Bras offer lifeline to rescued slaves
Denver, Colorado (CNN) – Tashina was trafficked for sex when she was 15-years-old. Ofelia, when she was 12.
Tashina finds it helpful to talk about it. “We lived in darkness,” she said. For Ofelia, talking about the past is too painful. She just winds up crying.
But both women smile broadly as they talk about their future. A future filled with promise and hope, thanks to the kindness of a complete stranger half a world away from their home in Mozambique.
Kimba Langas is a college-educated, stay-at-home mom in suburban Denver, Colorado. She says she grew up in a middle class family with loving parents, never wanting for anything.
“I am fortunate,” Langas said. “I was born at the right time, in the right country, under the right circumstances, so I've had many privileges as a woman growing up in the United States. I've had just about every opportunity I could want.”
Her life could not be more different from those of Tashina and Ofelia. And yet, today these three women are connected in a most unusual way.
The story began when Langas got a call from Dave Terpstra, a former pastor at her church. He had just moved his wife and three children to Mozambique on a mission to help rehabilitate women who had been rescued from sex trafficking.
“The way people find themselves trafficked is normally out of desperation,” Terpstra said. “I think sometimes we have in our mind that somebody somewhere has a gun and they're stealing them away and selling them. But so often, people are taken advantage of simply because they're so vulnerable.”
Terpstra wanted to help them find jobs, a sustainable income that would make them less vulnerable and reduce their risk of being trafficked again.
He found his answer in the bustling used clothing markets of Mozambique.
They could sell bras, a luxury item that enables them to earn about three times the minimum wage.
Read how actress Mira Sorvino says everyone can play a role in fighting human trafficking
Together, Terpstra and Langas founded the charity Free the Girls. She collects donated bras in the United States and he delivers them to sex trafficking survivors to sell.
“Bras actually command the highest price per kilogram in the used clothing market over there,” Langas said. “And so for our girls, why not provide them inventory that they can not only make money off of, but make good money off of?”
They tested the program ahead of time and the girls were able to make three times the minimum wage selling the bras.
Langas created a Facebook page to ask people to send her their bras. She figured there were other women, like her, with a “bra graveyard.”
“I had probably five or six bras in the back of my drawer,” she said. “As women, we buy a bra, don't try it on, get it home, wear it once, it doesn't fit... so we all have these bras hanging around that we don't know what to do with.”
Her plea resonated with thousands of women across the U.S. and bras started pouring in. Her home was quickly overrun by boxes and bins of bras. She stored them in her basement and her garage. She stored some at her church.
Within just a few months, Langas had more than 20,000 bras – and a big problem. She could not afford the $6,500 it would cost to ship them all to Africa.
That’s when the story was featured on CNN, and everything changed.
“I got up early the next morning after the story aired and the first email that was waiting for me was from a man named Paul who has a shipping company in Chicago,” Kimba said. “He saw the story and reached out to offer us assistance with shipping the bras to Mozambique.”
Paul Jarzombek is director of operations at LR International. He says he was very moved by the story.
“I have a 12-year-old daughter myself and immediately that's what I thought of was my own daughter,” he said. “I was horrified, quite frankly, that these girls could be sold into this kind of slavery and probably like most Americans, sort of naive about the fact that these things happen so readily.”
His act of kindness led to another when a truck driver offered to put the bras in the back of his 18-wheeler and drive them from Denver to Chicago. Rick Youngquist had recently joined Truckers Against Trafficking, an organization that educates long-haul truck drivers about how to spot signs of human trafficking on the road.
“Now that I know what's going on out there, I can't just ignore it,” Youngquist said. “I mean, I think this human trafficking thing is just a horrendous thing.”
So Youngquist drove the bras, now totaling 34,000, to Chicago where Jarzombek loaded them into a shipping container and sent them on their way.
Langas cried as she watched his truck pull away. She thought about the thousands of women who helped make it happen.
“Sometimes we know why they were inspired to send to us and sometimes we don't,” she said. “So you can only imagine what compelled them to box up a bra and send it our way.”
She also thought about the young women on the other end, and the opportunity the bras represent for them.
Three months later, the bras arrived in Maputo, Mozambique's capital city.
A lifeline for Tashina and Ofelia - and a most unusual weapon in the war against modern-day slavery.
“I am happy, very happy, to know that I have a lot,” Tashina said, “a normal family. I am very happy.”
And she is quick to thank the people who made it possible.
"I just want to tell the people in America, they've given us the strength we needed. Thank you very much,” she said.
The success of this project has led Free the Girls to look outside Mozambique, even beyond Africa. They now have plans to start operations in El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico and Uganda later this year.
See how you could help
After this story was first published the Mozambique Embassy in the U.S. issued a statement which read: "We commend CNN International for raising awareness of this malaise which affects thousands of people and including our own Mozambican people.
"The Government of Mozambique is working in a comprehensive legislation and law enforcement, in accordance with international agreements and protocols, to prevent these actions to occur and bring to justice all perpetrators of these acts."