Illen Barrios may not hear her mother among the thousands of family and friends cheering on graduates at California State University, Dominguez Hills’ (CSUDH) 2019 Commencement Ceremony on May 18, but knowing her mother will be there, and that she is proud of her, is all Barrios really wants.
Strength is a dominant trait among the women in Barrios’ family. For her mother, her children’s education was always a high priority, and one of the reasons she left her home and family in the Philippines for a job as a nanny in Saudi Arabia when Barrios was just 2 years old—to earn money for her children’s schooling.
Tragically, the job was a lie, and Barrio’s mother was forced into domestic servitude and slavery.
Illen Barrios was conferred a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education with a concentration in pre-physical therapy in fall 2018. She will join the College of Health, Human Services, and Nursing during its commencement ceremony in the Dignity Health Sports Park Tennis Stadium on May 18 at 9 a.m.
“I remember being very young and my mom being gone. I would see other kids with mothers in the Philippines. I felt sad, but we really didn’t know anything about what she had been through. My beautiful grandmother was there and raised us for 10 years,” said Barrios.
Barrios’ mother made little money and endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of her captures. In 2005, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles learned of the case and alerted the FBI, prompting an investigation. A year later, CAST organized Lorena’s escape and brought her to Los Angeles.
Lorena received permanent U.S. residency with T Nonimmigrant status, which provides immigration benefits to certain victims who assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking cases. In 2007, Barrios and her siblings arrived in California and were finally reunited with their mother. They also received permanent U.S. residency to stay with their mother.
“The first time I met my mom for real was when I was 13 and at the airport,” Barrios shared. “It was awkward at first because I had only talked to her on the phone before. We hugged and cried. I still didn’t know that much about her, but I knew her face. It knew it was my mom.”
The Barrios family was eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship five years after they arrived. “It was a long process—about six months,” Barrios said. “My mom applied for citizenship first to see how it would go. I applied and became a U.S. citizen during my junior year here at Cal State Dominguez Hills. We’re very proud to be citizens.”
Today, Barrios lives with her mother and 12-year-old brother in the City of Hawthorne. Her other siblings have moved out, while her older sister still lives in the Philippines. This past fall, she completed her coursework and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology- allied health in Pre-Physical therapy concentration with a 3.8 GPA. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy (OT), a field that she feels will enable her to give back to her family.
“At first, I really wanted to do physical therapy, but my physical therapy professor Dr. [Scott] Cheatham recommended that we do volunteer work to make sure we know for sure what we want to do as a career,” said Barrios. “I started looking into OT, and now volunteer at Therapy West, Inc., a place that serves kids. I really enjoy it, but a part of the reason I got into OT was because my grandmother had a stroke. She’s in a wheelchair now and the right side of her body does not function well. Her experience has also encouraged me to pursue work with stoke patients.”
Barrios’ grandmother still lives in the Philippines, but she uses video conferencing to stay in contact with her, and a few times has offered exercise recommendations to the people helping her grandmother.
“I do what I can, but she is in the Philippines, so it’s hard. I do miss her and we owe her so much,” said Barrios. “In the Philippines, my grandmother was really good at making sure we all did our homework right after school. That’s actually part of the culture there. That habit is well ingrained in me thanks to my grandmother.”
While her mother works long hours as a caregiver, Barrios often takes on the role of “second mom” for her little brother, driving him to school and helping him with his homework. At times, they both do their homework together.
Barrios can see a lot of her grandmother in her mother. “What really impresses me about my mother is she never seems to get tired. She still works a lot,” said Barrios, who believes it may have to do with what she experienced in Saudi Arabia. “One thing I know is that no matter what would have happened to my mother during her life she would have been a strong woman.”
As Barrios prepares to don her cap and gown and walk in the commencement ceremony, she has one thing on her mind, “Now all I want to do today is just make my mom proud.”