Behind the smiles: dinner with the trafficked

20150906_062416It was finally time to meet “the girls.” We had arrived in Thailand the day before, and we were eagerly awaiting the moment when we would actually get to spend time with the dozen or so teens who had been rescued from sex trafficking in the Chiang Mai area. We were taking them to their favorite restaurant- a place we knew nothing about other than fact that they rarely got to go and that they loved going.

A truck jam-packed with beautiful teen girls (and one 11-year-old) pulled up next to us in the parking lot.

“Sorry we’re late,” the driver said. “They were busy getting all dressed up. This is a pretty big occasion for them!”

Our group of 12 from Fort Wayne, Ind. began to file out of our truck as the girls got out of theirs. Some were in jeans, others in dresses and skirts. Their makeup and hair were done. They giggled and spoke to each other in Thai, occasionally giving us shy smiles.

“The girls will help you figure out how this works,” one of their group leaders told us. “They are so excited, you have no idea.”

It didn’t occur to me that we would need to be taught how dinner would “work,” but we certainly did. As we all entered the open-aired restaurant to sit down, the girls were instructed to spread out so we could get to know them, which would be a task in itself considering what little English they spoke. And we spoke no Thai at all.

The girls wasted no time in rushing up to the buffet, which was unlike any buffet we had ever seen. It was table after table of raw meat, and not just any raw meat, but raw meat without any sort of label. I stood at the tables of raw meat and just kind of stared at them not knowing what to do.

“How do we know what the meat is?” one of my fellow team members asked.

I gazed at the piles and piles of raw meat. I could pick out the chicken and beef, but aside from that, it was next to impossible.

“Maybe we just guess?” I responded, as the girls from my table loaded up on raw meats of all kinds. I found a pile of imitation crab and decided that would be safe.

When I returned to the table, the girls were in full cooking mode. There was a hole in the center of the table with a hot cooking device inside, surrounded by water. The girls began to grill, boil and cook all sorts of meat and vegetables. They were giggling as they fought for space on the heated device.

I learned their names and ages, and couldn’t get past their giggling and their smiles. I wondered, How long have those smiles been there? How long have they been genuine smiles?

You see, all of the girls we were there to see were once slaves of the worst kind- forced to perform sexual acts on men multiple times a day. The darling girl across from me was only 11 years old. What had she been through? The gorgeous 19-year-old who sat next to me, how long had she been living in hell before she was rescued?

I didn’t know the answers to those questions. As a matter of fact, they quickly left my mind because the girls were so happy. Something as simple as dinner with strangers had made them so happy. And because of that, I was happy.

The girl next to me, who we will call “A”, began to put some of her cooked food on my plate. “For you,” she said. I didn’t know what it was, but who was I to turn it down? It was a sweet gesture, and she went on to take care of me the rest of the evening, cooking meat and veggies and sharing with me, a complete stranger.

20150906_072151bAfter dinner, the girls pulled out their cell phones and began to take photos with us. We took a group photo at one point, and “A” snuggled up next to me, putting her head on my shoulder. I immediately remembered a story one of the rescue men had told us.

One of the nights he went into a bar undercover for a potential rescue, there was a girl who sat down next to him and put her head on his shoulder. He knew why she did this. It was because she had to. If she didn’t, there would be a price to pay. It made me wonder if “A” had ever put her head on someone’s shoulder simply because if she didn’t, she would have been beaten.

But all that was in the past now. Thanks to an organization called Destiny Rescue, “A” didn’t have to put her head on anyone’s shoulder unless she wanted to. She was free. “A” had found freedom in Christ, and her life was different now.

I’ll never forget the dinner we shared with the girls in Chiang Mai. Although we couldn’t communicate about much other than our favorite colors and what our names were, we still made connections. And while the men who purchased and raped them in their past saw smiles that were fake, we got to experience smiles that were real.

“In this world, you will have trouble.
But, take heart. I have overcome the world!”
John 16:33

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