Westmont Magazine Finding Hope Amid the Horrors of Human Trafficking
Reflections by Megan Moore ’13 on a 2010 Westmont Mayterm Trip
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice. Proverbs 31:8-9
Our journey through the horrors — and hope — of human trafficking began in San Francisco with a week of academic work at Westmont’s Urban House near Golden Gate Park. The first night of our Mayterm class, I sat at my beautiful desk in an adorable blue bedroom with purple carpeting. Looking out the tall windows to Lyon Street, I felt overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit’s presence in that place. God’s amazing providence and beauty had already become apparent.
Throughout the week we read about trafficking and screened a number of videos, including “Playground,” a documentary about the prevalence of child prostitution and trafficking in the United States. Heart-wrenching statistics and stories saturated our already overwhelmed minds first with anger and then with sadness. “Can I really handle this trip?” I wondered. The enormity of this present wickedness weighed heavy on our hearts.
While I am discouraged by the evil in this world, both locally and globally, God not only sees injustice clearly but is doing work beyond my imagination. Despite the horrors of sex trafficking, the depths of which I am only beginning to understand, we serve a King who loves justice, the brokenhearted and the oppressed. Despite the immeasurable perversion of our society, there is hope; He brings hope.
The sun woke me up earlier than usual one morning. We watched a documentary that day on Cambodian children called “Small Voices.” I decided it will be hard to refrain from stealing babies. Later in the afternoon we saw a “rock-u-mentary,” “Call and Response,” and discussed the film with the director (and musician), Justin Dillon. We clobbered him with questions.
This time in San Francisco, while incredibly educational, helpful and challenging, couldn’t prepare me for what I witnessed once we arrived in Pattaya, Thailand. The reality of sex tourism slapped each one of us in the face. Prior to the Vietnam War, Pattaya was nothing more than a small, stunningly beautiful fishing village in southern Thailand. Becoming a hub for soldiers seeking some R&R caused a boom in the prostitution industry. Today, Pattaya is a top destination for sex tourists worldwide.
On the blue bus from the airport and later in the hotel pool we saw some of the real people we had read about: white men with tiny, underage Thai girls. Unashamed is the only word to describe the sex tourists.
It is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful in Pattaya: rich greens, fragrant blossoms, perfect, paradisiacal sunsets. Despite the darkness, light is present. Creation shouts praises to its Creator.
Our second night, a few others and I strolled down Walking Street, Pattaya’s main attraction and red light district. There were girls everywhere, some 30, some no older then 14. They lined the street cat-calling each passing man — or woman, for that matter. Men shoved menus in my face, beautiful women danced in glass boxes above the street, others danced in windows and on poles. Glittering neon lights flashed everywhere, making it look like Pinocchio’s fantasy island for men. The whole scene was fake, 3D pornography. It’s a fantasy filled with dream girls and easy, no-strings-attached self-indulgence.
I looked up to the three stories above the lights where the tiny windows were dark and barred, designed to keep things in. Finally we climbed into the taxi, and I sat numb, filled with horror and heartache. These women exist to fulfill fantasies, to be fantasies. I wanted to see them as broken humans, not as vivid characters from a bad dream. This was real; I couldn’t wake up.
The next day we made new friends, women from the Tamar Center. This organization helps bar girls find new lives by training them in vocations and providing food, homes and education. Ying Pi showed us around Pattaya and invited all of us to their newly re-opened restaurant and bakery.
Ying Pi put a face and personality to the countless, faceless bar girls we saw every day. She said the girls are forced to put on a false face and sell themselves cheerfully and eagerly. In their hearts, they don’t want this life. They are trapped. This gorgeous, precious woman reaffirmed so many things we learned in San Francisco. “I always hope that God will change Pattaya to be a city that follows his heart,” she said. She helped us to view sex tourists differently too. While being angry is sometimes good, we should not be angry too long, she said. These tourists need love, and we can show them what they are actually looking for: God’s love. The dim alleyways, tightly shut curtains, barred windows and back rooms terrified me, but I felt God’s presence tangibly in that bakery. In the women’s eyes, I saw redemption and hope, healing and peace.
We left Pattaya and flew to Chang Mai, where we piled into 15-passenger vans with psychedelic interiors complete with travel-size Buddhist shrines on the dashboard. We were on our way to ground zero of the SOLD Project; co-founder Rachel Goble-Carey ’05 led our Mayterm trip with Westmont Professor Brad Berky, who teaches in San Francisco with the Urban Program. We met at the resource center, which is under construction, and listened to co-founder Rachel Sparks share their vision and work in the hill villages of Northeast Thailand. They focus on the prevention side of trafficking, providing supplemental education, scholarships and sponsorships for at-risk children in the hill tribes.
In a tiny village in northeast Thailand, I sat on a stump at the mayor’s house eating fried termites like popcorn, surrounded by smiling and laughing Thai men and women. The laughter never ceased in this village. The children, each one so perfectly crafted by the Creator, danced, played and filled our hearts with unspeakable joy. These precious faces, no longer statistics, were each at risk, prime candidates to be trafficked into the sex trade. As I glanced into the still-innocent eyes of Drim or Ti Louu or Waan, I knew I would be enraged if anyone tried to touch them. I began to realize the deep pain parents must feel when forced to sell their babies — and the confusion and betrayal mixed with a sense of duty that must ravage the children’s hearts.
I stayed with 15-year-old Waan and her sweet father for the night. They treated us like royalty, and I have never been so humbled. These people know how to love. They have hardly anything, yet they gave it freely and joyfully. The thought of buggy toast with chili powder, rice, coke and mystery brown squish for breakfast was less than appetizing at 6:30 a.m., but Waan’s look of pride in her feast and excitement in giving it made it delicious.
The staff of VCDF passed around fried bananas and fresh pineapple as they shared the vision and accomplishments of this rescue and prevention operation near the Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. They care for street kids who are orphans or have drug-addicted parents. Since they come from various hill tribes, no country claims them as citizens, and they receive no governmental protection. Without IDs, it’s virtually impossible for them to find work, so they end up begging and selling drugs, pornography or themselves. These children — as young as 3 years old — are prime candidates for traffickers. VCDF offers them safety, housing, food, education and counseling. But the children must decide for themselves to leave the streets.
After lunch, we walked through the marketplace where dozens upon dozens of street kids tackled us with squeals of joy. They’re just babies, longing for love, starving for a kind touch. They followed us back to the office, and I fell in love with the most beautiful, tiny girl. I suddenly felt sick, knowing she could be stolen and abused. I wanted to buy her a plane ticket away from there — I would trade places with her in a heartbeat. That’s how I felt in Pattaya about the bar girls; I would do anything to free just one of those beautiful women. I wanted to suffer for them. But then I remember that Jesus already has.
We spent our last day and a half in Thailand being tourists: long, long drives in hilariously uncomfortable truck-beds, ticks, whitewater rafting in the middle of a Thai jungle, seeing tigers, riding elephants. The time to relax and enjoy the breathtaking creation around us was incredible. In the midst of seemingly endless pain and heartbreak, there is still beauty. Our Maker is good and knows how to give good gifts. While we are called to be concerned with evil, we are not to be consumed by it. We arrived in Cambodia physically exhausted but emotionally refreshed.
Blistering heat, 110 degrees with 45 percent humidity, changes instantly to torrential tropical downpour and fierce winds. The palms bend lower than they should, and the children wade home from school. Cambodia is only 35 years out of genocide. War, waged purely for selfishness and the hunger for power, devastated the fields and families. I walk through the market. “Lady, white lady, buy some hat, only one dollar. You need a hat, just one dollar, I give special discount for you, two fans for one dollar, lady, please buy from me.” I’m sweating, and my head is spinning from the heat. Everywhere I walk, even late at night, the children grab my wrist and beg for a dollar, just one. Please buy some milk for the baby, she just needs some milk. OK, we’ll get some milk. Kisses on my cheek, hug from grandma in the alley.
I look out the window and see tin and straw huts in the thunderstorm, impoverished villages and babies sitting in the mud. I have no roots here; I still see only documentaries. If I mean it when I beg God to give me his eyes, then seeing the suffering is essential. To see the beauty and joy, we must see the depravity and pain as well. I feel as though my heart can take no more. But I know God is moving; nothing is forsaken. I want his eyes.
At the Cambodian Landmine Museum we learned about the post-war devastation that millions of leftover, active mines cause every day throughout the fields of Cambodia. The museum also serves as an orphanage for children who have been maimed or injured. The mines make it impossible for farmers to farm, so they’re forced to go to the city to find work, beg or even sell their children. The mines could be cleared away, but the government refuses to cooperate. Corruption and greed steal life daily here.
On the six-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, the world outside my window is so different from my world. Naked children every few miles. Huts on the brink of disintegration. Water buffalo, goats, thunderstorms.
At the AFESIP office in the city we learn about the organization Somaly Mam started in the 1990s. She was trafficked herself at the age of 7. After many years of forced labor and sexual slavery in multiple brothels, Somaly escaped and married a Frenchman. Together, they started a foundation to rescue and care for as many trafficked women as they possibly could. Over the years, Somaly has saved more than 5,000 girls from the brothels. She is a celebrity in the world of advocacy and travels constantly.
Just as we were all beginning to doze off in the sticky heat, she walked into the room! Somaly Mam is strong, soft, bright, passionate, loving, fierce, beautiful, brave, sassy, light — and crazy. When her own 14-year-old daughter, Champa, was taken, raped and sold two years ago after school, she was strong and knew exactly what to do to get her back. This woman is a hero. Spending just half an hour with her changed my life. When we asked her about the girls living in the nearby center, she said we must go meet them and gave us access to this private facility.
We met and talked and danced and sang and laughed and cried with dozens of survivors. These women are perfectly beautiful, and I have never felt so much hope.
In my heart, however, the real hope is mixed with real pain. I don’t understand why all this happens. I hate that “Nali’s” eye is gone because her pimp got mad and ripped it out. I hate that thousands of precious baby girls are locked away in closets with scorpions and spiders biting them almost to death while men break their spirits and force them into passive submission. Brothers and sisters, we must act. We must speak for those who have no voices. We must move for those who are in chains.
We listened to a Buddhist monk talk about his religion inside a huge pagoda in the middle of the city. Outside, some street kids entertained us with their break dancing skills in the pouring, tropical rain. Half of them were naked, which begins to seem oddly normal.
We toured an old high school transformed into a prison camp where almost two million people were tortured and stripped of their identities during the Khmer Rouge genocide. As I walked down the halls of this camp, I shivered at how unchanged it all was with blood stains on the walls and shackles attached to the steel bed frames. After walking around for about an hour, I realized my hand was aching; I had been clenching my fist the entire time, my own nails cutting into my palm.
Next we went to the Killing Fields, which contain the bodies and blood of almost two million Cambodians who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge only 35 years ago. At the site of mass graves, new, green grass grew. Plumeria bloomed sweetly over the ditches, and the thick Cambodian sunlight shone through the
storm clouds, blanketing the young grasses. Birds sang, and dragonflies danced over the river where thousands of skulls still remain just under the mud. The beauty in this place almost upset me; I felt it should forever be gloomy and full of anger and tragedy. While this genocide continues to affect every single Cambodian, the men and women here have learned how to move on. They are not angry, nor do they care about revenge. They simply want to rebuild, heal and continue living. This nation is broken, but its people are determined to fix it. Cambodia is strong. Beautiful children on bicycles laughed and sang as they rode home from school, past the Killing Fields.
Our last day in Phnom Penh, we visited Hagar International, a Christian NGO that seeks out and serves the trafficked and exploited women and children of Cambodia. The staff there inspired me. While I had been excited to see foundations combatting injustice and rescuing lives, I was heartbroken that few loudly proclaim the healing words of Christ. Hagar not only meets physical and emotional needs, it also helps introduce broken, wounded people to the “God who sees me.”
The knowledge that hundreds of beautiful girls the same age as my baby sister, will be abused while I slept in my safe hotel haunted me. As I waited in the Phnom Penh airport to fly home, the reality that these millions of people I’ve seen have no ticket home hit me. I am getting out of the sticky heat, dust, garbage and blatant exploitation. While I can choose to avoid the uncomfortable issues I’ve been exposed to, the women I ache for have no such luxury. In the hours it will take to fly across the ocean, thousands of little girls, feeling forgotten and unloved, will be exploited and abused. Millions of children will wake up in the morning and struggle to beg for enough money to survive one more night.
I want to forget and dive back into my safe culture, but I can’t return to life in the same fashion. I know too much to hide from these problems, scary and painful through they may be. I could choose to ignore what I’ve seen, or I can choose to remember: the song of the beaten and abused girl, sung through tears on a tour bus; the anger I felt that a selfish man tore out a girl’s eye; the heartbreak and hope when she kissed my cheek and called me sister.
Our God is a God of justice and hope and healing and redemption and truth and light and love. He is faithful and sees even the least of these. With the freedom and privilege we’ve been given, we must choose either to ignore the uncomfortable or learn to embrace it by intentionally living more uncomfortably. To live more simply so others can simply live. To educate ourselves on uncomfortable issues and fight to see them ended. We must choose to join the men and women who are already defending the weak and speaking up for the voiceless and being His hands and feet. We must choose to care because our Savior cared for us, or we must choose to ignore the uncomfortable because we are too scared to share in the suffering of His heart.
What will you choose?
Megan Moore '13 is a sociology major who took the photos illustrating her article. Photo above by Rachel Goble-Carey