Cambodia is known to be a place where human trafficking is a tremendous issue. Perhaps you have heard about rescues from brothels and tragic stories of very young girls enslaved by the sex trade. In an earlier post I wrote about going to a café run by the organization, Daughters of Cambodia. Later in the week I was able to travel to the training centre and head office for this amazing ministry.
I was greeted warmly by one of the Khmer staff members and instructed to sign in, wear a visitor’s badge, and promise to abide by their safety policy – which included agreeing to take no photos. The vulnerability of the clients inside the centre was becoming more tangible.
Inside the court yard was a low gate that marked off the day care area. The children of the clients are cared for to allow their mothers to learn skills and work in the upstairs rooms. Most of the children were about 2-3 years old. One little guy was a climber and perched on top of the little play structure they had. He beamed and waved back at me. Another little girl had been practicing saying, “hello” and exuberantly greeted me with a very loud and repetitive rendition. Some of the children were sleeping in the midst of the mayhem of the others. Some were quietly being nursed by their mothers. At the back of the daycare was a washing station where mothers could bathe and shower their children and do laundry. There was also a health room where nurses were available several days a week to help with basic medical care for the clients and their children. There was a clinic they partnered with, I was told, for issues that were too complex for the nurses to address.
Entering another room I found another group of women doing crochet work making scarves. This group was much more chatty and engaged with one another. They were eager to show me their handi-work and several flashed smiles my way.
In the sewing room just a few girls were seated by the multiple industrial sewing machines. The power had gone out and so the machines sat idle. Most of the girls had gone to sit on the outside balcony where it was cooler. One of the women sitting by the machine looked exhausted and I motioned with my hands inquiring if she was sleepy. She smiled and nodded. The clients do not live in the centre. Some may still be working in the evening even as they struggle to leave the sex trade by coming to the centre in the day-time. This exhausted young woman was a stark reminder of the toll of living both lives.
Outside on the balcony, the women were busy with doing the finishing work on stuffed animals, sewn Christmas ornaments, and beautiful purses and bags. They clearly took pride in their work as I showed an interest in seeing what they had created.
I asked my guide why all of the clients were wearing head wraps – I wondered if maybe that was to help keep them cool. She explained that they did not want head lice accidentally dropping into any of the products they were making – and so as not to single anyone out who might have lice, they all simply wore the head wraps. To be honest I had to pray for a moment, because my first thought was that I did not want to have to deal with head lice. But I fought within myself to stay present in that moment and again try to connect with the reality of the life these precious women were struggling to recreate.
Another room revealed a group of clients doing silk screening. I immediately knew these individuals were the lady-boys I’d been anticipating meeting for many months. And my heart was drawn to them in a very particular way. I had to catch myself because something in me wanted to reach out and enfold them in a warm embrace – but I instantly knew that was more about me than them. This small group of individuals did not particularly exude external beauty but there was something magnetic. I wished in those moments that I could speak Khmer. I felt like there were stories just waiting to be told, stories that had rarely been heard, stories that few would understand. I lingered in this room, my guide clearly was ready to move on, but I was not. I felt a connection that I hoped was not manufactured, drummed up in my own sentimentality. I thought of the life these individuals had lived up till now and my heart was bursting with pain and love and compassion and hope and an overwhelming desire to somehow convey all of this to this small group of five. In the end, all I could do was linger, hoping that my interest in their silk screening would communicate some drop of the value and affirmation and care that I wanted to express.
From there we went to the coconut room so named because of the chiseling of the casing created jewelry pieces. Here I was to encounter another group of lady-boys. The five in the silk screening room had presented as female. This group of four presented as male. I confess still don’t quite understand the realities of gender identity for this group. I can’t unravel the complexity of internal identity, trauma, exploitation, and culture. I expect that these factors impact different individuals in different ways. What I can say, however, is that I was simply drawn to the person, to their humanity, to their resilience, to their strength to have survived. In the coconut room was an older individual I later learned was around forty (many don’t know their actual birthdates). He had been in the sex trade for more than twenty years. I tried to imagine the violence and trauma he must have endured. It is not uncommon for me to hear stories from those in the west who traded sex for money of johns who would express their internal self-loathing by beating the one they’d just had sex with. I can only imagine that in the Cambodian culture where violence has permeated relationships at many levels and where same-sex sexuality is hardly acknowledged, such experiences were common and consistent. Yet here was this man whose smile immediately drew me in. His countenance was pure joy. His kind and sensitive spirit immediately discernible. He had been made supervisor of the coconut room, I heard, and he beamed with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. On the wall I noticed a poster with the words to the song, “In Christ Alone”. I asked my guide about it and she told me that one of the workers had been teaching it to the clients. So I began to sing the words, “In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song….” And this man began to sing with me. I can’t quite describe what those moments meant to me. It wasn’t an evangelistic thing. It wasn’t a religious thing. But it was a moment of holy ground – of the privilege of glimpsing a life reclaimed from exploitation and violence – to a life of restored beauty, sensitivity, kindness and compassion. I glimpsed a beautiful soul that day.
As I was led into an office to meet with Ruth, the founder and director, my heart was full. I still needed to know, however, the intent of the ministry in connection to the lady-boy clients in particular. Was there a gender agenda for these individuals? Was the presentation of male by those in the coconut room an autonomous choice or a desired outcome by the agency? That these individuals were cared for and accepted, I had no doubt. But would I be able to recommend this work for support by those in my networks back home with integrity and honesty? I knew I had to ask some hard questions.
As our conversation progressed I was touched by Ruth’s humility. It was clear that she knew that she didn’t have all the answers when it came to working with this population of clients. I suggested that it was like moving forward without a map. Because these individuals have been impacted by such complex factors, each one has a unique journey and a distinct future. It was clear that Ruth’s priorities were the health and well-being of these individuals as human beings. She was concerned about the pattern of clubbing and hard partying that many engaged. For those who’d been rejected and abused so consistently in their lives, such high risk escapes were poor substitutes for unconditional love, security, and a sense of community. When I asked about the autonomy of the individual to make their own gender identity decisions, it seemed clear that I was asking questions that were framed within western constructs and timelines. While eventually, this may be a decision these clients need to make, the basic needs for shelter, food, job skills; the need for counseling for trauma, emotional support systems, and the building of trust-worthy relationships & community were essential foundations upon which any consideration of gender identity could be explored. Ruth also explained that she was partnering with First Step (I shared about meeting Alistair in this post) to conduct the counseling for these individuals since they were better equipped to navigate the complexities of orientation and identity.
It seemed to me that Ruth was used to having to navigate conversations with donors very carefully about their work with the lady-boy clients. She seemed to feel free to talk with me, given the context of my work with New Direction, about the nuances and complexities. In fact, she even mentioned to me that they needed to go back to their website and try to articulate with more clarity the priority and focus of their work with these clients and to ensure that inquirers understood that there was not a conversion/change agenda behind their efforts to create a safe environment in which these individuals could gain the support and skills needed to live a whole and hopeful future free of the sex trade.
As I prepared to leave, I heard a little but loud voice calling, “hello, hello, hello…..” and as I went, I left a piece of my heart behind.