DES MOINES, Iowa–At the intersection of two of the nation’s largest highways, I-35 and I-80, sits the Des Moines, Iowa metro area, known for its small-town feel, farmer’s markets and frequent visits from presidential campaign hopefuls.
Less well-known is the fact that the area has become a crossroads for domestic sex trafficking—an industry that claims victims not in booming shootouts, but through transactions in the quiet, dark corners of the Internet, at truck stops as girls are shuffled between vehicles late at night and in hotel rooms rented by the hour.
Defined by advocacy group Polaris Project as a “form of modern slavery” by which traffickers use violence and forms of coercion to “force women, men, and children to engage in commercial sex against their will,” sex trafficking is one of the world’s fastest growing crimes, according to the California Department of Justice.
Joy Fopma, Development Director of faith-based Wings of Refuge, is all too familiar with the physical and emotional toll that sex trafficking takes on victims. Fopma, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, effectively runs the only home in Iowa that specifically focuses on the rehabilitation of female sex trafficking survivors.
Over the past two and a half years, she has worked with eight survivors of sex trafficking in Iowa, counseling them, directing them to educational opportunities and working to repair damaged social and emotional skills.
She has worked with women beaten and left for dead, and sold by their own fathers. One young woman who came to Wings of Refuge had been trafficked through 16 different states in the U.S.
“I know what it’s like to be small and used for a purpose you were never meant for,” Fopma says. “I also know what it’s like to live past that.”
‘Where Are They Going to Go?’
Though Fopma knows what it means to overcome trauma, she never thought she would find herself in this line of work. In fact, she says she was “very naïve” to the issue of sex trafficking altogether.
But in January 2013, after her son convinced her to watch “Nefarious: A Merchant of Souls,” a documentary about the state of sex trafficking in 161 countries, she felt a calling.
“I’m just a small-town girl from Iowa,” she says. “But I had to do something. I always joke that I did what any other girl would do in a time of crisis: I got on Facebook.”
Fopma found that she was not alone. She assisted in the formation of a prayer group, focused on devising a plan of action to help the estimated 27 million sex slaves in bondage around the world.
The goal proved too broad. “We had to hone in on one thing,” Fopma says. “We couldn’t just spread our efforts across the board.”
The group was most startled by the lack of resources available to survivors in the U.S. At the time of Wings of Refuge’s conception, only around 500 slots were available for sex trafficking survivors in rehabilitation centers nationwide, despite the estimated hundreds of thousands of victims.
“Family has failed them,” Fopma says. “The system has failed them. So where are they going to go?”
While in the process of forming a non-profit, and without a home to house survivors, the group had to turn down two girls who had been rescued. But in early 2014, they established a board of directors and launched their non-profit, Wings of Refuge. The organization’s motto is “So exploitation ends for one more girl.”
During this time, Fopma and her husband, Aaron, made the difficult decision to sell their restaurant to focus on Wings of Refuge.
In March 2014, during the same week Wings of Refuge received word of the first sex trafficking survivor the organization would house, the restaurant sold. The survivor would stay with a foster care family while the group worked on finding a house to call their own.
Subsequently deciding to sell their home and move towns, the Fopma’s home sold within a day after posting pictures online to a Facebook swap page.
“It was a God thing,” Fopma says. “It was like, ‘OK, I guess we’re supposed to do this.’”
Wings of Refuge opened their doors in July 2014, a grassroots effort turned into a restoration home, which, according to experts, is exactly the support these women so desperately need.
“The U.S. government plays a significant role in providing legal and judicial support for victims of trafficking,” says Olivia Enos, a trafficking expert at The Heritage Foundation. “But NGOs and the church community have a longer-term role to play in ensuring rehabilitation of victims of trafficking.”
Back to Basics
“Success” at Wings of Refuge, as you might expect, looks a bit different from success for a young woman who is not recovering from such severe trauma.
“When a girl tells me that she slept all night, I’ll go crazy,” Fopma says. “We celebrate that!”
It’s perhaps difficult to quantify because, as Fopma explains, connecting a survivor with her pain, a very messy process, is the key to healing.
A couple of weeks ago, Fopma recalls, a survivor experienced a crippling panic attack.
“You know, my anxiety attack was awful and what was happening was really scary,” she explained to a staff member. “But something good happened. It was the first time I was never alone when I got scared.”
It’s the sort of anecdote that makes Fopma beam.
Upon arrival to the home, the women and girls are taken shopping for new clothes and gain access to Medicaid and medical professionals that have networked with Wings of Refuge. Treatment that is not covered by Medicaid is covered by private donations.
The new residents are also given opportunities to take GED or college-level classes. They are taught life skills, such as how to cook and mow the lawn.
Daily devotionals and an “Identity in Christ” class are held at Wings of Refuge. Residents are given the option to attend any of three local churches.
“In the end, we offer a [pathway to] faith in Jesus. It is the girls’ decision to believe or not,” Fopma says.
A staff of around 14 volunteers, some with degrees in psychology, social work, human services, nursing or ministry, tailor the restoration process to each survivor’s specific needs.
Still, Fopma insists that the only “experts” in the field of sex trafficking are the survivors themselves. “These girls are incredibly smart,” Fopma says. “Girls who have barely been to high school get their GED in four months.”
A party was held a few weeks ago for two young girls who chose to stay for 30 days. As Fopma explains, it is a big deal for a survivor to build enough trust to stay and make a commitment to the healing process.
Ideally, Wings of Refuge would like the women and girls to stay for one year to 18 months.
“I remember [the first girl at Wings of Refuge] being shy and quiet,” recalls Jenna Beer, a board member at Wings of Refuge. “By the time she was done in our program … her eyes were brighter; she was smiling; she was hugging.”
“We try to love [the girls] and restore their dignity and their value and their worth,” Fopma adds.
Healing and Hope
A group of volunteers spent one day at The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), held in July to raise awareness about domestic sex trafficking.
Nearly 20,000 cyclists from around the globe rode across the state of Iowa in the oldest, largest and longest bike-touring event in the world. Fopma hopes she was able to open at least a few minds to the complexities of sex trafficking.
“If we aren’t all talking about it, then these girls really don’t have hope,” said Toya Harvey, a volunteer for the RAGBRAI Outreach event. “We have to all be their champions and be out there for them.”
In addition to housing survivors, Wings of Refuge also provides support to other women who have been identified as survivors of domestic sex trafficking. They strive to spread awareness to help others identify the issue when it presents itself to encourage others to get involved.
“I believe that healing comes in a family setting,” Fopma says. “I wish that we had enough families that we could train and place these girls with.”
Fopma frequently speaks on sex trafficking at churches and with civic groups around Iowa, foreseeing a future where she could take Wings of Refuge national or even worldwide.
“I would love to see Wings of Refuge go into other countries. I would love to see Wings of Refuge homes start wherever they need to be,” Fopma says. “I don’t have a lid on what God wants me to do. Basically, I’m saying yes to Jesus, and that’s it.”
Fopma remains optimistic despite setbacks, some that come from the women themselves. She recalls one girl, too overwhelmed by processing what had happened to her, who left Wings of Refuge even after staying long enough to get her GED.
“Love doesn’t force,” Fopma says. “So we let her go.”
Still, she has had happy endings. Just recently, she received a call from a survivor who proclaimed, “I’ve stayed out of the life, and I’m applying for a job.”
It’s more than enough to keep Fopma’s hope alive.