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Photos courtesy of Make Way Partners.
Kimberly Smith-Highland stands with some of the orphans Make Way Partners provides care for.
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Photos courtesy of Make Way Partners.
Kimberly Smith-Highland hugs a woman she formerly helped save from slavery.
When Kimberly Smith-Highland first discovered a brothel in the Iberian Peninsula in 2001, she didn’t know it was a brothel. At the time, she was working as a student missionary at the University of Salamanca. She thought it was just a street ministry for immigrant children.
At one point, one of the youngest children, a 6-year-old boy named Carlos, came up to her, bouncing up and down unnaturally and acting anxious. She knew something was wrong.
“Aunti Kimberly,” he said to her, “Aunti” being a term they called women. “Where’s the Vaseline?”
Then it clicked, and she guessed what was going on. She took him immediately to the hospital to get medical treatment, where they discovered severe mistreatment and mutilation.
This was just the start for Smith-Highland.
Since 2003, Smith-Highland has founded Make Way Partners, a Christian grassroots organization that works to combat human trafficking in the areas where children have the fewest resources. She is president of the organization and a Chelsea native, where she lives and blogs about her experiences.
The brothel Smith-Highland found was filled with 19 immigrant children between the ages of 6 and 16. When she attempted to alert authorities, no one in the community would comment or help.
“The Portuguese government was complicit to the problem, complacent, even,” Smith-Highland said.
She later found out the area had extensive human trafficking. As she contacted people in the region, she became aware of the role the Russian Mafia played, which was why no one wanted to get involved.
As she tried to shut down the brothel, Smith-Highland had what she describes as her “Esther moment,” where for the first time in her life, she felt a calling.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking, that could have been my kids,” she said.
Finally, through help from various human trafficking organizations, the brothel was shut down almost two years after she first discovered it.
“No one was really talking about [child prostitution] back then,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go to the places where women and children were most at risk or vulnerable, where there was organized crime and dangerous warlords, remote locations where it was expensive to get to these children.”
That’s when she began to pinpoint the places that had the least amount of resources to fight against human trafficking. In the process of seeking partners to help, she found the Voice of Martyrs, an organization dedicated to traveling around the world documenting and providing relief to people who are persecuted by the government for exercising Christian beliefs. Through the organization, she met Petr Jasek.
Later that year, she went to Eastern Europe with Jasek and his Voice of Martyrs team, when she ended up working in Bucharest, Romania, with children who live in the sewers, and on to Transnistria, Moldova, where they walked the streets, documenting and understanding the trafficking situation, providing aid when they could. Much of this time she spent learning and understanding about how to make a permanent difference.
Instead of bringing temporary relief with Western leadership, she concluded she wanted to focus the organization on being indigenously led. Smith-Highland’s role would be to find a leader to continue the relief when she left the country.
“We look for someone who is using whatever they got to try to make a difference, to try to save people,” she said. Make Way Partners focuses on helping through education and funding.
Eventually Jasek came to her, saying that if she truly wanted to reach the “children and women who were most vulnerable,” she needed to go to Sudan and South Sudan. She said he kept persisting, and so she spent the next year praying and struggling to decide.
It was early 2004, when the Darfur conflict was affecting 5 million people. Going to the area would be dangerous, and getting in the country would have to be done illegally.
Smith-Highland finally went to Sudan, and she was the only woman with a team of 25. It was her first time in Africa, her first time in a war. They stayed in tents and never had running water.
After a month distributing food and searching for an indigenous leader, the group reached their last stop at the cusp of the Sahara Desert.
In one final attempt to find someone local who could help lead, Smith-Highland and Jasek walked off from the team and came across a triangle of three big trees, each spaced about 50 feet apart. Under each tree, there was a cluster of children. It was about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, she said, and the children’s hair was an unhealthy orange and their skin was powdery from malnourishment and dehydration.
Between the trees, a skinny man named James ran from tree to tree, where chalkboards had been set up. He yelled “One, two, three, four,” and “A-B-C-D” and “For God so loved the world…,” and the children shouted it back, in the process of learning.
This was the first time Smith-Highland felt like she might have found a leader.
After spending time with James and the orphans he cared for, Smith-Highland said he asked them to follow him into the desert with him because he said there were more orphans starving there. During the trip, they saw the refugee camps, which turned out to be thousands of people scattered in the hot Sahara Desert with little food or water.
Eventually, they ran out of medicine, food and supplies, and there was nothing else left for Smith-Highland and the group to do. As she was getting ready to leave, a group of women pushed a little girl toward Smith-Highland, insisting there was no one for her, that she was raped and Smith-Highland must help her.
“I felt powerless, told her she has no more food or medicine, but that I would come back and tell her story and not forget her. I told her we would come back and drill wells and try to help her people,” she said.
Smith-Highland said she knew this was a place that had very little help or resources; she knew she had to come back. She gave her last remaining money to James and told him to use it for the orphans.
She returned a year later and was shocked by how much James had stretched the money. The orphans had been eating all year, and they looked healthier than before. He became Make Way Partners’ first indigenous leader.
Along with classrooms for a school, the decision was quickly made to build an orphanage. As time went on, two other orphanages were built in Uganda and in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan.
Make Way Partners began to grow, adding more indigenous leaders. They were training a generation to know the power of education, safety and peace.
Now, in 2017, the children have special computers that can endure heat and sandstorms, and they have computer labs where they are schooled to prepare for college. The orphanages provide 1,500 legally unadoptable orphans with 24/7 security, and everyone gets three free meals a day. They now have over 300 indigenous employees from Sudan, South Sudan and a dozen who live in the United States.
Last year, the first girls in the history of South Sudan, as well as the kids from the first orphanage, graduated from the original school Make Way Partners built. They are in the process of taking international exams, which allows them to qualify for universities.
“These kids have a real burning desire to be in the medical profession,” Smith-Highland said, going on to say that they are building a hospital this year. “There’s a huge need for doctors, and these graduates want to come back and help their people.”
For Smith-Highland, it became clear that everything she was doing was worth risking her life, despite the hardship it was for her family and the danger she faced daily. Make Way Partners is about being a “compassion witness,” and they don’t “take tallies” of who they convert.
The organization has been financed from private donations, primarily using word-of-mouth to grow. The Child Sponsorship program through Make Way Partners is $100 a month, and it covers all the needs of the child. She said 100 percent of the proceeds go to the child.
“We’ve never lost a child under our care, which is something I’m very proud of,” she said.
In Smith-Highland’s first book, “Passport Through Darkness,” which was awarded the INSPY’s Best Creative Nonfiction of 2011, she recounts a lot of the dangers, miracles and events that took place over the year. She is in the process of writing her next book, which she hopes to finish by the end of summer.
To learn more about Make Way Partners and Smith-Highland or to sponsor a child, go to makewaypartners.org. Call 1-888-3737-888 to report current victims of human trafficking.