A Trafficked Survivor’s Story—Ask the Right Question

There’s a house I drive by that never fails to capture my imagination. It sits ancient and abandoned. Over many years, it gets more obscured from roadside view as nature encroaches on what was once a clearly impressive home on a substantial piece of property.

Now it sits forgotten, a relic from a bygone era.

I always wonder the same thing: “What happened to you?”

I’d like to know why a house that obviously started out with outsized hope sits abandoned. I imagine what it would take to restore such a broken structure.

That house comes to mind as I lean in to listen to 38-year-old Ashley Vrabel. We are sitting in the tiny quiet room of a tiny church in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Had someone—anyone—asked Ashley early on in her life these questions I have about the house, things might have been very different.

I meet Ashley’s 19-year-old son who drove her down from their home in Goldsboro, NC, along with her 11-year-old daughter. They are sweet, respectful kids and appear joyful. I wonder how many times they’ve heard their mom’s harrowing story of drugs, johns, beatings, jail, and the traffickers who controlled her life for two decades.

Ashley has only been out of “the life” less than three years.

But she wants her children to know all of it. And they seem at peace her with past—every tear, every mistake, every missed moment.

Ashley is not who she was. She is steeped deeply in faith and forgiveness.

“I tried everything for 20 years to get clean and sober and free from trafficking. Nothing worked,” she tells me, “until I tried God.”

One thing is clear, Ashley may not have had a relationship with God those years, but He certainly was with her as she escaped one harrowing experience after another.

Unlike many trafficked victims, Ashley says her childhood wasn’t marked by the telltale signs of sexual or substance abuse in the home. She was a dancer and a cheerleader. She made good grades. She had dreams of becoming an attorney.

But her home was filled with her parents’ constant arguing and a nonstop feeling that she didn’t fit in. When she discovered pot at 13 and a group of kids she could do drugs with who didn’t judge her, she says she found her sweet spot—a place where she belonged and could escape the verbal tumult at home.

At 19 she was pregnant, engaged, and feeling trapped. She yearned to be young and free and found that feeling in the arms of an ex-boyfriend who was an active heroin addict.

And that’s when it started. And anything that was truly good in her life for the next two decades ended.

Keeping up with a heroin addiction takes time and money. So Ashley’s addicted boyfriend exploited her for the both of them, selling her to support their drug habit.

She tried rehab only to meet a woman who recruited her into more misery. This time she was part of a lucrative business billed as “exotic dancing” for which Ashley never once danced but was certainly expected to perform for her buyers. Her trafficker “protected” the girls under his roof, taking half their money from each call, providing food and a place to live. He made sure Ashley knew she was unwanted by her family and had nowhere else to go. So she stayed. She had a drug habit. And this, she reasoned, was better than being alone.

Ashley’s journey would lead her into the folds of vicious gangs where she was severely physically and sexually assaulted by the gang members and the fiends to which they sold her. They would record her committing crimes and hold that over her head to ensure her total compliance. So unspeakable abuse moved to coercion, extortion, and blackmail.

She would rack up felonies and hospital stays from various beatings and accidents. One time, after being beaten up by the gang and having a gun held to her head, she was left to freeze to death on the side of the road. Instead, she was picked up and taken to the hospital. Not once, she says, did anyone there ask her, “What happened to you?” She was released two days later to a homeless shelter and was back on the streets.

Over the years, she did try a few times to get help as she escaped her traffickers. She tried to tell one hospital about the gang and about the number of women held captive, but was told she couldn’t be helped unless she was suicidal. Another time as police insisted she had to be strip-searched, she begged for a female police officer only to be told her request didn’t much matter because, “You are just a junkie.”

“That’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she recalls, tears fresh in her eyes.

The truth was, Ashley Vrabel was addicted to drugs. But she knew she was so much more than her addiction.

And so it was when she found herself alive, no seatbelt, upside down in a car she had flipped three times after trying to flee police and having just received a broken jaw and a broken nose from a john, she immediately thought, “Okay, God. You got me through this. Now what?”

And He had an answer.

It came in the form of a trip to jail, a prison ministry called “Cry Freedom Mission,” and a remarkable woman who asked a simple question, “What happened to you?”

It was the first time in 20 years someone hadn’t asked, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why do you keep doing this?”

Instead Ashley was met headlong with grace and love: “What happened to you?” “What are your goals?” “What did you want to be when you were a little girl?” “I know this wasn’t always what you wanted to be. Did you have dreams?”

For the first time in, well, forever, Ashley was not defined as a criminal or a junkie. Here was someone who saw her as a daughter of a King, a work in progress, someone worthy of forgiveness.

And everything changed.

Today, Ashley is a certified peer support specialist with Cry Freedom Mission, and she has big goals to continue her education and secure an even brighter future for herself and her family. She has accepted that some people will never forgive her past, but she knows she is well and truly forgiven by God and is leaning hard on Him now, especially as she raises her daughter to be empowered in a world Ashley knows is filled with predators.

“The opposite of fear is love,” she says. “The Bible teaches us. I try to love her through it, but I do protect her at all costs.”

On the drive back from North Carolina, I think again about that old house. I wonder if it can be fixed up, and then I think how grateful I am that’s not even a question for God. He can redeem even the most brokenhearted, restoring us all when, like Ashley, we build on His foundation.

Starting this month, look for our compelling video stories like Ashley’s on all Lighthouse for Life social media platforms.

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If you are a business that would like to sponsor a video vignette highlighting a survivor story, local law enforcement like Sheriff Leon Lott, or health care advocates, please let us know by contacting Donna Coffin at info@lighthouseforlife.org.

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