In the summer of 2008, I ventured to Thailand to face something that, until that point in my life, had only been an unimaginable horror rather than a reality. I had read many stories and articles about sex trafficking, especially in the months leading up to my journey, but I had never encountered it face to face. Much less encountered the faces of the women and children behind the statistics I had read over and over again. I was unsure of what I would find for myself once I got there, but what I saw and experienced will never leave me.
Despite the heartbreaking scenes of foreign men with young Thai girls that bombarded my sight on many occasions, my time in Thailand is mostly defined by hope. I lived with a women named Prang who had after many years of working in the bars in Bangkok as a sex slave, found rescue through the efforts of an organization called The Well. After receiving rehabilitation, healing, and training at the center in Bangkok, Prang decided to return to her village with the same hope that she had received. Once she arrived, she began teaching her sisters and the other women in her area simple sewing skills in order to start her own business to combat their vulnerabilities to being trafficked. Small, but powerful, they began to create bags and purses out of the silk that Prang would buy from other local women who had silk-making as their only trade and hope of income.
During my time living with them in Buriram, Thailand, these women showed me their hearts, souls, talent, and dedication to each other and their people. But they also shared with me their vulnerabilities and fears. On one occasion, Prang had asked me to accompany her on a visit to a woman in her village who made some of the silk she had bought in the past. I have written about this experience before, as it moved me so deeply. Here is a journal entry I wrote after I returned that evening:
Tonight, I met a woman nobler than I could ever hope to be. She only has one leg because she lost the other in an accident three years ago. I don't know the extent of the accident or even what happened. All I know is that the accident took her leg and left her with huge scars over the rest of her body.
She lives with eight children in the most makeshift of shelters I have ever seen. Some of the children are her own grandchildren; some of are no relation at all. Their parents either can't or simply won't take care of them themselves.
Most of their mothers work in the bars in Bangkok. Most of their fathers are nowhere to be found. They have very little rice for their meals, and only a few of the children get to go to school because that is all she can afford.
This woman makes some of the most beautiful silk I have ever seen. Prang and I bought some from her tonight. More than likely, the entire sum of the purchase will go towards food for the family because of the sheer number of mouths to feed.
Tonight, I met a woman nobler than I could ever hope to be, and it was my humble honor to be in her presence.
As I look back on that story, I am reminded of the most powerful part of that night for me. As Prang and I were leaving that woman's home, Prang broke down and confessed to me that though she was certain that she needed to help this woman, she didn't know if she was even able to help herself. Her business was not doing as well as it needed to be, and she was unsure of how she was going to be able to afford to feed herself, her children, and her entire family for the next month... and after. Here was a woman who knew that her mission in life went far beyond herself and her own needs, but was struggling to keep even her own head above water. But the last thing she told me as we were arriving home was that she would never stop. No matter what, she would find a way to make sure this woman and others like her would be cared for and find hope. She didn't know how she was going to do it, but she knew she had no other choice than to do so. Moved to tears by her passion and the realization that I would soon have to leave this deeply devoted women after I returned home to America, I made her a promise.
I promised her I would bring help.
I promised I would tell her story.
I promised her I would never forget.
And to my girls, my precious little girls of that village that I had grown to love deeper than anything I had ever felt before, I made a promise too. I promised them, even though they could not understand, that I would do everything within my power to make sure that they would never have to worry about a life in the sex trade for themselves. Just like Prang though, I made a promise I didn't know how I would keep, but I knew that I had no other choice than to do so.
Shortly after I returned to the States at the end of that life-changing summer, I found myself moving to New York City for no reason at all other than that it was there and I could. About a month after I arrived, however, I met two inspiring women, Alissa Moore and Diana Mao, who told me their vision for a non-profit called Nomi Network that assisted former victims of sex-trafficking through enterprise and education. They asked me to be a part of their team and we began: adding more to our number everyday. Through hard work, dedication, and many sleepless nights, Nomi became the force that it is today (and still continues to grow), partnering directly with an organization in Cambodia called Hagar International that does the very thing that Prang's business does in Thailand, but on a much larger scale.
Throughout all of this, though, I never forgot Prang or my promise to her. And then, a few short weeks ago, I received an email from our representative on the ground in Southeast Asia right now. She had gone there mainly to facilitate our relationship with Hagar and to begin the creation of our first line of "Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body tote bags, but she also went to do some exploratory work in Thailand and the Philippines as well. The majority of her email was spent giving the team updates on her progress with Hagar, but also highlighted the connections she made while she was in Thailand. At the end of her email, though, she closed with a statement brought me to immediate tears of shock and joy:
"Jamie, I met Prang."
Even now as I write this, I still have nothing to say. No words to accurately express the way my heart feels right now. There are none strong enough. To know that my promise was being kept even in the midst of my uncertainties is almost too much for me to handle. And again, even now, as I write this, I write from a corner of a cafe where I was just emailed case study stories from our representative Supei of some of the women that we are going to highlight for our new product launch in the coming months. There were three stories. I opened the first one and began to read, with a funny feeling in my stomach. I scanned to the bottom and saw it there: "River of Life Ministries"- the name Prang had given to her business and outreach program in her village. I had just been emailed the story of a woman that I lived with and call my sister. I was staring, in the face, the evidence of my life coming full circle, and once again, words still won't come. Only tears of joy.
The cries of the captives, and the prayers of the hopeless have been heard... and they are being answered.
They shall have their rescue. It is coming. Now.