By Jenny Knowles
Stephanie Freed was very busy doing busy things, she says, when her father, Joe Garman, issued a challenge.
Cambodian Christians that Garman knew well had told him about the epidemic of child trafficking in their country—their own communities. When Garman mentioned the problem to his daughter, Freed’s response was denial: If this was an epidemic, why wasn’t anyone talking about it?
That was in 2002. Freed accepted the challenge to research the truth about trafficking and was soon overwhelmed. One UNICEF statistic indicated 1.2 million children disappear into trafficking every year. What difference could one person make given such a huge problem? Freed wondered.
Freed’s research included a trip to Cambodia in 2003 to assess the situation. In an unforeseen part of her journey, Freed accompanied local leaders on a slave-retrieval trip, and she ultimately purchased the girl’s freedom. This event is unsettling to Freed. “I gave a slave owner money,” she says, acknowledging it probably helped finance the purchase of one or two more girls for trafficking.
Real change in child exploitation will require much more than good people’s money going to a slave owner, Freed says. While some well-meaning activists still purchase freedom for the girls, this only propagates the slave system. “Real change takes longer,” Freed says, adding that it involves in-country leadership.
That trip ignited the vision that became Rapha House. In its 13th year of ministry, RH has two safe houses, a special needs unit, and a community prevention program in Cambodia, safe houses in Haiti and Thailand, and a growing and respected reputation in the United States.
Upon a girl’s arrival at an RH facility, provision is made for her safety and comfort. A rescued girl is 6 to 18 years old and is given things she may not have had previously—three meals a day, her own bed and toiletry items, and personal space. Each girl’s education level is evaluated and she will likely receive more schooling. Older girls also focus on learning a trade. Sewing skills are taught in-house, but other skills like cooking and training for the hospitality industry are supplied through a collaborative partnership with other Christian organizations in Cambodia.
A case manager at the safe house may seek prosecution against a girl’s trafficker, but justice, education, and training all fall secondary to each girl’s personal healing.
The organization takes its name from rapha, the Hebrew word for healing, and the primary goal of the safe house is to address each girl’s trauma through trauma-focused therapy. “It’s no good if we’ve put the perpetrator in jail but the girl still thinks she’s a dirty or stained white cloth,” Freed says.
Historically, there has been little protection for exploited women and children in Cambodia. That’s one reason RH is involved with prosecuting the perpetrators. Not only is successful prosecution an effective deterrent to traffickers, it also demonstrates a girl’s value—both to her and to the community. Prosecution is a public statement to the girl that she is worth fighting for.
Of course, it takes a special group of people to give high-quality care to 50 rescued girls in a Rapha safe house. The high quality of care requires nearly one caregiver for each child. The bulk of RH employees—numbering about 150—are nationals with education, qualifications, and a willingness to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Freed says staff members carry a heavy emotional burden because they essentially experience secondhand trauma as they care for the girls. Employing high-quality workers and supporting them emotionally is absolutely necessary for the Rapha House mission. It’s a vital investment into the life of every rescued girl, and it’s a portion of the RH budget that expands every year.
Rapha House is also concerned with domestic trafficking. A documentary film about RH called Finding Home was released in 2014 and is available on Netflix. The film follows the lives of three girls rescued from trafficking in Cambodia.
The film prompted a woman who has been in prostitution in the United States to contact Jen Osgood, who is on the RH staff in Joplin. “She needed a safe place to talk to someone without judgment,” says Osgood. Because of the film, she knew she could contact RH.
Osgood leads the Southwest Missouri Coalition, a group working under the umbrella of RH. The majority of their work is training and equipping law enforcement officers, social service employees, medical professionals, and school counselors and administrators to recognize and help women and children being trafficked locally.
In partnership with LifeChoices (a health network in Joplin), the group has put together “GO bags.” The bags are made in the Cambodian safe houses and filled locally with items that would help a woman fleeing domestic trafficking—items such as toiletries, a gift card to purchase clothes and shoes, and resource information.
Trafficking is ugly and overwhelming, but Freed is motivated by beauty. Girls and women at RH learn they are defined “not by what predators, society, or even some family members might say they are,” according to Freed, “but for who they are as beloved daughters of the King of kings.
“I believe the girls at Rapha House are world changers,” she says. “I see the gospel in the lives of rescued girls who are now Christian mothers raising children of their own.”
And now young adults who first heard about RH at Christ In Youth conferences (a youth missions organization) are contacting Freed. Now they are young professionals, and many want to come alongside RH to combat trafficking through their professions.
“This wasn’t part of our strategy, but it’s one of the coolest things to watch,” Freed says. “These students know this issue is close to the heart of God. I know I will see big changes because of this generation.”
Freed issues this challenge: “Only the church has the skills and tools to end this. We would love for the church to put us out of business. Imagine if the church really went to battle to end the demand.”
Jenny Knowles is a freelance writer and the community relations coordinator for God’s Resort, a relationship-based transitional housing community in Joplin, Missouri.