Two weeks ago, a tip came in that several young hill tribe girls were working in karaoke bars in Chiang Mai. Even though rescue is not the core mission of Alpha Foundation, we needed to act quickly and our project leader was ready to go. I was in town at the time and had the opportunity to go along on my first rescue operation. All together we were four women, three Thais and me.
We started by driving out and away from the tourist areas. It’s rare to see underage girls working openly where western eyes are most likely to find them these days. As we drove I prayed that I would be able to connect in some way with any young girls we might encounter that night.
At our first stop we pulled into the parking area of a run-down building. We found our way to a table in the noisy, dark bar and began scanning the room for any girl who appeared to be underage.
She walked to us unsteadily in her high heels like a little girl trying on her mama’s shoes. I stared at her vivid blue dress and wondered distractedly about how a simple color can represent the freedom of the sky and the sea, while that same color can also hide the chains of duty, family expectations and pressures that would hold one so young in a place like this.
While we talked with her I caught irritated glances out of the corner of my eye from the man who had previously paid to sit with her. A practice that allows such men to touch these girls however he might please. By paying for a girl’s drink and later tipping the girls 50 to 100 baht (a dollar or two), this is his “right”. We were an unwelcome distraction; four women conspicuously out of place in this seedy bar filled with only male customers. I’m sure there was little doubt that our intentions differed from the rest of the clientele.
Mari asked about her family, and we learned that she is from the same city I live in. More importantly, she’s from the Lahu tribe. I showed her pictures of our foster kids, also Lahu, and watched as a connection beginning to form. I remembered that I’m part of a uniquely small group that has the distinction of never really being a threat to young girls like this: I am a woman, and I am a westerner. These girls have no trust for men of any ethnicity or origin, because men are the primary customers. And Thai women often play the role of mamasans, forcing the girls into situations they sometimes initially resist and constantly coaching and pressuring them to “perform” for the men. She shared her name and more about her family, and asked questions about why this crazy foreign family would willingly take in poor village kids to love.
There were other young girls there, busy with other customers. Some looking very much like children, even those who were likely adults in the eyes of the law. I hurt for these kids, and as we stayed later and bought food we heard more stories. It became increasingly apparent the only reason they were in this place was because they had no choice. When the girls sat down with the male customers, there was a fake “party girl” persona put on. They did their jobs as expected, playing their part in this great lie and convincing the men that they were there to have a good time. But when they talked with us, there was no need for pretense. We were just a group of girls talking and forming new friendships.
We left that evening with promises to return; names and faces of girls who will not leave our minds. After months of being “the rescuer’s wife” I finally understood more of what my husband has been through. The kind of pain that’s hard to put into words, the frustration of not being able to snap fingers and immediately fix desperate situations. Just walking out the door without a resolution is incredibly hard. I felt the urgency to share what I saw and be a voice for these children who don’t know Christ; the kids who have no moms and dads to fight for them.
We read a book about Mahatma Gandhi recently and a quote of his has been in my mind ever since:
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
How true this is! I saw the gentle love of the ladies I was ministering with that night, a love that is coupled with determination to find a place to bring these children for ministry and healing. There are many more of these kids out there than we’d like to think. And now I’ve seen it for myself.
Please pray for the young girls Alpha Renew is working with that are still in this bar. Please pray as we help them to find a safe place to work with these kids as well as the ones who are already in shelter homes without counseling and the specialized services they so desperately need to recover and thrive. Please pray for our family as we continue to love the children in our home as well as the multitude we wish we could bring into our home!
A Husband’s Perspective…
So you might be wondering at this point why in the world I would let my wife go into a Thai karaoke bar on rescue. Fair question, and it wasn’t something we did haphazardly. The idea of using women on rescue teams is something we’ve thought about for a very long time. There are good and bad points to this concept.
As a man, I need to enter the bar undercover, posing as a customer. If it becomes obvious that I’m there to “steal” the merchandise, the other men and security really have no reason to hold back. Fights would be inevitable. Women, on the other hand, would never be mistaken for regular customers. Not in these bars anyway (different story in the tourist bars, of course). In all my time on rescue, not once did I see a female in any KTV who wasn’t working. I’m sure it happens, but it’s gotta be pretty rare.
So if there’s no way for women to hide true intentions, doesn’t that put them at increased danger? Well…possibly, yes. However, it’s far less likely that women would be assaulted in a place like that. They could be asked to leave and not come back, maybe even dragged out, but very unlikely that there would be violence. That said, as a concerned husband I tracked the group using active GPS all night and was within a few minutes of their location at all times.
The first obstacle that we men have to overcome on rescue is the trust issue. When we walk through the door, we are “bad guys” like every other customer. It’s not until we sit and talk with the girls that we can begin the process of convincing them we are different. Women do not have the same level of mistrust to overcome. The girls sit down knowing this is something different. There is still the possibility that they are being recruited for similar work, but again, it’s a lower level of mistrust to start with.
So what are we saying? Is it better to use women on rescue? I don’t think there’s a single answer to that one. There are places where it would be wholly inappropriate to send women, particularly ones who have no serious self-defense training. It’s also possible that a group of women would never see the youngest girls working, because savvy mamasans will not let them work in the open when there’s a “threat” in the bar. I’ve seen this first-hand when police have entered a bar. Any underage girl is called into the back and they don’t come out until it’s clear. This would often be the case when women go on rescue. So I think there’s room for more than one strategy, and we’ll continue to do whatever it takes to bring freedom to these precious kids.