Category: Beneficiaries

The Incredible Strength of a Survivor

Due to the confidential nature of our work in counter-trafficking, many of the details of the following story have been intentionally omitted to preserve the privacy and dignity of those involved.

While we were in Thailand I had the opportunity to spend many hours with survivors of human trafficking. I don’t think I was ever able to fully grasp what they were going through because there was always a language barrier between us. That all changed in December of 2018, when we were contacted by a victim here in America who was looking for a way out.

Ask most people in America to describe a typical sex trafficking victim, and they’ll likely paint a picture of an immigrant or minority, living in poverty, with little or no support system or contact with the outside world. Our first USA trafficking case was none of these. She is a smart, successful, middle-class young woman with strong family contacts. But one mistake in a time of weakness set a series of events in motion that would pull her into a world she never imagined being a part of.

The story of her rescue is long, detailed and fascinating. But what ultimately drew me to the keyboard to share was the aftermath of her getting out. It almost didn’t seem real when it happened, and she was terrified that it might not actually be over.

Every day, multiple times of day, we’d talk.

I can’t do this anymore. It just hurts too much.

There were times when her comments made me afraid that she would try to end her life. I would pray fervently that God would intervene and pour out peace upon her. The next morning it was always a relief to hear her voice again and know that she was still with us.

When someone has gone through something as horrific as sex trafficking, it’s extremely important to respect their rights and their freedom. While I may sometimes want to tell her “You can’t do this!” or “I won’t let you do that,” she is now in control. She calls the shots when it comes to her body and her life.

But the demons of doubt and shame are always at work.

This pain is what I deserve. I don’t deserve friendship or anything at all.

She needed desperately to hear that she is loved. And you know what? I do love her. I see her beauty and worth and it brings me to tears when I know she doesn’t see it for herself yet.

She wonders if the nightmare will ever truly be over.

I can’t stop the flashbacks. I close my eyes and it’s like it’s happening to me all over again.

I shared the following verses with her from Psalms:

I waited patiently for the Lord, he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.

The physical toll on her body has left its own lasting damage. Weight loss, memory loss, and seizures have affected her throughout the last several weeks. When she was first rescued her body was so beaten and bruised, I was scared to hug her. I didn’t want to make any of the pain worse.

From the time we met to now, I have marveled at her ability to wake up every day and go to work. She has had to undergo humiliating exams for evidence. She has conquered the formidable task of testifying against her traffickers., She lives daily with  the fear that they still know where she lives. On top of all of that, in order to preserve her privacy and dignity among her friends and coworkers she has to pretend that none of this has been happening to her for long hours each day.

Strength. This is what I think of every time I see her. I am in awe, and I pray that she will uphold that strength as she continues to heal. It will be a long road. Ultimately we pray that she will be able to draw on the strength of her creator, coming to know him as her Savior.

Into the Darkness

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.

Graduation

Last Thursday our family had the incredible opportunity to witness four of our young ladies graduation from our learning center program.  The learning center is stage one in aftercare.  What is taught at the learning center?  There are four main components to the program:

 

  1.  Bible
  2.  Life Skills
  3.  English
  4.  Len Sanook

 

A typical day of a child in the learning center would include two hours in each of these subjects.  Bible instruction is important as these children come from a Buddhist background.  Life skills, like learning about professionalism in the workplace, also serves to prepare them for success as they mature.  English is essential here, as all Thai people are encouraged to learn.  We have seen personally how businesses in the community that have an English-speaking owner are far more successful.  Len Sanook literally means to “play and have fun”.  The kids have enjoyed all kinds of lessons during Len Sanook, from gardening to Latin dance to painting.  We want them to have fun and experience what being a kid is all about!

 

At the end of six months, our girls are ready to move on in the world.  Three of our four girls from this graduation have chosen to go on to work in our training cafe, where they will learn to cook and serve customers.  One of our girls will be training in jewelry design.  They all desire to continue their education and hope to enter Bible college someday.

grad hearts

The ceremony started with each girl being encouraged by anyone who wanted to speak, whether it be one of her teachers, a counselor, or case worker.  I was even touched to see our rescue agents there, who were the first point of contact for each child as they were pulled out of the brothel.  After each girl was encouraged, certificates of graduation were given out, and the group was prayed over.  Then came my favorite part of the ceremony.  Our learning center director turned to the Book of John, and read from chapter 13.  The girls listened attentively as she told the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet.  Then she explained that we wanted to serve them in this way.  As His followers, we are to emulate Him, serving one another in lowliness of heart and mind, seeking to build one another up in humility and love.

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Different volunteers came forward to wash the girls feet speak words of love to them.  It was pretty emotional.  Our family has a girl in the class who has become very special to us, who cried when we washed her feet.  Afterwards we just hugged her and told her how much we love her.

 

We are so sad that these sweet young ladies won’t be in class anymore, but look forward to visiting and encouraging them as they move on to the next part of our program!

 

foot washing