Planting the Seed

Written by: 

LTM, a trafficking survivor, and Nguyễn Tường Long

 

April 2, 2015

 

Ta Van, Sapa, is a poetic village hidden under a field of pine trees, whose beauty rivals the visions from my own dreams. The melodious sound of birdsongs and the murmuring of the stream fill the everyday current of life, as the villagers weave fabric as long as our ethnic tradition. In recent years, the deforestation has laid waste to the land and destroyed the beauty that nature has graciously given to us. Our beautiful and peaceful life slowly diminished before us. The natural disasters occurred successively: The torrential downpours, a violent rockslide, and then a terrible landslide swept half of my village and family members away. The villagers who remained helped my family build a temporary shelter next to the stream. With a family of four girls and no land to work on, my parents left the village to go look for work. They left me, the eldest of four and fifteen years old, in charge of the house.

 

One day, a stranger came to my village and told me that he would give me money to buy some new clothes and shoes.  I had never left the village before meeting that stranger.  He took me to a faraway place where I was suddenly pushed into a hotel and was forced to have sex with Chinese men I had never met. I have never experienced so much pain, both physically and emotionally. One night, I escaped through the bathroom window and ran outside. Luckily, a kind-hearted stranger helped me with my escape.

 

A year passed before I finally found my way back to my village. I was in a state of shock and disbelief when I was greeted with disdain from my own community.  Rumors had spread in my absence that I had been working as a prostitute in China. The old wounds were still healing when family members and neighbors lacerated me with new cuts filled with discrimination and scorn.  Though I dreamt of taking my own life, I woke up when I thought about my younger sisters and how much they needed me.

 

Upon hearing of my story, a social worker came by to talk to me and offered guidance. I was given a chance to stay at Pacific Links Foundation’s Compassion House in Lao Cai, Vietnam.  This was where I was offered food, shelter, healthcare, lessons in life skills development, general studies and English lessons, and vocational training in the tourism sector. Slowly, I could feel my psychological wounds beginning to heal. With the help of everyone around me these last two years at the Compassion House, I have found renewed meaning and value in life.  I believe that there are still many beautiful things to see.

 

- Written by LTM, a trafficking survivor

 

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After a fruitful two years in the Lao Cai Compassion House, LTM returned home to share her experience with her village. Nguyễn Tường Long, the Deputy Head of the Department of Social Vices Prevention (DSVP) in Lao Cai, shares his perspective:

 

- Me: Would you like to return home? 

- LTM: Yes, I am really eager to return home!

- Me: To do what? 

- LTM: To meet my lovely siblings and mother who has worked so hard to support her family.

 

After meeting with her family, LTM bravely met with her childhood friends from her village. She courageously told them about the dark days and months that she spent in China.  She told them about the profound price that she has had to pay for believing in the false promises and lies of crooked people. Her story quickly spread throughout the entire village.  But instead of derision and ridicule, LTM’s tale of caution now summoned a call-to-action. Concerned parents throughout the village rushed home to warn their young daughters against listening to false promises that could put them in LTM’s position.

 

Pacific Links Foundation’s love, faith, and confidence in LTM has helped with her healing and transformation into a beautiful young lady who now serves as the village’s premier tour guide for international visitors. 

 

When asked what her future dreams are, LTM replied, “I only possess two small dreams:  (1) I hope that every tourist that visits will help us plant one flower or tree, so that our environmental conservation efforts will keep the village vibrantly green and beautiful; (2) I hope that the younger generation in my village will be given the opportunity to learn English.

Would You Have Done the Same?

Written by: 

Phuong Thao Nguyen and Hang Tran

 

December 20, 2014

 

D. is the newest and youngest human trafficking survivor taking up residence at our Lao Cai Compassion House. Despite not ever receiving formal education and being illiterate, D. is proving to be one of the most tenacious young women we have met. She understands the challenges ahead of her and she has expressed determination to obtain an education as well as vocational training so that she can better protect herself and her family against exploitation in the future. The most immediate care that D. needed was medical to help heal the infections on her legs. Once that was done, we have started to work with her on reading and writing skills.

 

Below is her story:

 

As the youngest child in my family, I have four older sisters and two older brothers. When I was fourteen, I was forced into a marriage. My husband at the time was twenty-years old and even though he was also Hmong, we did not speak the same language since he is from a different Hmong tribe. He was extremely abusive. Four months later, my sister ended up marrying into the same family (she married his older cousin) and was also severely abused. Unlike me, she would scream and fight back whenever he was abusive towards her. It was inevitable that her abusive husband would one day kill her. Upon my sister's death, my family found out the dire situation that I was in and rescued me from my abusive husband.

 

Shortly after I returned home, a stranger called me on the telephone to tell me of a promising work opportunity. I agreed and upon arrival in China, he immediately sold me to a Hmong couple who then sold me as a bride to a thirty-year old Chinese man. I cried hysterically every single day until he eventually could not take it anymore and ended up selling me to someone else. In this new home, I paid careful attention to the man's daily routine so that I could look for my window to escape. I pretended to love and care for this man so that I could gain his trust.

 

After about two weeks, he came home from work one day in a very good mood. Once he fell asleep and stopped responding to my inquiries, I snuck over to his coat and grabbed the keys and the little money that he had in his pockets. That day was only the second time in my life that I ever seen an elevator (the first day was when I was first sold to him), and I was not sure how one worked. I frantically paced the floor, terrified that he would wake up and catch me, but I really did not know what to do. Suddenly, a different man approached the elevator and pressed a button. He motioned me to enter, so I did. I did not want to speak to him because I did not want to arise any suspicion since I did not know how to speak Chinese. Since I knew that we were on one of the higher floors, I motioned down with my finger. Luckily this worked and once I got to the ground floor, I ran with all of my might.

 

For the next ten days, I would only allow myself to eat a couple of banh bao and bottles of water because I was afraid I would run out of money. At night, I would hide in the bushes to try to sleep but it was hard to do because of all the noises and mosquitoes. After a few days, my entire body was covered in mosquito bites that swelled up. I was exhausted and sickly looking; I lost hope and was eventually driven to despair. All I could think about was my mother who was probably worried to death about me. I thought to myself, “If I cannot return home to my family, I would rather die than to be sold again.”

 

So I tried to take my own life by jumping over a bridge and into a river. That was when two Chinese men who were wearing some type of uniform saved me. I could not understand what they were discussing but I could tell that the sight of me disgusted them: I smelled bad and was covered in swollen red welts. I could tell that they were worried that I might have been contagious with whatever it was that they thought I had because they immediately took me to a hospital to get a check-up. After the hospital cleared me, they did not know what to do with me so they locked me up in prison where I stayed for the next four months. They finally introduced me to someone who spoke Vietnamese and I was finally able to tell someone that I was from Vietnam and that I needed to go home.

 

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I am just a young Hmong girl. I was never given the opportunity to attend school. Because I don’t know how to read and write, I always thought that I would not amount to anything. Now, I am given a second-chance at life and I will do everything to prove I deserve it. Tell me, if you were in my situation, would you have done the same [try to escape]?

 

“I’m not sure. I would like to think that I have that much courage to escape those horrible conditions,” responded Ms. Phuong Thao, our program manager.

She Protects Us In Her Gaze

Written by: 

Hang Tran

 

October 9, 2014

 

The transaction was carried out in the stillness of the night, where the only spotlight on the furtive affair came from the brightness of the full moon. It was on that night that my adopted mother decided to name me after the moon goddess, Hắng Nga. The goddess protected us in her warmth, and she protected me in her gaze. I stare up at the moon during Tết Trung Thu, or the mid-autumn festival, every year since the discovery of my adoption. I think about how they must have felt when they gave me up. I think about the tears that must have singed my birth mother’s face. And I think about what it must mean to want to protect our children.

 

I haven’t celebrated tết traditionally in nearly twenty-years; this year, I was able to celebrate it for the first time in Vietnam. The festival occurs during the fifteenth day of the eight lunar month of the Lunar calendar (usually somewhere in mid-September) and is truly considered a festival for the children. The tradition began as a way for parents to make up for lost time with their children due to long hours during harvest season. Dark streets become ablaze with colorfully lit lanterns, and the once murky river is now covered in a veil of twinkling lights.

 

This has also been my first couple of weeks with Pacific Links Foundation. I have been working with the girls at our reintegration shelter in Long Xuyen all week long to prepare for the Moon Festival. But really, what that means is that I sat and watched their handicraft with amazement. The girls cut and shave large bamboo poles down to a more pliable material, and then the sticks are configured into a 3D shape of their choosing (usually a star or a cylinder). It’s rare nowadays for people to make these lanterns by hand since they can be easily picked-up around the corner for less than a dollar. But besides the perennial challenge of working on a small budget, what we try to instill in these girls at every turn is a sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness. The ultimate goal is to foster their ability to survive without the organization and the mentors. In a sense, they must learn to become as pliable as the lantern’s infrastructure. This week, I learn that this is what protecting our children meant.

 

It has been estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that one in five victims of human trafficking are children, and in poorer regions like the Mekong delta where we work, that number is much higher. While trafficking for sexual exploitation has gained traction in the public consciousness, other forms of trafficking such as forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude, and forced organ removal are less well known. Trafficking victims are often lured by the people they know –acquaintances, friends, lovers, and even family – and are recruited through deception and false promises of a more worthwhile life. What are the consequences of this treacherous recruiting tactic? How will the deceit from a kin pull at the fibers of our community? – Because everyone here is a relative. Everyone is your uncle (chú), your aunt (cô), your sister (chị) and your brother (anh). Our relationship to others is encapsulated within our language; and therein lies the root of our trust.

 

We don’t have the luxury of treating these girls like children. We have to think twice or three times before we do something as simple as buy them a treat or a toy to play with. We have to think about the message behind all of our words and actions. As much as I would like to sit beside them as a friend—as a sister—and treat them to all the delicacies that I think they are entitled to as a child, I must first keep in mind our program’s objective of cultivating self-reliance. The reintegration process must also therefore address the vulnerability of victims to further exploitation. Our role is to provide a safe and enabling environment for recovery and development. But our success will ultimately be defined in their capacity to care for themselves and to make the right decisions.

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