I was lucky enough to be able to chat with Airica Kraehmer, the incredible woman behind this organization who is on a mission to bring healing and mental health services to survivors of human trafficking and sexual assault. Air currently lives in Miami where she also runs a spiritually-minded apothecary and has written two best-selling books (Models Stop Traffic and Trafficking Aftermath: How to Be Happy After Trauma) and contributed to a third (Invincible: How to Embrace Failure and Achieve Transformational Success (Inspired Stories of Real People with Unconquerable Will to Thrive and Be Alive Book 2)) about her experience with sex trafficking seven years ago. With her super busy schedule, she happened to be on her way to bring a few emotional support dogs to their next appointment while we spoke. But as you’ll see below, she clearly is a master at multi-tasking because we had a lovely and inspiring conversation about overcoming trauma, self-care, and the story behind Flying with Air Women Survivors.
Can you share a little about your experience with sex trafficking and how that drove you to start Flying with Air Women Survivors?
My experience happened back in 2015. I was in between my sophomore and my junior year of undergrad, and the stock market did this great thing where it crashed! A lot of people lost money and scholarships, and I also found myself in need. I decided to return to modeling. I had grown up modeling for 15 years and had stopped about 2 years up to 2015 because I was trying to obtain my bachelor’s degree. Spoiler alert: I actually obtained three! But at that time, I knew that modeling could bring a lot of money in. I went back to one of my previous agencies and was put in model housing.
The purpose of model housing is to bring together models from all around the world to a temporary and supposedly safe home. There are around 20-30 homes in New York and I was referred to one by my agency. While we were there, the home was targeted by a human trafficking ring. Whether it was through the agency itself or if it was targeted from the outside is still up for debate. But I do know at least one of my traffickers worked in connection with the agency.
Long story short, my entire home was raided one at a time until it was closed by a human trafficking ring in the area. They ended up taking at least 17 girls. I know of at least 3 that were able to escape or be rescued. I was taken for approximately 5 months, and my grooming process was around 3 months. So my entire human trafficking experience was around 7 and a half months. I was able to get out because of a friend that detected a ring. He actually had detective and law enforcement experience. And then finally, I was able to connect with police, and eventually the FBI.
When I was brought back to Tennessee where I was attending college, I tried to get back to a normal life. I threw myself into having multiple part-time jobs. One was in a pharmacy, one was in a greenhouse, and I also increased my school credit work load to 40 hours a week. That way, I couldn’t necessarily think about what had happened to me because I was always so busy. Now, that is not something I would suggest for most survivors but at that time I didn’t have anyone to help me out.
I was quiet about my story for the first 8 months. People knew something traumatic had happened to me, but not exactly what had happened. During that time, I wrote a lot of what had happened into one of my journals, which would eventually become Models Stop Traffic, my first book that became a bestseller. I was also able to receive medical care, in the sense of physical medical care.
I did have people that came to my side to help me with housing and things, but no one actually that could offer any kind of mental health services, which I thought was kind of strange because I’m a personal believer that if your brain is healthy and your spirit is healthy, then you can fix your body and any health ailments. But your mental state has to be in the correct state for you to feel safe, and for you to be able to go into society and contribute to it.
So, I started researching different types of nonprofits out there that would be able to provide any kind of mental health services. I was able to find them for children and I was able to find them for the elderly, but not for anyone in the age range of 18-34 years old for both women and men. I just found this very strange. The only way you were able to receive psychiatric care or even behavioral cognition care, was to have private insurance.
If you just came out of slavery or modern-day human trafficking, you probably don’t have insurance because it’s the last thing on your mind. You’re thinking about food, shelter, money, a house, a job…those types of things. Not necessarily your mental health. And insurance, in America at least, is very expensive. Anywhere between $400-$500 if you’re on your own and it’s not provided to you through your workplace. So, at the time, that was not an option for me. I didn’t receive any of those services.
Now, fast forward to today. I’m 7 years out from my trafficking experience and am fully functional in society. I run both a small business and a nonprofit; I can afford insurance now. But I do know several survivors along the way that I’ve met during my book tours, public speaking, or activist work that still don’t receive those types of services, let alone during their time of greatest need during those first critical months.
So I had this crazy idea where we would come together and try to provide these services through a nonprofit. Which is why Flying with Air Women Survivors is not an awareness nonprofit, but a rehabilitation nonprofit.
That’s fascinating, and heartbreaking to hear about your sex trafficking experience of course. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
Don’t say sorry! I always have to correct people on this one. Don’t say sorry to a human trafficking survivor. Say congratulations you survived it, that you got out, that you were strong enough to build a life for yourself after. It will completely change the framework for you, for other people that are learning about human trafficking, and for the survivor. Don’t feel bad for me- I conquered it! You wouldn’t say sorry to Prince Charming for slaying the dragon. That deserves a congratulations.
I own an apothecary here [in Miami], which if you don’t know, is an herb shop, and people are always surprised because in the logo, it says “survivor”. Sometimes they’ll ask, “What type of survivor?” and I’ll say “Human trafficking.” And people are always like, “Wait…so you went from slavery, to this?” And I’m like, “Yes! You have to completely change your mindset of what human trafficking is and remind yourself that these survivors are human beings that can contribute to society and flourish.”
What would you say is the biggest thing that survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking must overcome, even once they are free of their abusers?
The biggest thing is their mindset. In human trafficking, unlike domestic violence cases, the abusers might not come after you but you may feel like you can’t contribute to your own well-being independently. You may not think that you can get a job or have the self-worth to provide for yourself. It’s not their fault. They have been psychologically manipulated to believe they are only property and not worth anything without their trafficker or abuser.
So, the biggest battle is going to be to change the mindset from, “I don’t know if I can” to “I WILL.” That is what I see people battle with every single day. And even with myself! I’m years out, but it wasn’t a constant upwards climb of “I’m out! Everything is good!” I had a lot of instances where I found myself holding onto bad relationships that could be dangerous for me, or bad thought processes like, “I can’t do this. I can’t run my own business or pay my own rent. I’m not capable of this, especially as a woman.” I have those thoughts, and that comes with the territory of surviving complex trauma.
How can loved ones best support survivors?
Unfortunately, not every survivor has a loved one. But in my own experiences with friends and family, I’ve had mixed experiences. Some act like it never happened. Some tried to do everything for me and made me feel like I was fragile, which is also not a good approach.
Acknowledging it did happen, and is part of the life journey for the survivor, is perfectly fine- in fact, it’s healthy. It did happen, and we’re not here to lie to ourselves. But the best way to provide support is just to be there alongside them, because they’re going to make mistakes. Loved ones are going to make mistakes as well. We are all human at the end of the day. But providing that continual support, especially if they’re trying to overcome things as a result of their trauma like medical issues or substance abuse issues, and making sure they’re receiving the right care and suggesting they have choices in a very calm manner will always be a better approach than saying they have to do something. They didn’t have choices for so long that to have choices would be very healthy for them.
It is a very tricky situation for loved ones, but they can also reach out to professional service providers to help a suvivor with mental health or substance abuse issues.
For survivors that don’t have loved ones, it’s more about society and what society can do whenever they hear about a human trafficking survivor. That’s kind of what the apothecary does every day, and what I do when I publicly speak on the issue. We’re trying to end the stigma – we don’t want people to say they’re sorry for survivors, we want people to say congratulations. Their life did not end whenever they became a victim of human trafficking.
We’re also building out in our app a section that will focus on people who are not survivors themselves but are connected in some way to a survivor, and provide support for them as well.
What are some of your favorite ways to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally?
I am someone that believes healing is not just in the physical realm, but the spiritual, mental, emotional realms. I always think that if you’re going to start any type of true healing you need to come back to your Creator, or the Universe, or whatever you think made all this. You need to come back to the Earth, and to yourself. Because all love is universal and I do believe that love is the root of all creation and healing.
A better way to explain this is when a plant is cut down, a year later you would never know that it was damaged. It knows what to do. It knows how to heal itself. But it also realizes that it needs sources from the Earth, and from the Universe, to create that healing. Humans and animals are not so different. The body knows how to repair. The mind needs a little more work, because the mind is not just a singular thing. It is connected to everything that influences it, including other people, what we allow into our lives, and then also, the Creator. Whenever I go into any type of practices where I’m working through something that’s either triggering, which is whenever something reminds me of being in that state of capture and sends me into panic mode, or whenever I’m doing just general self-care to take care of my body or daily stress, I work on connecting back to myself and my Creator.
I also do bath rituals! I’m a big bubble bath person, and I also spend a lot of time with my personal therapy dog, Jasper. A therapy dog is someone who is connected to your biochemistry levels to know whenever you’re stressed out or about to have a panic attack or epileptic episode. That’s actually why I’m taking them to the hospital to visit children right now.
An emotional support dog, on the other hand, can be more like a companion. I suggest them for survivors that are in a state where they can take care of a dog but also need one that’s a little bit more specialized for emotional support care.
One of my degrees is in nutrition and I also believe that what we put into our bodies will reflect how we feel and impact our hormonal and stress levels. And if our bodies are in a good state, we can better focus on our mental health.
Finally, this is partly for work but I also spend a lot of time in my greenhouses and my gardens, which is very therapeutic for me.
That’s great that you have those tools. I’m also a very spiritual person and I absolutely believe we have this source that is infinite and pure and whole, and anything you’re going through now is something your soul already knows how to fix.
I honestly don’t think I could have made it without my faith. And I did- I explain this in all of my books-I one hundred percent lost my faith in God and lost my faith in the Universe during my trauma. But I also realized that was what brought my healing back. So it is all a cycle. I don’t think I would have survived without some sort of spiritual basis.
What have you learned from your work with FWA so far?
I have learned that what we’re trying to accomplish is extremely challenging. A lot of people in this day and age are just now realizing how important mental health care is. I think COVID-19 and the experience that the entire world has gone through together has caused people to realize how mental health can impact your entire life. Many are seeing for the first time what depression and anxiety can actually be like and what trauma can do to a person’s entire body and lifestyle.
With that being said, I’m hopeful for a brighter 2021, because we are still missing critical resources we need in order for mental health support to be accessible for survivors everywhere, and hopefully these resources will become more available now that the need is greater.