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Mixed blessings of freedom


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Anti-trafficking organizations see increased support following Sound of Freedom’s premiere, but worry that the film oversimplifies challenges involved

David Gamboa outside Elijah Rising's office in The Heights in Houston Photo by Bonne Pritchett

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 26th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: mixed blessings.

A word of caution: this story deals with some heavy themes, so if you’re a parent listening with young ones within earshot, you might want to hit pause and come back later.

Our next story has to do with effects of the surprise box-office hit, Sound of Freedom. The movie tells the story of one man’s efforts to rescue children in Central America.

REICHARD: While the film has heightened awareness of child sex trafficking, some say the film can foster misperceptions, both of the sex trade and how people are redeemed from it.

WORLD Correspondent Bonnie Pritchett brings the story.

SOUND: [Cars and voices]

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Elijah Rising is an anti-trafficking ministry in Houston. The office is nestled in an upscale historic neighborhood where the homes boast long, wide front porches.

And on one small, white clapboard house hangs an “open” for business sign.

That was until police raided the house. It was a brothel.

GAMBOA: And it's right here in a neighborhood across from a school across, from a church, right next to the homes.

David Gamboa is the communications director for Elijah Rising. He believes people need to know how and where the sex trade operates. And he says Sound of Freedom has helped do that.

GAMBOA: I thought it was a very well done movie. I left with the impression of like, I'm hoping that this movie wakes people up to trafficking and the reality that it is becoming a kind of a bigger problem. Whether you're in the U.S., or you're when you're in another country.

Gamboa isn’t alone. Stacey Efaw is the Executive Director of Selah Freedom in Sarasota, Florida. She says the film has been a boost for the ministry.

EFAW: Because it just brought it back to general awareness. So, people understand this is happening.

Selah Freedom offers residential recovery and preventative education programs. The ministry has seen an uptick of support since the film was released.

EFAW: Donations, interviews, people wanting to just sit down and learn more how they get involved. We've had more people reaching out to do sponsorships, because they want to do something to help.

But the newfound attention is a mixed blessing.

EFAW: You know, we've had a few people call and say, I just want to get the traffickers. And, you know, like we let the police do that when we're not about going in and storming in on people.

In San Diego, Alabaster Jar Project provides residential recovery and long-term resources for women leaving sex trafficking. Susan Johnson is the director.

JOHNSON: I have not seen the movie.

And she doesn’t plan to.

She knows the plot and finds it frustrating: Heroes charge into harm’s way. They rescue trafficked children or adults from their captors. They reunite freed slaves with their families. Roll credits.

Moviegoers sometimes conflate the film’s portrayal of sex trafficking with the work at Alabaster Jar Project.

JOHNSON: But even recently we did a fundraising event. And when I opened up for questions, you know, it's those questions of ‘Have you seen the Sound of Freedom?’ And, and you know, Or what, ‘What is your take on the Sound of Freedom?’ And my and I said, well, it doesn't portray an accurate picture of what trafficking is in San Diego.

Although San Diego shares a border with Mexico, Johnson says international human smuggling into the U.S. for the sex trade is not the primary problem she sees.

JOHNSON: They’re youth from our own neighborhoods. They're, they're groomed into selling themselves for sex. But we've worked with individuals that are as young as nine or six, sold for a parents’ drug habit. We had somebody recently that was groomed through PlayStation chat.

Johnson and others acknowledge the horrific reality of child sex trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. The film does portray that.

Many of the women Johnson’s ministry serves were forced into the sex slave trade as children.

By the time the organizations engage with these women, they’re adults—hardened by years of abuse and exploitation. It’s a life they can’t just walk away from or be rescued from.

VOICE: Hear that?

In a pivotal scene from the movie, child sex traffickers are arrested and hauled off. Two men who organized the sting operation watch as dozens of children, now free from their captors, play a rhythmic clapping game.

VOICE: That’s the sound of freedom.

But are they truly free?

Critics say the movie ends at a crucial point in the victims’ story. If Johnson were to rewrite the end, she’d start with the arrest of the woman’s trafficker. She puts herself in the victim’s shoes.

JOHNSON: Now I'm homeless. And I don't have the adequate skills to to survive on my own. So now I'm vulnerable to being either re-exploiting myself in order to survive. And I also am trying to figure out how to make ends meet. And I'm living on the street. I’m rescued and he’s put in jail, but now I got nothing.

Years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse numbed by drug addiction create “trauma bonds” – invisible cords binding a woman to her abuser. Unwinding those cords takes years.

Here’s David Gamboa once again.

GAMBOA: And there's a million other steps that need to be taken to help get this person back to living a normal life, which some of them don't even know what normal is.

Residential recovery programs like Alabaster Jar Project, Selah Freedom, and Elijah Rising provide trauma-informed care that help trafficking survivors write their own stories.

Gamboa believes those are the stories people need to hear—not just the ones in the jungles of Colombia, but the stories from suburban neighborhoods in American cities.

GAMBOA: And I think it's very easy to say, "Well, I can't do anything or those women they chose to be there." But at the same time, you've never asked them what their story or how they ended up there. And so it removes the responsibility from us by saying this happened somewhere else, but not here in my city.

SOUND: [Neighborhood activity]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Houston, Texas.

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