Nicholas Popma, founder of nonprofit Save India's Youth, has made it his mission to help free the slaves of human trafficking in his homeland. Photo by Michael Buck
Nicholas Popma is a slave-born slave liberator.
Popma, a Grand Valley State University senior, is the founder of Save India’s Youth, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit with a mission to assist India’s women and children who are shackled in human trafficking and bring global awareness to the issue.
India’s sex trade is an especially personal issue for Popma, who carries the travesty of it in his blood.
“I am a child of a prostitute. Not many of us have the opportunity to get out of it and come to America and have a good life,” he said.
“I always wanted to give back to India and its youth. Growing up and thinking about how my life could have ended up had I stayed there compared to now … I want to give the same opportunities I have here to the kids over in India because they deserve it.”
Although much of his past is shrouded in mystery, Popma knows some of the details surrounding his early life. He was born the son of an Indian sex slave, whom he believes was likely raped and forced into the sex trade. He was only two days old when his mother decided her baby would not share her fate and left him on the streets of Calcutta.
But like baby Moses, Israel’s legendary liberator, Popma was rescued and raised in the home of those who were not his own people.
“I was found on the street half-dead — at least, that’s what it says in the records,” he said. “I was placed in a Calcutta orphanage — International Mission of Hope, which closed down in 2000. My adoption was delayed 10 months. And then I arrived in Grand Rapids on March 1, 1989, two months shy of my first birthday.”
Popma was adopted by Tim and Carol Popma, a couple of Dutch descent living in Kentwood, and likes to joke that although he looks Indian on the outside, his core nature is very Dutch.
The Popmas continued to adopt children, building a globally mixed family. He has an older sister from India, an older brother from South Korea and two younger sisters from Greece. Being raised in such a diverse family not only made him feel safe, he said, but also developed in him a mind free of any cultural walls.
“Growing up, my parents also hosted 21 foreign exchange students, so we have ‘family’ from all over the globe,” Popma said. “I loved it. I got to learn about different cultures, and it really gave me a very universal mindset.”
The spark of Popma’s passion for anti-human trafficking was always there under the surface, he said, but it caught fire in high school after watching what is now one of his favorite films, “Schindler’s List.”
Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning masterpiece about German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s attempts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust left Popma with an image that will forever haunt him: a little girl in a red coat.
To Popma, the image represents “the victim we cannot look away from,” and in a more personal way, represents both the child he might have been and the child his mother was.
“We see it, we know it’s happening, but we don’t do anything about it. For human trafficking, that’s what it is: It’s a little girl in a red coat,” he said. “We all know it’s happening … but we don’t know how to combat it or we choose to block it from our minds. That’s probably why it’s the second most organized crime in the world.
“Anti-human trafficking has always been a passion of mine and it is fully grown since I found out about my life story. I just felt, ‘Why don’t I be a voice for the voiceless?’”
He returned to India in 2010 to begin researching the country’s human trafficking problem and connect with his past. Human rights volunteers were shocked to see a former slave child who willingly returned to the area, he said, because they’d never seen one come back and want to help.
While searching through his records, a woman from his former orphanage confirmed for him that his mother had been a sex slave but no longer was on the streets. She was dead.
“Would I have wanted to meet her? Probably not,” he said.
As for the man who fathered him, Popma said, “I could care less if I ever meet him or even if he’s alive.”
In April 2010, a year after his visit to India, Popma started to work on founding Save India’s Youth. It became an official nonprofit in March 2012, he said, and gained 501(c)(3) status in October.
SIY is currently run out of his house and “in coffee shops,” he said, but his plan is to partner with Sanlaap, an Indian non-governmental organization founded in 1987 that focuses on the prevention of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, as well as the prevention of second-generation prostitution and reintegration and mainstreaming of survivors.
Popma said he hopes to spend the next four years working near Calcutta’s brothels, rescuing as many women and children as possible.
SIY will work to allow women rescued from the sex-trade to receive medical rehab and provisions to help them re-join society and provide their children with education, he said.
“Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but there’s a method to my madness,” he said. “I’m not afraid of the traffickers and the brothel owners … I’m angry.”
Human trafficking is a giant, complex machine without easy solutions, Popma said. Part of SIY’s answer is to offer generation upon generation of India’s slaves the chance to become free and learn the survival skills necessary to stay free.
“What SIY is going to do for hundreds of mothers and children living in the brothels is it will free their fate,” he said.
“Unless some miracle happens, I don’t think human trafficking will be abolished in my lifetime. I don’t like to say that, but I have to be realistic, because if I go out there and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to abolish all slavery,’ I’ll fail.”
Popma may seem cool-headed about his mission, but one can’t help but wonder if his notion about a miracle isn’t completely off. Perhaps the miracle happened the day a stranger rescued a slave baby from the streets of Calcutta.
“When I tell people my story, they’re amazed, but to me it’s just second nature. I’m just a regular human being,” Popma said, laughing. “I’m not Moses — yet.”