“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
~ Malala Yousafzai
The six of them sat quietly and timidly in a circle on the floor, eyes wide with curiosity, glancing at each other expectantly as they struggled to suppress their nervous laughter. The faces of these beautiful teen-aged girls beamed with smiles, but their eyes told a different story. In their eyes I saw sadness; pain; abandonment; distrust. They each had a story to tell; each a tragic one. Tales of deception, tales of abandonment; tales of rape and torture, tales of dreams crushed and hopes lost.
But each was determined to re-write her story.
The young women, hailing from various rural villages throughout the mysterious Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, had come to the Restoration Center seeking to heal from a tortuous past, searching for a thread of hope for her future. Although their experiences have been different, each shares a common thread: each is a survivor of human trafficking.
Whether she was forcibly taken or coerced, each young woman was forced into a situation in which she was required to work against her will with no pay. Each suffered abuse at the hands of her captor. Each bares physical and emotional scars from her time of captivity. Some were forced to do back-breaking domestic work instead of attending school; others were forced into prostitution before their tiny bodies had even fully developed; others were raped and mocked, burned and beaten. But each had survived.
To most of us, Human Trafficking is a popular buzz phrase; the abolition movement, a sexy cause to rally behind. Many know the facts and figures, but not the people behind it; the people to whom it is not just a Facebook status, but a daily, torturous hell. To them, it’s not just an “issue;” it’s a reality. And these girls are the faces of it.
If others were filled with fear, she was filled with fire. She possessed something very few do, regardless of what it is they have survived. Drive. Passion. Determination. Fearlessness. This was a little girl who could not be stopped, though many would try.
At just 14, her tiny frame was forced to carry the heavy weight of a tragic past, but it also supported some beautiful dreams.
N. grew up in an impoverished, rural village in southern Myanmar where she was raised by a loving, close-knit family. Although N. was happy with life in her village — her family, her friends, her church — more than anything, she wanted to go to school. But in rural Myanmar, schools are scarce, and quality education is even harder to find than the schools themselves. For N., the nearest school was several hours away, impossible for her to access. She did her best to educate herself at home, learning to read and write and devouring every book she could get her hands on. But still, she longed for more. So much more.
N.’s parents also longed for more for their daughter. They wanted her to be educated. They wanted her to fulfill her dreams. They wanted her to study hard so she could return to the village one day and teach the other children who did not have access to school. But their dream eluded them year after year, until they had nearly lost hope.
Then one day a stranger visited the village; an older woman who courted and wooed the families of the village, winning their trust and care. For weeks she stayed in the village, getting to know their family situations and challenges. When she learned of N.’s strong desire to go to school, she made the family an offer that seemed almost too good to be true.
She told them she knew of a woman living in a village several hours away who would allow N. to live with her while she attended the local school. All N.’s family would need to do is pay a boarding fee to the woman and a processing fee to the older woman, acting as a broker. She would then take N. to stay with the woman, ensuring she arrived there safely and began her studies.
N.’s family could hardly refuse such an offer. It seemed an answer to their faithful and fervent prayers for N. to get an education. After taking some time to discuss the option with N., the family decided to accept the offer. They immediately set to work gathering together the funds to send N. away to school, borrowing money from friends and family, picking up any extra work they could find, until finally, several months later, they had accumulated enough money to pay the brokerage fee — nearly a full year’s worth of wages — and 12-year-old N. was sent off with the old woman to fulfill her life’s dream to get an education.
Only it was not to be.
Although the old woman did take N. to live with another woman, it was not so that she could go to school; it was so that she could be her slave.
For months, N. was forced to do laborious housework for the woman. She was beaten mercilessly and given little food. And she certainly was not allowed to attend school. She wasn’t even allowed to leave the house. N.’s dream of getting an education now seemed more out of reach than it had ever been, and she feared she would never again see her family. The little girl who had always refused to give up was dangerously close to losing all hope.
But she wasn’t quite ready to stop fighting yet. One day, after months of confinement, N. decided she had to take a risk. If she was ever going to be free again, she knew she had to attempt to flee from her captor. She didn’t know where she was, or how to get home, but she was determined to escape and find another way to attend school.
She awoke early one morning and slipped out before the woman could notice she was gone. She took off alone down the dusty dirt road, in search of anyone who could help her. As she was walking, a man approached her and asked her what she was doing and where she was going. She answered, “I want to go to school.” After listening to her story of what happened to her, how she was held by the woman and forced to do housework when all she wanted was to go to school, the man reassuringly responded that he could help; he knew someone who could help her go to school. Reluctantly, she agreed to go with him, desperate to find a way to go to school and unsure of what other options remained for her.
Not surprisingly, this man also lied. He sold her to a Buddhist family who enslaved her again, forcing her to work as their domestic servant before eventually fleeing the country with her into Thailand, where she endured additional abuse, manipulation, and isolation. Finally, after N. had spent months in captivity, the Thai authorities were alerted by a neighbor to the fact that the family was holding a young girl for domestic servitude and they took her into their custody. Once they discovered she was from Myanmar, they made arrangements to return her to her homeland and to her family. She was taken to a police station in the capital city and held there until her parents could make their way in from the countryside to pick her up.
Her parents were worried to death about her, having not heard from her since she was taken off with the old woman. Because they had already paid so much to the broker to help N. get an education, they had no money left to travel to pick her up. They desperately sold almost everything they had to earn the fare to come pick her up from the city and bring her home.
Finally, after months of abuse and isolation at the hands of not one, but two captors, N. was safe and sound, home with her family.
Although all human trafficking stories are tragic, N.’s story is particularly heartbreaking for me. She was trafficked not just once, but twice. And all because she wanted so desperately to receive an education — something that for me as an American is not just a privilege, but a requirement. Often I learn about families who willingly sell their children for sex or domestic labor. N.’s family was not like that; they loved her; they desired a future for her; and on multiple occasions they made great financial sacrifices to help give her a future. But despite their best intentions, they still fell prey to a manipulation scheme that is all too common across impoverished and vulnerable communities throughout Myanmar. Their story is just so heartbreaking; so hopeless.
Only for N., all hope is not lost.
Despite all she lived through, N. never quite lost her fighting spirit. After so many set-backs, she was still determined to go to school. Her family learned of the work of the Restoration Center and that education was a part of the therapeutic curriculum. N. could receive therapy for some of the emotional trauma she had experienced in captivity while also pursuing her dream of getting an education. She and her family both agreed: it was an opportunity they could not pass up.
While the other girls at the Center spend their free time telling stories, playing the guitar, and painting each other’s nails, N. spends it in the back of the room, typing away on an old-school typewriter, trying to improve her typing speed and expand her grasp of the English language — all in an attempt to constantly be moving herself forward.
When I asked N. to tell me a little about her hopes and dreams for the future, she replied: “I want to go to school. I want to finish my high school education and go on to college. After college, I will go to seminary. After seminary, I will return to my village, where I will start a school and teach the children, because right now, they don’t have the chance to go to school. I will go back to my village, and I will bring education to my village.”
And there’s not a doubt in my mind that she will.
N. is not alone in her dreams, but nor is she alone in the challenges she faces to achieving them. As you read this, somewhere out there, surrounded by a dense jungle and living in a thatched-roof hut, there is a little girl in Myanmar who wants to go to school. Many will try to stop her and many will try to take advantage of her. But she will find a way. She will make a way. She will go to school. And she will be the future of her country.
~ Written in honor of my precious friend N. With your tiny hands, you will lift a nation. ~
*Note: Featured image is not “N.” Certain details of this story have been slightly altered or omitted to protect the privacy of those involved.