This past January, several members of the Nomi Network team traveled across the Pacific to Cambodia and India. After seventeen days, we crossed back over the Atlantic to return to New York. Our first stop was Phnom Penh, the energetic capital of Cambodia and home to our office/training center. This was the first time our Board Member, Susan Lee, had encountered the vibrant city and smiles of Cambodia. In addition to Susan, our U.S. team consisted of Diana Mao (co-founder & president), Maria Blackburn (program officer), and our talented photo intern, Justin Wee along with two brilliant film makers, Katrina Sorrentino and Brittany Buongiorno. Throughout the trip, we had the opportunity to visit our partners and various production centers in and beyond the city.
For the majority of our Cambodia visit, our group was split up to accomplish different tasks. Diana and Maria spent most of the time meeting with potential partners to expand our program reach. They had a chance to hear about organizations that employ vulnerable garment factory workers and learned that there is little to no job security for these individuals. Meanwhile, Justin and Susan traveled to the countryside to visit our partner Village Works’ production centers and witnessed women working in the safety of their homes surrounded by their children. By having access to a sustainable income, the risk of trafficking in their family is significantly lessened. While half the team headed to Siem Reap to explore the ancient wonders of Angkor Wat, Katrina and Brittany stayed behind to capture Nomi Network’s partner producers on camera. They also had a chance to film pattern making during a Nomi International Fashion Training (NIFT) session at our office with a handful of eager students.
Before leaving Cambodia, our team had the privilege of visiting our partner shelter for survivors of sex trafficking. We pulled up in our tuk tuk to a beautiful gated property containing several villas and sprawling manicured lawns -- nothing like it’s surroundings! Most of the girls from the shelter were away at school, but we were able to meet three girls in their cozy vibrant dorms. We saw one of the girls washing another girl’s hair to practice for hair styling school as they listened to pop music. Knowing what these girls had gone through, we were amazed to see them having fun as carefree teenagers should. It was easy to see that this shelter was a place of redemption, healing, and fierce love.
And just like that, we were already parting ways with Susan and boarded our flight to Delhi to start our trip across India and meet with some incredible game changers to our program. At the dusty airport in West Bengal, our team united with Karen Kang, an art therapist who would be staying at our new program site for three months and Edwin Keh, Diana’s mentor from a fellowship program (and a genius on supply chains). From the airport, we embarked on a three-and-a-half-hour trek to our hotel in the rural expanse of Forbesganj, where our India staff was waiting to welcome us with a late dinner. The next morning would be the beginning of a series of inspiring and heartwarming home visits.
Crisp air and a soft sunrise greeted us along with the quiet excitement and beaming smiles of women from our very first training cohort. The women eagerly showed us their homes and the improvements they were able to make through Nomi Network’s support. One of our trainers happily showed us her new gas powered stovetop that Nomi Network had helped her acquire through a government program. She lives with her mother and is currently taking care of an abandoned little girl. This remarkable woman aspires to be just like Supei, Nomi Network’s co-founder and VP of Global Initiatives -- strong and independent. When asked about this, Supei says that she was a bit of a trouble maker in the beginning, but is very proud of the hardworking leader she has become.
Next, we visited the office and much to our surprise, we were welcomed by our trainers, clad in their Nomi Network sari uniforms and armed with a bouquet of flowers for each team member. The rest of the day was filled with training observations, breaking for chai, preparing lunch together, and taking lots of selfies. We had a special guest provide training on agriculture and recycling and show our trainees how to use old plastic bottles as planters. Because many of the women we work with live on government land and do not own property, this method of farming proves very beneficial to their livelihood. At the same time, a group of adolescent girls new to our program were gathered for beautician training in another room. Each girl eagerly awaited her turn to practice applying cosmetics to her peers. Our team soaked up every moment in Forbesganj, knowing these precious memories would be cherished for a lifetime.
The remainder of our trip flew by as we visited our trainees’ homes, observed more training and production of leggings and totes, and surveyed our new land. The film crew stayed behind for an extra day as the rest of our team went ahead to participate in the first day of training for our new cohort at the new program site. After a bumpy two-hour journey from Forbesganj, we arrived in a town slightly more developed and lively than where we had come from. We were surprised to see buildings taller than three floors and a highway running through the middle of the town lined with billboards. We were greeted again with smiles and flowers as we entered our pink office building.
The women in there were eager to meet us strange foreigners that had taken part in providing them the opportunity to learn new skills. After sharing a meal, we split up into groups to play silly games as we tried communicating despite our huge language barrier. Eventually we all gave in to the one thing that transcends spoken language -- dance! All the women had a persistent desire of wanting to be known to us and to the world. Our project manager proudly showed us one of our trainee’s notebooks that she got in her starter kit, where she had been practicing how to write her name for the first time. We left the new site with excitement for their futures, confident in their potential to transform their communities.
After many inspiring meetings and network connections in Kolkata, Siliguri, and Hyderabad, we returned to Delhi and prepared for our flight home. As with most trips to our field offices, we would come back to the U.S. changed, with clear eyed focus and determination to end injustice. Our trainees are making huge strides in their community and we can’t wait to see tangible and progressive change the next time we visit.
By: Maria Dora Blackburn