By Bill Parry
A Corona woman who survived a harrowing ordeal at the hands of human traffickers was honored with a prestigious national award for her international advocacy on behalf of other women trapped in the world of sex slavery. Shandra Woworuntu, 41, was named the 2017 L’Oreal Paris Woman of Worth National Honoree at a star-studded ceremony at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel last week for founding the Astoria-based Mentari USA, a non-profit which has helped hundreds of victims reintegrate into society by offering them resources, education and mentoring.
“Honestly, I don’t like awards and I just want to be me out of the spotlight, but this means so much to our organization and really puts it on the map,” Woworuntu said. “To become a national honoree means my dedication to my organization is now unstoppable. This award provides a much greater platform for my mission. I dedicate my life to these women so they can be independent survivors and contribute to society and not be dependent on public welfare.”
Woworuntu’s personal odyssey began in her native Indonesia in 1998 as a 21-year-old, college-educated financial analyst who lost her job in the Asian banking crisis and needed a job to care for her daughter. With no options available, she answered an ad for a six-month seasonal waitressing job in Chicago that required an initial $3,000 employment fee promising to pay $5,000 per month and cover food and living expenses. The job offer was a hoax.
Woworuntu traveled to the United States in 2001, landing instead at JFK International Airport where she was met by a Malaysian man named Johnny, who took all of her documents and passport and led her to a car which took her to Flushing and eventually a brothel in Brooklyn, where a few hours after her arrival in the United States she was forced to have sex.
For more than five months Woworuntu was transported from brothel to brothel along the I-95 corridor as a sex slave nicknamed “Candy” with other girls from Indonesia, Thailand, China and Malaysia always under the threat of violence and forced to take drugs and alcohol.
“When I look back at my life during that time, it wasn’t so hard because I had an inner strength,” Woworuntu explained. “I knew I was not a prostitute. I was a victim, and people must understand the difference. The problem is people see trafficked women as prostitutes, and they see prostitutes not as victims but as criminals. I was always planning an escape, but the opportunities were rare.”
Later that year, Woworuntu jumped from the window of a Sunset Park brothel in Brooklyn with another woman and sought help from the NYPD and the Indonesian consulate to no avail. Homeless, she often slept in the subways or on the Staten Island Ferry until a sailor from Ohio met her in a Brooklyn park, fed her, listened to her story and called the FBI. Federal agents smashed the human trafficking ring and eventually delivered Woworuntu to Safe Horizon, a non-profit that provided her with resources to get a job and shelter while she stayed in the United States to testify against her captors, a process that took years.
She was reunited with her daughter in 2004, married and had a son, but her husband turned out to be abusive and the marriage ended in divorce. Woworuntu found a home in Corona near Junction Boulevard but she would have flashbacks and required counseling.
In 2014 she founded Mentari, which is defined as “The Sun” in Indonesian, which teaches survivors the culinary arts with a professional chef and provides other employable skills. Nearly 200 survivors have found employment and independence since.
“Each night I distribute literature and female hygiene products beneath the 7 line in Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. Sometimes I go to Main Street in Flushing,” Woworuntu said. “You find these women everywhere and I try to coax them out of the shadows and into the sunlight. Many are victims who don’t even know they are victims and they need help desperately.”
She also became politically active as a lobbyist testifying at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the National Survivor Network and in 2015 President Barack Obama appointed Woworuntu as a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on human trafficking.
When she accepted her award Dec. 6, she was cheered by the likes of Eva Longoria, Andie MacDowell, Ariana Huffington and Gayle King.
“I was amazed and I was crying because I had no idea there would be so many powerful women there,” Woworuntu said.
She was also awarded $35,000 to support her cause.
“That will be very helpful because so many of our clients are homeless and right now they can use our help,” Woworuntu said.
For more information on Mentari’s programs call (929) 354-3000 or visit Menta
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr