Meet the Group of College Students Fighting Sex Trafficking in Moldova

Statistics tend to have a numbing effect these days. It seems that the more statistics we hear, the more our eyes glaze over and the more our ears tune out whatever justice issue is in the news. I know I am guilty of an exasperated attitude, especially when the topic at hand appears to be another excuse for college students to plaster their "concern" for justice issues on social media. Several years ago when I began to hear a lot about sex trafficking, I decided to research it for myself. This single statistic shook me to the core:

"The number one export of Moldova is women."

Moldova? The smallest country in Europe, lodged between Romania and Ukraine? I was shocked. The more I dug into the issue, the more I realized the gravity of the situation. This seemingly demure country hosts the darkest underbelly of crime in Eastern Europe. A conduit for the illegal trade of persons, Moldova is a hotbed for sex traffickers who prey on orphans to fuel their operations. Over the last 30 years, approximately 30,000 girls have disappeared from the southern region of the country alone; nearly 300,000 have disappeared from the country as a whole. This is the equivalent of my entire hometown vanishing from the map.

Lest statistics invoke the aforementioned effect, consider the story of Natalia. She was raised in a southern Moldovan village. Unfortunately, her opportunities to provide for her children in Moldova were limited while other opportunities in Moscow appeared promising. A woman from her hometown connected her with a fruit stand vendor to work for in Moscow and off she went, faithfully sending her earnings back to her children. After a month of honest labor, she and the rest of the female fruit vendors were rounded up and forced into a dark van. Little did Natalia know that she was being driven deep into the Chechnyan forest, a rebel republic in southern Russia. After arriving at what she calls "the factory," she was raped multiple times a day in an effort to break her will and destroy her identity. Her new purpose was only to gratify the selfish desires of whatever mafia member chose to walk through the door of her stall at any given time of day.

Natalia escaped this living hell three years later when she and three other girls from the factory attempted a daring escape. Only two made it out alive. Thankfully, Natalia is now working through the healing process with her four beautiful children and is heavily involved with her local church in Moldova. 

What we must keep in mind is the thousands of other women Natalia’s story represents. How many forgotten women just like Natalia have fallen through the cracks without a trace?

When I learned of the atrocities of sex trafficking, I knew I could not ignore the evil at hand. Five years ago, a few friends and I founded the organization Save Our Sisters (S.O.S.). During an 8th grade sleepover, we had a simple dream of bringing hope to girls like Natalia. We prayed that God would use us in whatever way He saw fit and eagerly began planning our first fundraiser. We organized the details for what we thought would be a one-time event. Little did we know that over five hundred people would come to support the humble beginnings of Save Our Sisters.  Nearly four thousand dollars were given that September night, launching us into the beginning of a life-changing adventure.

S.O.S. co-founders Brianna Weir, Morgan Barney, Maleah Weir, Kristie Watkins, McCall Barney, and Elise Moore in Cahul, Moldova. 

 The initial rumblings of S.O.S shocked my parents, youth directors, and peers. Often times this new, somewhat haunting subject raised more questions than answers and in the beginning we had no idea what direction to follow with our zealous motivation. But the Lord graciously answered our prayers, and opened the door for us to focus our efforts in Cahul, Moldova.

In the summer of 2011, I traveled to Moldova for the first time with Brianna Weir, co-founder of Save Our Sisters, and a team from my uncle's church to serve at a week-long summer camp. During this trip, we realized the need for a sex trafficking survivor ministry in Moldova and also learned that the local church, Immanuel Baptist Church, desired to embrace victims of sex trafficking. They wished for a partner in ministry to work with in building a home for rescued victims of sex trafficking. This was the passion of our hearts as well, and before we knew it, God had opened the door for partnering in the gospel to bring freedom to the captives.

Since that trip, we have been pursuing this dream of building a safe home in Cahul, Moldova. To help us achieve this goal, S.O.S has partnered with an organization called Moldova Mission, based in Raleigh, NC. This organization partners with the local church in Cahul, Immanuel Baptist, to complete what is called the "Transformation Project."

The vision for this project includes a camp to share the gospel with local teenagers, two homes for girls rescued out of sex trafficking, and eventually an orphanage. Over 25 acres of lush property are currently being developed to serve the community. The summer camp will serve thousands of kids each summer and be used as a retreat center all year round. Rescued girls from the “S.O.S” home will be able to work at the camp—providing a meaningful opportunity to gain income, life skills, and an understanding of the gospel. Our prayer is that this place will serve as a haven of healing, hope, and flourishing. It has been the joy of my heart to observe the work of God in this community. Only He could have sparked life into a once-dying community, now fighting against the economic and social enslavement of their struggling country.

I am not assuming that we are all called to dedicate our work to ending sex trafficking, but I am convinced that we are all called to do something to push back the darkness in our world. As author Christine Cain once said, "Compassion isn't compassion until it leads to action." Where might God be calling you to act in your community? My efforts are by no means any evidence of personal volition or strength, but rather of how God uses the ordinary for His Kingdom. I encourage you to take a deeper look into a justice issue that convicts your heart, and prayerfully consider how you might get involved.

-Morgan Barney is sophomore Maclellan Scholar at Covenant College, currently studying International Studies. She co-founded Save Our Sisters, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Moldova, and advocates for women trapped in sex slavery.

If  you are interested in learning more or want to get involved, please visit S.O.S. and Moldova Mission.

Cahul, Moldova. Photo courtesy of Morgan Barney.