SAS Project Week: Witnessing the Effects of Forced Prostitution

A week ago I blogged about project week, orphan trafficking and our school’s anti-human trafficking organization, Students Against Slavery (SAS), one of the Quan Cais which is most dear to me, as I strongly believe in the freedom of the individual and in female empowerment.  Now it has been several weeks since we returned to Hong Kong from Project Week, nevertheless the impact of that week on us is long lasting. As promised this blog post is about the SAS Project Week.  However, as I was in Malaysia during that time (and I deeply hope to have the unqiue opportunity to also be able to do what the SAS project week did), this is a guest blogpost by my co-year Adam Crittenden from the United States:

“I was placed in the SAS trip for students to volunteer at shelters for girls who were rescued from sexually abusive homes or brothels.  There were two shelters ran by a Cambodian charity named AFESIP, one with older, more visibly traumatized girls in Phnom Penh, and the other for primary and secondary school age children, located in the more rural village of Kampong Cham.  Most of the guys, including myself, went to the younger center, due to the comparatively lower degree of male mistrust there. I found my stay at this center, Somaly House, to be very inspirational and moving, and I still can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that so many of the girls there had to face.  One disclaimer about this likely text-laden blog post: I can’t post any pictures of the girls or the center because I signed a confidentiality agreement and it would be potentially dangerous to several of the girls under the protection of the shelter, and it would also lead to me being sued.

The closest we were to well rested the entire trip

Going back a few days, my group left LPC at the blissful time of 5:30 am, foreshadowing for the upcoming week of waking up at 5 am everyday.  We piled on the bus, slept, went to the airport, and then boarded the short flight to Phnom Penh.  Two and a half hours later, we touched down and separated into two groups.  The sunny, dry, 90 degree Fahrenheit (30 something Celsius, but I still don’t understand) weather was great, and my group quickly set out.  After some time of red dirt, lane-free driving which would have failed a driving safety test in the US within a minute, we bought our last non rice meal for the week at a local market.  It was a slight culture shock for me though, because as I bought food, I was surrounded by several gaunt children all asking for food or money.  This continued even after we left, with other people trying to clean our car, even standing in the middle of oncoming traffic to try to stop us.

Rambutan sales at the market
The safe roads of Cambodia

Later that afternoon, we arrived at Somaly House and were instantly surrounded by several dozen girls.  A few of the second years on the trips were returning for a second or even third time, so the girls were happy to see their overseas friends again.  They even started welcoming the newcomers as if they already knew us for quite some time.  The majority of the day was spent with introductions, Khmer and Western clapping games, and other lighthearted fun.  At some point, a few of us started offering piggy back rides, and by the end, we were just exhausted circus rides. Eventually, we settled down for dinner, and then had a dance party.  The party was the first of several wake up calls for me over the course of the trip, since it was really startling to see elementary school girls grinding and twerking as if they were the dancers in a rap video or the VMAs.  By a combination of our own ridiculously horrible dance moves and the more kid oriented songs that we tried to play, this issue slightly decreased, but even by the last night’s dance party, it still occurred sporadically.

The only legal picture from the center aka art therapy gone wrong

The next few days, we started settling into a routine of planned, but more often unplanned, events and activities.  Several of the art and drama students arraigned some art and theater therapy sessions, for example the girls would draw a good and a bad face mask and then would act out each of the masks.  While some of the youngest girls did not understand these activities, in general, the girls became quite involved and were more expressive of their past emotions, even though they did not tell the full details.  Apparently this was not the case in the older girls center, as there was a tear filled therapy session where they openly discussed many of the deaths and abuses that had occurred in their lives. However, outside of the theater therapy sessions in both centers, girls would occasionally discuss their pasts, but again, it would be a breach of confidentiality to share these stories.  Needless to say, no human should have to deal with the kind of evils that these friendly, smart, and emotionally strong girls have faced in their childhood.

As the week continued, the bond between everyone continued to strengthen.  While a few girls would remain out of sight studying, the vast majority would confidently approach any of us whether to talk, play, or learn.  Along the way, many impromptu English-Khmer lessons occurred.  We would help read books with the older girls or sing the alphabet song with the younger girls.  (One minor digression, it was difficult for me to sing the ABC song because every time we arrived at the last letter of the alphabet, people would sing “zed”, but I would unknowingly say “zee”, and then I would receive an awkward stare for confusing the other girls).  At the same time, the girls would share a bit of their language with us, and despite our botched pronunciation, they were always enthusiastic and supportive of our broken sentences.  I only now remember “I want to eat mango”, “Don’t touch me”, and “I don’t speak Khmer”, but the memories of working with the girls will linger much longer.

After the week flew by, we realized that our visit at the center was unfortunately drawing to a close. We had a final dinner and performance, and then we took several minutes to thank and wish well upon our wonderful hosts at the center.  The realization that several of us might never be able to return to the centers and see the girls again was too much for a few of the LPC students, and some of the girls were afraid of abandonment again and loss, and thus some crying began.  The next morning, these emotions intensified, and when us LPCers were forced to board the buses, it was quite a depressing atmosphere.  Due to the likely possibility of returning next year, I was not quite as saddened, but at the same time I know that I will miss them all, and the transition back to school will be slightly more difficult this time.  Finally, we waved goodbye, and our bus pulled away towards Phnom Penh again.

Upon arrival in the city, there were automatically many plans for our short stay in the city.  We ditched our bags at a guesthouse and were shuttled to the headquarters of an anti-trafficking NGO named APLE, which focuses on the legal prosecution of foreign pedophiles involved in Cambodian sex tourism.  We had an interesting two hour presentation and question session on the state of trafficking in the country and about APLE operations.  The sad reality of sex trafficking in Cambodia was already well known to us from our visits to the shelter, but this discussion added much to a more precise knowledge of the situation.  To continue with this issue, I was later talking to some friends on a different project in Cambodia who had to deal with some traffickers who attempted to buy her and another of our friends.  However, when they figured out that she was 19, they did not want here anymore because she was “too old”.  On the other hand, they were completely interested and serious about the transaction for the 16 year-old girl.  Luckily, they managed to regroup with some others and leave before the situation decayed.

After the presentation, we again boarded the bus and headed out to a site called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Upon first entering the gates and reading the signs, I was quite impacted.  Over the four years of the Khmer Rouge, this former school was turned into a concentration and torture camp, just as every other school was shut down nationally.  This one, also known as S-21, was a top-secret camp that held around 20,000 people during the regime, yet only seven of the documented residents are known to have survived.   One especially creepy aspect of the museum was the immediate connection to the past.  Very few renovations have occurred, and the original beds and torture equipment are placed in the identical positions as they were when the tortured corpses were found, with no glass protection walls, just a picture of the deathbeds and corpses upon liberation of the camp 40 years ago. The endless rows of victims pictures was quite haunting too, and by the time we left the site, I was again quite shaken by human atrocities.

Cells at Tuol Sleng
The barbed wire used to prevent prisoners jumping to death

Despite the relatively depressing day, I was still able to appreciate the beauty and culture of Phnom Penh. Architecturally, there are many grand Khmer pagodas and stupas, impressive restored colonial buildings, and also the beginnings of glass high-rises after a decade of steady economic development.  In addition, the food of the city was quite delicious, with an interesting mix of French and Southeast Asian food, along with a wide variety of other types of food.  Strangely enough, the touristy waterfront was lined with stores like “Happy Pizza” and “Magical Herb Pizza”, all of which were filled with a sketchy collection of people.  While we did end up getting some pizza elsewhere, the only herb involved was actual basil. We closed our night eating ice cream, visiting the night market, then boarding a tuk-tuk and traveling near some monuments.

A crowded Buddhist temple with plenty of incense
Tuk-tuking

The next day, our group left the city pretty fast, and we returned to our busy Hong Kong lives.  Relaxing in my comfortable dorm room, I can’t help but to daydream about Cambodia   The country has clearly faced many issues in the past and into the present, like genocide, trafficking, and sexual abuse, and I am glad that I have had a reality check.  That being said, I also really hope the girls at the center benefited from our work and play with them as much as we did.  Looking back on my experiences, I will always remember the sights and stories I’ve seen and heard in Cambodia, and I really hope that I will be able to join the trip again next year to Cambodia.”

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