More than just a volunteer trip... the experience of a lifetime
Having arrived home last week, I’ve been tossing and turning about how to best articulate my thoughts and feelings of the One Body Village Canada volunteer trip that took us to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. My love affair with South East Asia first began through my prior travels to Thailand and the Philippines. My heart grew fond of the exotic culture, delicious food, scenic wonders, pristine beaches and most importantly the people – the people I had met along the way were kind, hospitable and though they had little, would always be the first to offer the shirt off their back or their only bowl of rice. Little did I know, behind the striking surface that I so naively embraced, there lives a dark, revolting sex culture. A culture whereby women and children are brutally bought, sold, used, abused, raped, beaten, tortured, physiologically coerced, and sometimes left for dead – all to satisfy the demand of horrendous monsters who have had a role in the aforementioned. Supply and demand may be an oversimplification; the root causes for sex trafficking run deep and are complex but at the end of the day, whether it be the deceitful individuals who first lure the victims, the pimps, or the clients – they all contribute to and play a role in the sinister business and perpetuation of sex trafficking. Seemingly, these ruthless people lack compassion and humility if they can so easily inflict such monstrosities upon fellow mankind, children no less. It is simply impossible to grasp that although on the other side of the earth, this kind of treatment and slavery exists in our generation’s world at such a massive scale.
One of the most incomprehensible and heartbreaking facts about sexual exploitation in SE Asia is that direct family members are, more often than not, the perpetrators in some way, shape or form. Fathers, stepfathers, uncles, grand fathers, and brothers will brutally rape their own daughters, stepdaughters, nieces, grandchildren, and sisters. In the sex trafficking industry, a mother will sell her child like cattle, as a means of income. The level of deprivation and poverty is so profound in many areas; countless earn less than the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day. Their level of vulnerability is amplified, as they are completely uneducated and unskilled which means the chance at a better life is impossible. The result? A doomed fate shared by countless children, who are sold to traffickers for amounts that although insignificant to us, are seen as everything to a desperate family from an impoverished rural village. This is their way to justify a means. A sobering and disheartening lesson learned very quickly into our trip is that the lives of these precious children carry little to no value at all. They are not cherished or seen as a source of joy, they are perceived as a burden – just another mouth to feed. Disgracefully, children are considered a commodity, something that can be traded and leveraged for as little as US$200.
In Malaysia, it is the glimpse into the treatment of sex trafficking victims that had our blood boiling in anger and frustration. These victims, mostly illegal migrants from neighbouring countries, are lured with promises of honest employment with decent earnings to support their families back home. They are then served with a twisted bait and switch. Instead of the job they were promised, women and children end up working as sex slaves. If caught by law enforcement in a raid, the victims are brought to a government-run detention center while they await their paperwork to go back home, their fate in limbo for on average six months to one year or more. Instead of having a dignified victim protection regime, the government has instituted cruel, crowded, prison-like detention centers as the solution. Held in captivity, they are given no education, healthcare, or civil rights. Victims are not allowed to contact their families, which are oblivious of their whereabouts or safe being, unknowing if their loved one is dead or alive. With corruption at every level, these victims will continue to face immense obstacles and challenges throughout their time in detention and as they are re-integrated into society once paperwork is eventually processed. Hopelessly, many will be re-exploited upon their return home. Similar to the melting pot that is Malaysia’s culture, I could not help but feel a melting pot of emotions for these misfortuned souls. Saddened, angered, frustrated and disheartened that the lives of these women and children, victims of sexual exploitation, have to endure yet more hardship and loneliness. Even after being trapped in the world of sex trafficking, they are yet again denied the true care and dignity they so deserve. Looking from the outside in, Malaysia is seemingly progressive in nature and may have higher standards and conditions of living in comparison to its other SE Asian counterparts. But underneath the surface lies some archaic ideals and deep corruption, no better than those of its geographic neighbors.
In Vietnam and Cambodia, I had the utmost privilege to meet and spend time with the girls whom OBV has bravely rescued from the horrendous sex trafficking and sexual abuse cycle. Girls as young as 3 years old have endured truly unimaginable physical and psychological suffering. Their bodies have been used and battered to fulfill disgusting sexual perversion and their minds coerced and manipulated with tactics full of lies and intimidation. Often, the only question that ran through my mind as I played and laughed with these little angels was, “How? How could anyone possibly be so cruel and willingly hurt and defile these tiny, precious, beautiful beings?” When hearing personal stories of the girls' excruciating past, my eyes would fill with tears of sadness, disgust, and anger; my heart would ache heavily with sorrow for their suffering. But for the few days I was immersed in their lives, they brought me so much more laugher than tears. Their beaming smiles and jovial, playful personalities are a testament to their remarkable resilience and to the fact that these girls refuse to let their painful past define them. The few wonderful days spent with the girls in the OBV homes were some of the most rewarding, heart warming and enlightening moments of my life to date. My heart burst with love and admiration for all of the girls, despite not even being able to speak their native language. It is truly remarkable how we human beings can form such incredible connections, just by virtue of being in one another’s presence. Thanks to the incomparable OBV staff, everyone from the House Mothers to the psychologists, the homes are filled with a beautiful sentiment of hope and love. The staff members are more than that to the girls, they are family. Many have given up time in their own lives to support the children. Their investment of love and dedication has clearly enriched and made a significantly positive impact in the lives of the girls they care for.
Beyond the OBV staff, I had the fortune of meeting other local humanitarians who are truly champions of their cause, each of them uniquely serving others in their own inspiring way. From school principals, to priests, to nuns, to other NGO volunteers, and even the common citizen with disabilities of their own – we came across so many who do so much good and expect little to nothing in return. The pure altruism demonstrated by these community heroes knows no limits and is as rare as it is remarkable. Their contribution to the greater good is attributed to their passion to enrich the lives of others through determination, patience, and love. One evident commonality between these unsung heroes is their unwavering faith in God and the empowerment they draw from their spiritual beliefs. The selflessness, devotion, and conviction that is a byproduct of their faith is one of the most powerful and inspiring human acts I’ve had the honour to witness.
It is organizations like OBV that are making their bright mark in a world full of darkness, by giving these young children the love, dignity, respect, and opportunity they were so brutally robbed of. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a group of big brown eyes, timid smiles and endearing curiosity. Behind those beautiful bright eyes, I know, live memories of torment and agony from their troubled past. I can only pray that the young ones will remember little of the suffering they were forced to endure. In our short time with the girls, it was easy to see their intelligence, wit and diverse talents. They remain respectful, disciplined, and so incredibly hardworking. Most of all, they radiate with love. So much more love than what was ever given to them. These girls now have a safe haven where they can reach new heights, new possibilities, new potential. We shared days of endless play and laughter, just as if they were ordinary girls. But then, as I caught on to their gleaming eyes once again, I am soberly reminded that they are far from ordinary. These bright and innocent young girls are stronger, more courageous, and far more resilient than most of us will ever have to be in our entire lifetime.
It is an interesting dynamic to have the girls look up to us, and to be treated as special guests in their home. They look at us with their big brown eyes in such awe, so appreciative of the time we’ve spent with them. Truth is, it is they who have given me so much more fulfillment and perspective than I could ever give them. I’ve learned a great deal about how I want to raise my own children and live my own life from simply being graced by their presence. These remarkably brave children have truly transformed my heart and for that, I have so much gratitude. My heart is comforted as I leave them, knowing they have been given a second chance and now have a family that loves and treasures their precious lives. Oddly enough, I don’t pity the girls. Don’t get me wrong, I commiserate in their sorrows and fully acknowledge their tragic past. But in lieu of pity, I have nothing but feelings of love and admiration for the girls. Love for their playful spirits and admiration for their incredible perseverance despite having lived through the most painful kind of suffering. I’m thankful and privileged beyond belief to have sat down with them as a family at dinnertime, to have played and laughed like sisters, to have done their hair before they left for school, to have shared in both their pain and most beautifully, in their joy. Despite the pain, I’ve seen the light. The bright light in their eyes that is the love, potential, hopes, and dreams they carry for themselves and for all the other children who are still out there. For these girls are the lucky ones, given a second chance at a better life. With OBV, I vow to continue to fight for those children unspoken for and together, these girls have inspired me to help in the fight to save one precious life at a time.