Rebirth Homes is transforming the lives of survivors of sex trafficking in Riverside, California with a holistic approach to healing.
When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it breaks through the translucent chrysalis that has been protecting it during its transformation from caterpillar to butterfly and enters the world head-first, ready to stretch its wings and take to the sky. The emblem of the butterfly beautifully represents the healing survivors of sex trafficking find with the help of Rebirth Homes. Rebirth Homes is a faith-based nonprofit organization in Riverside, California that provides safe housing and healing resources to women who have been affected by sex trafficking.
—Rebirth Homes CEO, Debbie Martis—
Rebirth Homes opened its first home in September of 2017, but it started years earlier as a glimmer of an idea. When Rebirth CEO Debbie Martis was wandering through Riverside years ago, she saw an abandoned house that had fallen into disrepair. The image of this broken and battered house with so much lost potential later resonated with her as she began learning about human trafficking worldwide. Why couldn’t someone rebuild this house? Why couldn’t a house like this one give trafficking victims a place to rebuild their lives? The seed idea for Rebirth Homes was planted, and over the next few years, Debbie prayed over the vision, learned more about trafficking in Riverside, gathered together a team, and raised funds to open the first home for adult women who are survivors of sex trafficking in Riverside County. From the beginning, Rebirth Homes has been an organization founded firmly in prayer, dependent on God’s leading and provision, and born out of deep love for those who are trafficked.
To address the multifaceted effects of trafficking, a holistic approach to healing is essential, and Rebirth Homes offers a program that fosters spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental healing. Women in Rebirth Homes’ two-year program receive a safe place to live, counseling, job training, and community with each other, staff, and mentors. This loving support is a key component to helping victims regain control of their lives and become survivors with bright futures.
With the guidance of counselors from the Grove Counseling Center in Riverside, the women study healthy boundaries and work through their trauma in weekly individual and group counseling sessions. We also offer equine therapy and art therapy. The women have developed strong connections with the horses and have also created some beautiful art pieces that express the darkness of the life they lived being trafficked, as well as the hope they now have for their futures.
In the first year of the restoration home, we have seen transformation in women’s lives as they achieve the goals they set in their care plans. When a new woman arrives at the home, she is often withdrawn from others, she speaks little, and she shows signs of the trauma she has suffered, but within weeks, she will laugh and smile, play board games, study the Bible, and talk about her plans for the future. This year, one woman completed her high school degree and two women have pursued their goals by taking college classes. Access to mental health services and medical treatment has also been instrumental in the lives of the women of Rebirth Homes.
The path, however, has not been an easy one. Walking with those who have experienced deep trauma is challenging. Some days triggers are active, tension is high, or energy is low, but through it all God sustains our staff, volunteers, donors, and the ladies in our program. God is at work in the lives of survivors of human trafficking. Many women in our program have renewed their Christian faith or have made a first-time commitment to Christ. Four women have been baptized over the last year, and the women in the program have been sharing Christ with new women who join the Rebirth family.
And in the midst of tough challenges, small moments of blessing shine through all the brighter. One week not long ago, I was heading to the home to spend time with the ladies, and I knew that some of them were processing through stress that was causing anxiety and insomnia. As an avid crocheter, I brought along crochet hooks and skeins of yarn in cheery yellow, blue, and purple, hoping that this skill that often calms my own racing mind would help them too. I sat down, working on my own project, and started talking to one of the women. I offered to teach her how to crochet, and within moments, a group of three women were sitting around the table learning how to crochet. A peaceful stillness fell over the room. I had hoped that sometime far down the road that this skill might bless the women with an outlet to relax, but that very day one of the women proudly declared that she had found a new coping mechanism. Even in these small moments, I can see God working His healing in these women’s lives.
From Fall 2017 to Fall 2018, we have graduated two women from our program, and we are so excited to celebrate the growth and healing that we’ve seen in their lives as they have soared off into the future on new wings born of God’s love.
Gretchen Bartels is a mentor at Rebirth Homes, writer, and an associate professor of English at California Baptist university, where she teaches predominantly upper division literature, creative writing, and the senior capstone. She earned her BA in English and Chemistry from Wheaton College, IL and her MA and PhD in English from the University of California Riverside. She is passionate about supporting survivors of sex trafficking and sexual violence in their healing journeys.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 edition of VOJ Magazine.
Loyalty is an ever-developing revelation for me. Working for many years with survivors of sexual exploitation and complex trauma, as well as being a mom, daughter, sister, friend—the injustices are very personal. Loving my enemies and seeking justice can easily present as two opposing pursuits.
When loving and aligning with people, their enemies and offenses can become ours to wrestle through as well. Part of how we advocate is by taking a stand against what has been committed against them and confronting abusive systems. Survivors have often suffered years of being silenced and hidden. We want to create visibility and amplify their voice. Rightfully so. The problem is when we begin amplifying anger and offense. Very subtly it can be woven into the fabric of our organizations and the undertone of our messages. We can slowly sabotage our efforts as we confuse offense with solidarity. Roots of bitterness form underneath the surface until, instead of promoting healing connection, we are creating further division and even spiritual defilement.
Jesus said “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended with Me.” We may ask—how could anyone be offended by people receiving healing? Could it be that society had deemed certain categories of people as undeserving? Why was Jesus consistently challenged while He was doing good? Was it that He was interfering with their current paradigms of social justice?
In the Bible, when Jonah was sent to Nineveh, he was offended when God asked him to preach salvation to the inhabitants of that city. Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved God’s mercy. In the book of Joshua, before the Israelites began to possess the Promised Land, Joshua encountered the Lord. He asked if the Lord was for Israel or for their adversaries. The Lord responded with “No, but as the Commander of the Lord’s Army I have now come.” It seems God is less into sides and more into salvation. He pursues redemption for all, yet without violating loyalty or covenant to anyone. There is mystery in this and we are invited to trust.
Stages of emotional development and brain growth show us that black and white processing is a feature of a young child. They need rigid categories to determine what is safe, what is good, and what to trust. Typical thoughts are “you are either for me or against me” or “it is either this or that.” Polarized thinking is also a feature of trauma and a dissociative mind, in which “all good” or “all bad” can be a survival response. My belief is that both emotional immaturity and trauma have contributed to our tendencies to view the world and people this way. There is a process of learning how to hold tensions and engage with complexities.
It becomes perplexing as we heal and grow in God. Our understanding of His ultimate goals for restoration begin to challenge our definitions of loyalty. We are confronted with what we thought were justified offenses. We begin to see loyalty to God as being one with His nature. To emulate Him and His desires rooted in love, justice, humility, forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. These realities take on forms we did not once expect. Yet He desires that none should perish, but all to have eternal life. Our loyalty is identifying with Christ and His desire toward every person we encounter. Often we will know we are growing when He begins putting this to the test.
I personally never thought I would be sitting with Johns and extending empathy. The idea used to feel like betrayal. Now I sit in session with a John one hour and in the next hour sit with a woman who has been exploited. It does not divide me or contradict conviction. If anything, I sense a greater movement toward my wholeness – and the wholeness of God’s family. I’m sitting, as a broken-resilient person, with other broken-resilient people who are the focus of His desire. Every one has in some way perpetrated and has been victimized. Every one hopes for redemption and something more. I feel even more empowered to advocate for justice and truth and love. Those are standards that remain and protect the integrity of empathy. As many of you can closely relate, I entered this field because I saw Jesus in it and wanted to be with Him. The way He sees and relates to people is far more multidimensional and as long as there is breath in someone’s lungs to choose Him, He can transform and heal. When God releases glory like that, it vindicates all.
After several years of experience with trauma and recovery, Kezia believes healthy families are the linchpin to all human growth and restored design. She received her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Azusa Pacific University and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has worked exclusively with survivors of sex trafficking and their support systems, while also developing and overseeing a residential aftercare program. Through the adoption of her daughter, Kezia has seen Jesus’ glory in family and the restoration He brings through the process. Her desire is to nurture the healing integration of individuals, families, and communities – that what were once cycles of abuse are turned into blessings for future generations.
This article was originally published in Kezia’s regular column “Exodus to Flourish” in our Summer 2018 Issue
What does freedom mean? When I think ‘freedom’ – I think ‘hope’. Freedom means you can dream about what your future could be. Freedom also means you have the power and ability to make that future a reality. My freedom means if I want to become a teacher, I can study hard, apply for a job, and be the best teacher I can be.
This simple truth is often what separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. Your choices define your future; but when you don’t have the freedom to make your own choices, then there’s not much hope for your future. If you spend your life struggling to feed your family, you don’t have a lot of freedom. The same is true if you are living in any form of modern slavery. Your choices are bound by your circumstances.
So how do we change those circumstances to create opportunity and the freedom to flourish? Our response needs to be more than just rescuing victims who have been caught up in situations of modern slavery. It must also nvolve working alongside vulnerable and at-risk communities so they can grasp hold of their freedom and create a better future for themselves and their families.
For us at The Freedom Project, it’s about bringing freedom, one life at a time. Don’t get me wrong, rescues are invaluable, and The Freedom Project is directly involved in rescues in each location we work in. But if all we do is rescues, the job is only half done. We must also address the circumstances that allow exploitation to take place. We need to create programs that preventpeople from being enslaved in the first place and instead pave the way to freedom and hope.
That is exactly what The Freedom Project is doing through its prevention and restoration programs in India, Myanmar, and the Philippines. We partner with local communities to educate children and their families on the risks of exploitation, as well as equipping them with the opportunities to choose an alternative path – one of freedom that allows them to create their own futures.
One of our most effective prevention programs is soccer training in India, which I was able to witness first hand a few months ago. You may ask, ‘What does soccer have to do with preventing slavery?’ Well, that’s the beauty of it. As the young boys excitedly run drills, dribble the ball and score practise goals, they are learning responsibility, commitment, discipline and team work. In between sessions and games, the boys sit down to receive life skills lessons from the coaches. They are turning their lives around and choosing hope.
The boys are all from slum communities and are extremely vulnerable to (and many victims of) substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, sickness, pornography, dropping out of school, criminal activity, exploitation and the list goes on… For many, they have never been shown guidance, or been taught that their actions have consequences. Now, perhaps for the first time, they have a role model who cares for and is investing in them. The coaches are a poignant example of hope, having come from the same place as these boys only a few years ago. The boys are keen to follow in their leaders’ footsteps – to be another success story rather than a statistic.
One such story is of Satish, who 10 years ago could be found wasting time in the slums and getting involved with addictive substances. He was introduced to our soccer program and began to learn the game. Not only did Satish excel at soccer, but he also overcame his addictions and studied well. He decided he wanted to influence other young boys and now shares his story of struggle, hard work and triumph as part of our coaching team. He is seen as a local hero – soft-spoken yet passionate about coming alongside the boys in their daily
The coaches make sure the boys attend school, get help with their studies, have a place to sleep, get decent meals and are given opportunities to develop their gifts and abilities. They come alongside the boys and equip them to choose a better way forward and avoid the risks of trafficking. We want them to make choices that will protect their freedom and secure their future. We are passionate about creating this change – one life at a time.
Our prevention program is evidence that bringing freedom also leads to hope. At The Freedom Project, we focus on ending slavery by bringing freedom into lives of individuals and communities when they may be at risk of becoming involved in the world of slavery. But we can’t do it alone. We are a global movement of freedom advocates and we all need to work together to end slavery – one life at a time.
Find out more at thefreedomproject.org
Marissa joined The Freedom Project in 2017 as Advocacy & Communications Director. With over 10 years’ experience in various international aid and justice NGOs, Marissa brings an extensive range of skills in coordinating the daily operations of The Freedom Project. She is passionate about women’s rights, fair-trade, ethical living and travel, and speaking to the Australian public about global justice issues
NOTE: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Voices of Justice Magazine.
If you met her today, you would never know there was a time Maria Suarez had no hope for the future. Subjected to circumstances that would break even the strongest among us, she spent her days fighting to stay safe and sane. She wasn’t living; she was barely surviving.
But she did survive. Now that she is on the other side of the nightmare, she is speaking out. However, the first thing Maria wants you to understand is her motivation.
“It is all about giving. I want to give, to help, to save and prevent others from ending up where I did.”
Maria’s life started in humble, yet secure surroundings. She grew up in a small rural village where everyone knew everyone and trust came easily. When she was fifteen, Maria and several members of her family immigrated to the United States. Soon after, she met a woman who offered her a job cleaning house for an elderly couple. Trusting the woman, Maria eagerly agreed. However, nothing happened for a while and Maria thought the woman forgot. When the woman finally returned and approached Maria again, everything happened quickly. Too quickly. Maria wanted to tell her family, but the woman told her to get in the car if she still wanted to work. She insisted there was no time for anything else—this job had to be quick and fast.
Quick and fast lasted nearly 30 years.
Together they drove to the house of an older man. Maria didn’t know the area and didn’t speak the language, so she had no idea where she was. They left Maria in the living room while the woman and man went to speak in a back room. Everything in her gut told her something was off and that she should run. But she held onto the hope that everything would be alright, so she stayed.
It was the last time she hoped for much of anything for a very long time.
The man, who initially smiled sweetly and pretended to be kind, had purchased her for $200. He told Maria she was his slave and he could do whatever he wanted with her. And he did. Within 24 hours, after Maria tried to protect herself during a scuffle, the man locked her outside without a stitch of clothing. When he brought her in later, he raped her after she had fallen and been knocked unconscious. This was only the beginning of the nightmare. He became her daily tormentor subjecting her to sexual, physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual abuse. The man claimed to be a “witch” and engaged in occult rituals and practices. Although she was able to contact her family at some point, his threats to their safety and daily mind games kept her quiet and compliant.
The nightmare continued for six long years. After this, the story took a turn straight out of a crime novel. A young man renting a converted garage apartment attached to the house became enraged by the older man’s constant noise and intrusion. During a confrontation, he beat him in the head with a heavy wooden board, killing him instantly.
You would think this would have been the end of Maria’s nightmare. Instead she found herself in a different kind of prison. This time a literal one.
Before the police arrived on the scene, the young man handed Maria the board and told her to hide it under the house. Maria was used to doing what she was told so she complied. Although she immediately cooperated with the police—even showing them where the board was hidden—she was ultimately charged and convicted as an accessory to murder.
She had no record, had not participated in the crime, and had herself been a victim, yet due to the ineptitude of a fumbling attorney who was later disbarred, she was sentenced for 25 years to life.
Despite this gross injustice, prison was a welcome reprieve. When she was arrested Maria says, “I fell to my knees and wept tears of relief. I knew I was finally safe.”
Still in her early twenties when she was sentenced, Maria had no concept of a 25+ year prison term. As the years passed, the relief faded. Anger took its place as the fog of the previous decade faded and Maria woke up to the reality of her situation. The man she had feared in the day began to haunt her dreams. Even from the grave, his torment and control over her life continued. That is until Maria did the unthinkable:
She forgave him.
Seeing her daughter’s torment, Maria’s mother urged her to pray knowing her freedom would only be found through forgiveness. It wasn’t quick or easy, but in choosing to forgive, Maria not only found freedom, she found peace.
Even more importantly, she found hope.
Maria was still physically behind bars, but for the first time since her ordeal began, her heart was free. She began to live again—even in prison. She got her GED. She learned English. She became involved in advocacy groups. She spent much of her time helping others.
Through one of these advocacy groups, the Board of Prison Term Investigation, Maria’s wrongful conviction was finally reviewed and overturned. On May 25th, 2004, after 22.5 years behind bars, Maria was finally as free on the outside as she already was on the inside.
That’s when Maria’s remarkable story of hope really blossomed. She started the Maria Suarez Foundation, a survivor-led nonprofit dedicated to eradicating the enslavement of youth in Southern California. She also started Green Ants, a cleaning service that employs survivors of human trafficking, offering them a sustainable future.
“I want to help others who are at risk. I want them to be aware of their surroundings and able to recognize the signs of those being victimized, so they can report it. I want this generation to be aware, so they avoid the hole to begin with.”
Maria Suarez didn’t just survive, today she is thriving. Her journey from bondage to freedom was costly, but if even one person avoids the same fate because of her willingness to speak out, Maria’s story of hope will live on.
The Maria Suarez Foundation is actively looking for like-minded volunteers and partners to help build a safer and more hope-filled world for at-risk youth in the Southern California area. If you’d like more information on how you can help, visit www.mariasuarez.org, or email Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also visit the Green Ants Cleaning Service site at www.greenantsinc.com, and if you are in the local area, consider them for your housekeeping and cleaning needs.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of Voices of Justice Magazine
Within the hollows of any tree is a root system that runs deep. This month, I have been reminded of the “roots” of injustice that occupy nations, keeping individuals and entire regions captive. Roots such as poverty, lack of education, hopelessness, and breakdown of the family all contribute to why injustice, such as human trafficking, exist. Like a root system, these issues intertwine and diverge to create layers of complexity. Not only that, but roots have offshoots that plant them even deeper into the ground. For example, systemic poverty alone is rooted in a number of issues, such as economics, social discriminations, and politics.
Somebody once asked me this question, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer she explained is simple, “one bite at a time.” When looking at the issue of human trafficking, I am often reminded of this elephant. It can seem enormous and overwhelming, especially when we talk about the multi-layers nourishing this injustice. Stopping human trafficking can seem like an even bigger task, perhaps comparably as difficult as eating a 12,000-pound animal. But if we stay in fear and intimidation, slavery will continue through generations to come. It is only when we begin to unravel and uproot these issues, one-by-one, that we will see an end.
Preventatively, we can stop trafficking before it starts, if we all do our part. Our team in Cambodia sponsors children from poor families that would otherwise not have the opportunity to go to school. This is a simple way that we can address one of the roots that leads to human trafficking. The children we help are from poor slum and street communities, who if not educated would most likely end up working on the streets, putting them at-risk for future exploitation. While helping these children, we have found that one-by-one we are breaking the cycle of poverty that leads to exploitation. I am proud to say that many of the kids we sponsor in education are now empowered and are top in their class. One little girl just received mention that she is #6 in the nation, for her grade level. Wow! This generation will not face the vices that future generations endured, because whole root systems are being removed. We are just one of many groups addressing issues within the nation connected to education. Just imagine what will happen when we all do our part.
I remember a 9 year-old girl from Canada who desperately wanted to help poor children. She reached out to me to ask about the needs and decided she would sponsor children from poor communities, so they could attend school. She prayed and processed ideas to earn money and decided she would make bracelets and sell them to raise funds. Together, with her friends, she sold enough bracelets to sponsor 11 children for one full year of education! I was so inspired at her ability to look at her gifts, attach her faith, and use them to change a whole community. She looked at the issue and was not overwhelmed, because she began by looking at one child and one need at a time. With each child came another, and eventually, she was able to help eleven.
Digging deep and addressing these issues will eventually have a big impact on persons, communities, cities, and entire nations. Maybe you can’t sponsor a child’s education, but you can bring hope in other ways. Wherever your nation is, you can begin addressing the roots of injustice within your community. Perhaps a root in your area is a lack of information on why or how human trafficking exists in your city or nation, so you could create awareness by sharing in schools, your workplace, or in your neighborhood. If poverty is an issue, you could help at a local food shelter or be a listening ear to those who are poor in spirit. Whatever your gifts, experiences, or spheres of influence, begin by using what’s already in your hand. Your actions will have deep impact that will eventually change whole nations.
Love has a face.
Andrea Aasen is the Director of Extreme Love Ministries. She is a visionary leader with a heart to see justice released to the nations. Andrea has a desire to see women and children empowered and walking in their God created destinies. She believes in the power of LOVE to transform nations and individuals, and as a result, has developed various community, business, and advocacy models to support and protect victims of human trafficking, abuse, and other forms of exploitation.
This article was originally published in Andrea’s regular column “Love Has a Face” in our March 2018 issue.
Tim Swarens is the opinion editor of The Indianapolis Star, the most prominent news source in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been in the journalism field for over thirty-four years now, heading projects that have won Sigma Delta Chi, National Headliners and Robert F. Kennedy Excellence in Journalism awards while being published by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
He takes a stand on the frontlines of fighting Human Trafficking, dauntlessly exposing the issue in the United States and overseas. I originally discovered Mr. Swarens when I began researching articles about Human Trafficking in the Indianapolis area. His name was on nearly all of them. It is obvious by his work, and from our conversation, that he is knowledgeable and passionate about the issue.
Swarens found his calling in 2010 when a visitor came to his home church to speak on the topic of Human Trafficking. Looking back now, he says he realizes just how life changing that moment was for him. The following year, he travelled to Cambodia. According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, Cambodia is considered a Tier 2 in human trafficking. A tier 2 label is for countries whose government does not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. For the victims, it means that there is not much in place to protect their rights.
In August of 2016, Swarens received a grant from the Society of Professional Journalist to better understand why millions of people, including children, fall victim to sex trafficking every year. Swarens’ project has taken him to places all over the world including Thailand, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, Italy, and France.
During his travels, he noticed alarming trends everywhere he went.
For one, many people believe that the victims of human trafficking have a choice in the matter, assuming they chose the life for themselves. Because of this belief, the victims don’t get the help they need. Instead, they are usually met with disdain because of their position.
Second, in every country, buyers are almost never punished. He met a survivor from Illinois, a teen who was purchased for sex by more than 150 different men. Not a single one of those men were ever charged. Swarens points out that most of the buyers are the average male: the dads, the doctors, the teachers, and even pastors. You would think that the majority must be pedophiles, since it was clear she was underage. Most aren’t. Swarens calls them “opportunists”.
The last trend he found during his travels was the normalization of sexualizing children. Television shows and movies often portray children and teens in a sexual light. The average age of girls trafficked in the U.S. and Indiana is 15. The average times they are sold for sex, is 5.4 times a day. “There are reasons we don’t allow 15 year olds to drive, vote, etc. Yet that’s the average age in sex trade.” In 2014 Bolivia lowered the legal prostitution age to 12. Because of the sexualization of children, we don’t hold the buyers accountable. We don’t want to accept the reality of what’s going on. A child can’t choose this life for themselves, they never “ask for it”. They are coerced into it, one way or another.
I asked Mr. Swarens what he feels we can do to best fight human trafficking. He emphasized that we need to begin to focus on the demand side. “You can pay to sexually abuse a child and there is very little accountability for it. Why are we letting these guys get away with this?” Essentially, if the demand goes down, there will be less of a drive for “supply”.
In April 2018, there will be a conference held in Indianapolis to talk about the demand side. This conference will be open to the public.
During his travels, he met over 60 trafficking survivors who are no longer in the trade. He found that most of them are upbeat and positive about their futures. One woman in particular, is a 61 year old survivor from San Francisco. She was an alcoholic and drug addict in her 30s while also prostituting at the time. She’s now clean and sober and mentoring others who are in the same situation.
Mr. Swarens reminds us, “The survivors will carry the scars for the rest of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they are broken. There is hope.”
A series of columns and a video on Mr. Swarens’ findings was published in January 2018. Click here for links.
Hallie Schaefer is a freelance writer and web content creator from Indianapolis, Indiana. Earning her degree in Psychology from Grace College and Theological Seminary, she has combined her experience in counseling and love of writing to equip and inspire others. When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband and three small children, exploring all Indianapolis has to offer.
This article was originally published in Hallie’s Freedom on the Frontlines column in our December issue.