My blood began to boil when I saw this comment posted on a friend’s Facebook status about visiting Thailand. It took everything in me to not respond to the woman who wrote it.
I tried to calm myself down by reminding myself that not everyone has met face-to-face with children who have been trafficked. Not everyone has had dinner in Thailand with an 8-year-old girl who was sold into the sex trade and lived a nightmare most of us can’t even imagine.
Biting my tongue (my fingers?), I didn’t write anything in response to what the woman said.
A week or so later, when my friend announced he was leaving Thailand and returning to the US, that same woman wrote this: “I’m glad to hear you avoided the trade.”
Part of me wanted to find where she lived, throw her in my car, drive her to the airport, and put her on a plane to Thailand where she could meet the thousands of children who DIDN’T avoid the trade, and see if maybe she still thought her comments were funny.
Yes, our society is overly sensitive about a lot of things. But I’m sorry if I just can’t stomach a “joke” about trafficking, especially when someone makes a joke about it twice.
Do people not realize that it’s real? There’s a reason why organizations like Destiny Rescue exist, and it’s to save children from sex trafficking. Are you getting the heaviness of that? Are you realizing the grotesque nature of that? CHILDREN are being SOLD and FORCED to have SEX.
One more time… CHILDREN are being SOLD and FORCED to have SEX.
I’ve met some of those girls. And at times it was hard to look at them and think about the disgusting things they were forced to do. I was also extremely thankful for Destiny Rescue and the work God is doing there to rescue these girls.
This isn’t an issue that’s far from home, either. Sex trafficking is very real, right here in the United States. Right here in Indiana. Right here in Fort Wayne even.
We can sit back and make jokes about it, which is incredibly sick and twisted if you ask me, or we can do something about it. Be a voice for those who have no voice.
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
– William Wilberforce
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.
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.
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
It 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.
After 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
Since I was a little girl, Africa always pulled at my heartstrings. It was like God made me with this insatiable hunger for loving the people of Africa. Trips to Niger and Zambia didn’t completely satisfy it. Even living in Uganda for a year didn’t satisfy it. I believe it will always be there. I’ll never “get over” my love for Africa.
But sometimes God does strange things to our hearts. Sometimes He can even make them bigger. It’s not that my heart for Africa has lessened, but it’s grown bigger to allow for new passions. Via my time in Uganda and my current position at a nonprofit here in Fort Wayne, God has opened my heart to Asia.
I have met a few missionaries who serve the Lord in Asia. I always admired their work, but time and time again I would say, “But that’s definitely not a place for me. I just don’t have the heart for it. My heart is in Africa.”
Oddly enough, my heart really grew for Asia during my time in Uganda. While I taught at an international school there, some of my students were from places like South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines. I grew to love these students and their families. My heart began to grow for a whole new world of people.
I never imagined that I would feel led to go on a mission trip to anywhere in Asia, but God opened a door for me to do so. My church partners with Destiny Rescue to rescue girls from child trafficking and is taking a trip to Thailand in September.
Let me be clear: I have NEVER had a desire to even visit anywhere in Asia. As I tell people about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand, everyone seems to say, “I have always wanted to go to Thailand!” Well, I haven’t. For me, this is not about some life-long dream to go to Thailand, but about something different.
I went back and forth with whether or not I felt God wanted me to go. At first I looked into the trip out of curiosity, but decided that it was just too expensive. So many people have supported my other trips over the years that I couldn’t possibly ask for more support. I’m also still paying off medical bills from last year.
Then one Sunday afternoon, someone from the church called to talk about it. She explained that it was a good, young group going. She also said many of the people have never traveled internationally, and that given my experience abroad, I could be a big help to them. I said I would think about it, pray about it more, and let her know.
That same week at work I attended the “World Refugee Day” celebration in town. Fort Wayne has the largest number of Burmese refugees in the country. We celebrated with them, tried their food, listened to their stories, watched their dances, and embraced their culture and others of Southeast Asia. This was when my heart grew even bigger for an entire new group of people.
Because my heart was growing, I decided to look into volunteering with our refugees from Burma. I am meeting with someone from the Reclamation Project next week to see where I can volunteer with them.
It didn’t take long for me to look back and realize that God was opening doors I was trying to shut, including the doors to my heart. I decided to be open to what God was doing, and agreed to go on the trip with my church.
One person said to me recently, “I thought Africa was your thing?” But the truth is, I’ve also taken a mission trip to Nicaragua, where my sponsor child lives. I also volunteer here in town twice a week at the homeless shelter. Africa isn’t my “thing.” Nicaragua isn’t my “thing.” The homeless in America aren’t my “thing.”
PEOPLE are my “thing,” because Jesus is my “thing.” There’s just no other way to explain it.
My heart is growing and changing. I’m eager to see what God does with that, and I believe this trip to Thailand is a part of God’s plan for my heart.