The stories of a girl

Written by: 

Nhu Tien Lu


July 11, 2011


For the past three weeks, I’ve been living and working at Pacific Links Foundation’s reintegration shelter for trafficking survivors in northern Vietnam. There are twelve girls, ages thirteen to twenty-two, from five different minority ethnicities, currently residing there. When I boarded the flight back to Saigon, my legs were scarred with flea bites from the rural visits, my bags were heavy with miniature pineapples and northern plums, and I was weighted with stories, these girls’ stories whose wings I can feel urgently fluttering against my ribcage, trying to find their way out.


A path through stone corn to her house.

In northern Vietnam, about an hour’s drive from Lao Cai and a steep fifteen minute walk along dense rows of stone corn and narrow ledges of rice paddies, lives a Hmong girl. She is thirteen, which is old enough to have worked in the fields since her first memory, old enough to be snatched off for marriage, old enough to be sold with her mother and two sisters to China.


There are details about those four months spent in China that she will have to relive and retell over and over. These are the answers that she will have to recount to the police, the immigration officials, the social workers, the researchers, and to story seekers like myself.


I was born in the year of the mouse.


In my family, I have my mom and dad, two sisters and two brothers and a nephew we’re caring for since his mother was sold last year to China.


My uncle invited my mom and sisters to a holiday and he promised to pay for everything. So we went with him by car, and then by boat, and then again by car once we arrived in China.


I knew that we had been sold when my uncle took the money and the two men who had taken us by boat said that we could no longer go home.


I lived with my mom and younger sister for two months, then I was sold for 12,000 yuan  ($856 USD) to become the wife to a thirty-year-old man. The family cursed at me frequently in Chinese, but I could understand, even if I didn’t know all the words. They tried to force me to learn Chinese, but I would resist; I would purposefully not listen or pay attention. They told me that they couldn’t afford to pay for a wedding with a Chinese woman for their son, so they bought a Vietnamese girl instead. I went to work with them in the fields and did housework. My older sister lived nearby, since she had been sold to another man in the same neighborhood, and we would call each other as often as we could and cry together.


After four months there, I escaped with my older sister and we hired a taxi to take us to the police station, lying to the driver that we had to fill out some paperwork there, because we were afraid he would bring us back to our husbands if he knew we were running away. We spent a total of two days at the border police station, two weeks at the Vietnam migration shelter, and then we were home for 4 days before we arrived at the Pacific Links reintegration shelter.


Then there are the details that she is not asked about, those memories that don’t make it into the notebooks of policemen or policy research interviewers.


I have fond memories of New Year’s day, when my dad would celebrate by buying a few cans of soda to place on the altar, and after the spirits had drunk, we could bring them down and drink them.


She washes chopsticks in preparation for lunch during our visit, her white plastic shoes in the background.

My parents bought my first pair of shoes for school, little plastic ones that cost 5000 dong (25 cents US) and I’d walk barefoot to school, then put the shoes on, and then after school, I’d walk back home barefoot. I was so afraid of wearing down those shoes.


My parents bought my first pair of shoes for school, little plastic ones that cost 5000 dong (25 cents US) and I’d walk barefoot to school, then put the shoes on, and then after school, I’d walk back home barefoot. I was so afraid of wearing down those shoes.


I had a baby chick when I was young, but one day it was hopping around the house, crying -chirp chirp chirp- and my sister, who was sweeping the dirt floor, became irritated at the noise, and so she brushed it out into the field and it died. It was so small. I cried and cried.


When I was supposed to be tending to the water buffalos after school, if my parents weren’t around, I would shape the damp red earth into figurines, and pretend that my clay was a princess who lived in a castle, and I could do this for hours -meanwhile having to slap away the fleas that landed thick and dark on my legs- and if my sisters were with me, then my princess could go visit their princess in their castle.


In China, the family would turn off the television at 11pm, and I would go upstairs to my bed and sit there, awake, still, until 3 or 4 in the morning. I would think about how to escape. I would think about killing myself. Sometimes I just thought. I would ask my sister, when life and death are the same misery, then what’s the difference? But I once overheard the family talking about a dumb girl who escaped back to Vietnam, and I thought, if she’s a stupid girl and she managed to run away, then how ridiculous would it be if I couldn’t? And after that I stopped thinking about suicide and only thought of how to escape.


She is now planning on finishing her schooling while at the shelter. When asked what she wants to study, she says, anything. Everything. She is so clever that you believe her, you think everything is truly possible for her if she should want it. Her laughter is open, wide, infectiously bright, so deep that you can’t imagine her sadness.


She says, I dream of one day owning a house with two stories. Of having a lot of money so I can buy whatever I want. Of going swimming in the ocean.


Anything else?


She looks down, and then she says, softly, I dream that one day I’ll forget.


And then she begins to cry, this vibrant, shining girl who has, for the first time since you’ve met her, stopped smiling. You wrap her in a hug and you hold her for several minutes while she cries, although you can’t tell who’s crying harder.


And in a while, she’ll dry her eyes and you’ll say something to make her smile, and when she does, her wide, deep laugh bright as morning in the room, you’ll see how her laughter is fierce with courage and resistance and light.


But for now, you let her cry, her thin shoulders against your arms.


There is a thirteen-year-old Hmong girl you now know, and whose story you will tell to others, who laughs all the time, who cried over baby chicks and refused to learn Chinese, and who dreams of one day forgetting.



Not famous, but heroes nonetheless: reflections on the 2011 trafficking in persons report

Written by: 

Lillian Forsyth


July 1, 2011




On June 27, the U.S. Department of State  released the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which assesses the counter-human trafficking efforts of 184 countries and provides recommendations for improvement. Although it can’t fully investigate the complicated nature of the issue in each country and is, after all, written with the U.S.’s diplomatic policies in mind, this annual report is one of the main sources of standardized information about trafficking in the world.


Vietnam was listed as “Tier 2 – Watchlist” again this year. The Vietnam section of the report pointed primarily to Vietnam’s labor trafficking problem, and encouraged Vietnam to make information and protections more readily available for private and state-run labor export companies. I was frustrated by the shortage of information about sex trafficking, as this is still a pressing issue in the regions where Pacific Links Foundation works, and it is inextricably linked to the rise in labor export from Vietnam.


One of the victim stories from the TIP report highlighted the link between labor trafficking and sex trafficking that is often observed in Vietnam:


“Olga, 23, came to Dubai from Moldova on a visitor visa after hearing about a job opportunity there. A Russian woman and an Indian man picked her up at the airport when she arrived. They took her to their apartment and told her she would instead be prostituted. When she refused, they beat her and threatened to kill her and bury her in the desert. They threatened to harm her if she did not pay them back for her travel expenses, and then sent Olga to a local hotel to meet customers and collect money from them.”


U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton spoke at the White House on the day the report was released, reiterating some of the key points and talking about her own experience visiting a shelter for young trafficking victims in Cambodia.


This year’s report also contained a section that I’d never noticed in prior years, entitled “TIP Heroes.” Clinton mentioned this section of the report in the speech, stating:


“Stories like these and the others you will hear about our TIP heroes give us hope, because they inspire us, but also tell us very practically what we can do to make a difference. And the story of all the victims really is one that should motivate all of us. And when we hear the stories of the TIP heroes, we know that it’s not hopeless, we know that it is not overwhelming, we know that person by person, we can make a difference.”


The Secretary’s words made me curious about these TIP Heroes and so I navigated over to that section of the website. As I read through these heroes’ stories – people working on trafficking from Bosnia, to Nepal, to Finland, in areas including prosecution, shelter services, and community building – I felt a simultaneous sense of “So what?” and “Wow.” How could these two thoughts occur simultaneously? Well, because as I read through the stories of these heroes, I felt as if reflections of the Pacific Links Foundation’s counter-trafficking initiatives were staring out of the page in front of me.


The TIP Heroes showcased in the report are people who have trained law enforcement officials to recognize trafficking at the borders, set up programs to counter trafficking in their communities, and established shelters for victims where there were previously no services. Pacific Links has done all of these things and more. Pacific Links Foundation has provided over 700 scholarships for at-risk girls; reintegration services to more than 80 young women at its shelters at the northern and southern borders or in their communities; and awareness raising programs for over 5000 local school teachers, women’s groups, public officials, parents and community members. And Pacific Links Foundation does all of this with only two full-time program staff members, one accountant, two resident coordinators at the shelters, and a handful of unpaid full- and part-time volunteers, in both Vietnam and the U.S., including the organization’s president.


As I read the TIP report stories, I felt a sense of admiration for what Pacific Links Foundation has been able to accomplish over the past six years. It’s amazing to be able to work for an organization that is full of everyday heroes who dedicate so much of their passion to this cause and but have yet to receive such formal recognition.


A trip to the border region

Written by: 

Lillian Forsyth


May 26, 2011


Since March I have been working with Pacific Links Foundation to prevent human trafficking in Vietnam’s remote border regions. While my primary role is communications, networking and fundraising for the program in Ho Chi Minh City, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the organization’s yearly Parent’s Day in each of the border provinces where we provide scholarships to at-risk girls. I have spent the better part of the last five years in Vietnam. But this was a level of exposure I had yet to experience.


We were on the road by 6 a.m., the fresh morning air rushing in through the windows of a rickety 14-passenger van as we crossed our first ferry of the day. Dong Thap province, on the opposite side of the river, is one of the poorest provinces in the Mekong Delta region, with a high rate of trafficking and migration across the long border with Cambodia. After three hours on barely paved roads and a second ferry crossing, we reached our first middle school of the day and climbed the stairs to a room full of bright-eyed young girls, ages 12 – 16. Their mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other caretakers sat on narrow wooden benches at the opposite side of the classroom, wearing polyester pajamas and weary expressions.


I was most nervous about the interviews. Annual Parent’s Day activities have two purposes: raising awareness about human trafficking, and providing Pacific Links Foundation staff the opportunity to speak with each family about their economic situation and evaluate how it is affecting their daughters’ risk of being trafficked. With a shortage of staff, I was tasked with interviewing some of the families.


My first interview was with Ms. Dao and her daughter Men (names changed). While I spoke with Ms. Dao about the family’s situation and how it had changed over the past year, Men wrote down each of the members in her family and her address on an interview form. Her mother dropped out of school after third grade and can’t read or write. This year has been tough, Ms. Dao confided: with more and more farmers moving to mechanical rice cutting techniques, day laborers such as herself have fewer sources of income. She has resorted to taking in laundry to support Men, Men’s 3-year old brother, and Ms. Dao’s older sister, who is too ill to work. With this, she’s able to scrape together 200,000 – 300,000 VND per month—the equivalent of $10 – $15 U.S. Dollars. When I asked her what her hopes were for her daughter’s education, her eyes began to tear. “I want her to study as far as she can. I don’t want her to end up like her mother.”


The typical story that you hear in the news and in the papers here is that people in the Mekong Delta simply sell their daughters as a way to help the family’s economic situation. Looking into the faces of these parents and their daughters confirmed for me that this is simply a myth bred by those who fail to understand the complicated nature of the poverty that exists in the remote parts of this country. What parent would ever willingly sell her child into prostitution, labor exploitation, or other danger? But presented with an attractive but false opportunity by a trafficker who may be a neighbor or even an extended family member, what parent wouldn’t agree to provide her daughter with what seems like a better future in another place, be it in another country? This is one type of manipulation that allows human traffickers to prevail. Hearing the scholarship recipients and their families recount the information they have learned from Pacific Links Foundation about how to keep themselves safe from this risk, I could see concrete ways that the organization is making an impact.



At the end of the week I found myself on a comfortable air-conditioned bus back to the city. As we approached, the neon lights and the urban bustle surrounded us, and I was once again sucked into the increasingly cosmopolitan world of prosperity that is Saigon. That Friday night, I was able to collapse into my own bed for the first time in ten days. But for some reason I was unable to sleep. I tossed and turned until nearly two in the morning, cursing the fact that I would arrive for class the next day looking and feeling as if I’d had a wild night out on the town. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the faces and heard the stories of Ms. Dao, her daughter Men, and each of the other girls and parents I spoke to during the interviews. The next morning brought a return to the normal routine, but my brain has been effectively detached from my actions for the past 5 days. Perhaps this is simply a new and more profound kind of mental disconnect that I will have to overcome if I am to continue to this work of bridging the ever-widening gap between the organization’s donors and the people we serve.