A walk through the Red Light District

They all looked so happy. Wearing next to nothing, young Asian women lined up in front of the bars in one of Thailand’s famed Red Light Districts, Soi Cowboy.

They appeared to be having a blast. Their makeup was perfect, their hair smooth and straight. I can’t comment on their outfits because they really didn’t have much on. It was clear, to the average person passing through, that these ladies were more than happy to “service” any man who paid the right price.

SOURCE: www.pilgrimwithapassport.blogspot.com
SOURCE: http://www.pilgrimwithapassport.blogspot.com

After all, their smiles were so big. They literally called out to passing men, “You come see me!” they yelled. “I make you happy,” others screamed. They were begging for business, and hoards of Western men were happy to oblige.

One outside table caught my eye. Under the glow of a neon sign, there were four white men having drinks, and each of them had two Asian women at their disposal. The women were rubbing their arms, laughing, giving these guys all the attention they could possibly desire. I rolled my eyes and wondered how great it really made those guys feel to know they were only getting that attention because they were paying for it.

The music was bumping in each bar we passed and the flashing lights that spilled out of the doorways was sometimes blinding. We passed a woman holding a sign that read, “The Doll House- Maybe 20 gorgeous girls, plus a lot of ugly girls, and a few fat ones!”

So what was I, a 34-year-old Christian from Fort Wayne, Ind., doing in a Thai Red Light District? I was on a mission trip.

Our group had spent the week learning about Destiny Rescue, an organization that rescues girls from sex trafficking. And let me tell you one of the most important things we learned from the staff who work with rescued girls: they do NOT want to be there selling their bodies. I repeat, they do NOT want to be there.

The smiles are fake. The begging is fake. The pleading is fake. The excitement they get when a man pays for sexual favors is fake.

The girls are some seriously talented actresses. And why wouldn’t they be? If they don’t smile, if they don’t beg, if they don’t perform, they pay a penalty. Their mamasan will beat them. Once that happens enough times, the girl gives up. She becomes the greatest actress ever- pretending to be happy in a never-ending hell. Some girls then turn to the only things that will make work easier- drugs and alcohol.

Before we made our quick walk through Soi Cowboy, we were told to keep an eye out for girls who weren’t out front begging for customers. Look for the girls who don’t see people coming, and take note of what you see.

SOURCE: www.barspics.com
SOURCE: http://www.barspics.com

I saw a few of those girls. They sat back, almost as if they were on break. They weren’t smiling. Their eyes were eyes filled with pain and fear. For most of them, their eyes were just empty.

But aside from the women we saw on Soi Cowboy, aside from those calling out to men because they had to, aside from the girls in the shadows who were empty, there lies a part of Soi Cowby and other red light districts that you don’t see: trafficked children.

Children. When I was in Thailand, I met young girls who had been trafficked. Sold. Raped. Demoralized. So even if you don’t believe me that the girls on the streets hate what they do, you can’t ignore the fact that these same places have children for sale.

Children. For. Sale.

On our brief walk, there was one specific girl out front who caught my eye. We made eye contact, but she didn’t smile like the other girls in the street. She looked like she was holding back tears. I wondered, was this her first night? Would she suffer the consequences of not calling out to men? How horrified was she of what would happen to her that night, whether it was being raped or beaten?

In that instant, everything became real.

The stories I read about trafficking.

The accounts we were told from those who rescue girls.

The documentaries I watched.

It all became real in that moment. I was surrounded by a sea of trafficked girls and there was literally nothing I could do in that moment to fix any of it.

My trip to Thailand to learn about Destiny Rescue was a powerful one. I got to experience their rescue and prevention homes, as well as see how their programs really do rehabilitate girls and prepare them for a normal life outside of trafficking. What I didn’t realize, though, was that the walk through a red light district on the final night of our trip would bring everything together for me. It was like it all clicked.

Our walk was quick, less than 10 minutes. We got back in the van to head to the hotel, and I put my head down and cried. Trafficking is real. These girls, these children, are real. Their stories are real. And we can’t sit back and let it continue to happen.

“And the King will say, “I tell you the truth,
when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,
you were doing it to me!””

Matthew 25:40

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

Cold cuts, Subway Jared, and how my mission trip just got real

Dear Subway executives,

You knew. I could have still supported your restaurant chain after Jared Fogle’s sick actions were exposed, but then we find out that you knew, and did nothing. I have never felt strongly enough about the actions of a company to completely boycott a business, until now. Subway, I am done with you and your cold cuts.

In five days I leave for Thailand, where I will meet dozens and dozens of girls, children, who were trafficked and forced to have sex with men multiple times a day, but have since been rescued. Who knows, maybe some of the exact girls I’ll meet will have met your Subway spokesperson, the guy you knew had a sexual interest in young children.

“Sex with prostitutes between the ages of 9 and 16 years old in Thailand,” the USA Today article reads. I cried when I read it, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

You are the problem, Subway. You are the company that looked the other way when your own spokesperson was forcing himself on young girls in Thailand. Young girls who were stolen from their own families to then be forced to pleasure sick men, like Jared Fogle, for fear that they would lose their lives if they didn’t.

You are just as bad as Fogle. And you have supported an international group of sex traffickers who exploit children. I wonder if you have daughters. Child trafficking is on the rise in America. Who is to say your own daughters won’t be kidnapped and trafficked? What do you have to say about the American businessmen who would force her to have sex with them? Somehow I doubt you would just look the other way like it wasn’t happening.

These girls are real. Maybe it’s hard for you to see that because they aren’t American, or they aren’t white, but they are real girls. Maybe you are grossly misinformed and under the impression that the girls want to be prostitutes, but ages 9 to 16? Get real.

You knew. You have become a part of the sex trafficking system. You have had a part in destroying the lives of children. You have supported their “owners” monetarily, and thus continued the dirty cycle. This is why it continues, because people like you knew and did nothing about it.

I’ve never felt strongly enough about a company to boycott their restaurant because of corporate’s belief system (or lack of one). But this, this is too much. And unless those of you who knew about Fogle’s escapades are given the boot, I will not be eating at Subway. I know it’s not the workers’ faults, but I just can’t bring myself to give another dime to your organization.

I never imagined that “Subway Jared” would be at the forefront of my mind during my time in Thailand, but I have a feeling that he will be. And I have a suspicion that God will use it for something good. You will not win this battle, Subway executives. God will.

And while you, and Jared Fogle, and all the money you’ve made on those cold cuts have been used to destroy the lives of innocent children, I’ll get to experience the restoration of their lives thanks to Destiny Rescue. If you do anything to even attempt to make this right, you should be pouring thousands to millions of dollars into organizations like Destiny Rescue, organizations that rescue children from evil men like you.

May God have mercy on your souls. And may the rest of us someday forgive you for what you’ve done. Until then, next week I’ll be looking into the faces of girls like the ones you have tried to destroy. And although your actions are evil and inexcusable, you will not win.

Sincerely,
Natalie