 30 percent of the Nepalese population must leave the country to find work, allowing slave traffickers to pose as legitimate labor recruiters, according to Karen Stauss of Free the Slaves, an international nonprofit that helps captives gain freedom. "It's about sending financial support back to your family," she explained. "That's the sacrifice."
The lack of schooling and economic opportunity and the low status of women are the global forces that fuel slavery numbers today, which are estimated at 27 million worldwide, Stauss said. Eradicating this global scourge means educating people on the risks of migration and creating more jobs at home.
Tamang suffered overwhelming pain and injuries, which left one leg 3 inches shorter than the other. The emotional wounds were evident in her reluctance to talk in detail about her time in Lebanon. "My advice to young girls is to never leave their families," she said.
Some neighbors even cautioned her about going to Chicago, lest she be victimized twice. "People warned me that there could be adverse consequences. ... But the doctors in Nepal told me to go ... and I trusted them."