Last winter, I embarked on a transformational two-week group journey to Thailand. The focus of our group journey was to learn directly from reliable anti-sex trafficking and labor trafficking organizations the problems and solutions being addressed to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation. Our small group was lead by Carol Smolenski, the executive director of an anti-sex trafficking organization called ECPAT-USA. Carol has been a pioneer of anti-sex trafficking movements for over two decades.
I spent months looking for the right trip. Unfortunately, in the growing rise of volunteer tourism, there are many tours and orphanages that target unassuming yet uninformed tourists. People can go and volunteer at an orphanage. The heartbreaking reality is that many of the orphanages that are arising, children are sold out of their homes in a similar exploitation to sex trafficking. The purpose is to make money rather than to protect children. Because of Carol’s committed dedication, she has developed intimate international relationships with the most reliable connections to anti-sex trafficking organizations that are working tirelessly to protect children from sexual exploitation.
One of the most inspiring encounters on this journey was with a passionately inspired woman named Kru Nam who founded the Baan Kru Nam Foundation. Baan Kru Nam Foundation helps stateless children and mothers affected by human trafficking in the border areas of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
Stateless people are amongst the many who don’t have an ‘official’ identity. They are born in hill tribes and remote villages that lack birth certificates. Having no identification drastically limits their options to escape street life and human trafficking.
With the help of her translator, Kru Nam began to tell us her story about how her work which is now a fully established orphanage. “I initially began the work with the children after I completed college. I was an art major. One day, while I was in Chiang Mai, I saw children eating out of a dumpster.” Her words and eyes relieve the disbelief at the horror she experienced. “I grew up middle class. I had never seen a child looking that desperately for food in a dumpster. In that moment, something got inside my heart.” As she said this, her eyes filled with tears as she moved her hand in a circle around her heart. “The next day, I went and brought some canvas and markers for the children. I asked them to draw for me their experience. What I saw horrified me,” she said, now crying at the severity of the neglect and abuse she witnessed in their drawings.
She began to use her own resources to help the children. Soon after, she was able to provide a safe space for the children to come for art therapy, safety, shelter and food. We all sat in silence, transfixed by every word she is saying. She soon became aware of the enormity of the problem with sex trafficking of boys and girls.
Knowing how difficult it is in the USA to free a child or adolescent from the bondage of their pimp and escape the world of prostitution, someone in our group asked, “How did these kids find the center? Where did you find them?”
Very casually, she replied, “I became a prostitute. I needed to enter their reality to develop trust and a relationship to help bring these kids to safety.” She says it so non-heroically as if it is not even a big deal. We looked at each other making sure that we heard correctly what she is saying.
As her work with the children expanded, additional resources came in from UNICEF. This allowed her to set up a small orphanage for the kids. After some time, the orphanage got burnt down. “I thought this was the end,” she said to us. “But then, these eight children came out and all looked up at me with big and innocent eyes as if to what is next. I knew I had to keep going.”
Not only is she crying but we all are crying. Miraculously more support did come in. Now, she has a fully established orphanage of forty-eight children.
In the afternoon, we visited her orphanage in the countryside. There is nothing more beautiful than being greeted by forty-eight innocently joy-filled children. After a fun round of Rock, Paper Scissors as well as the “Hokey Pokey,” a child walked up to each of us. They tooks our hands and began to show us their home.
Kru Naam’s dedication and life sung a song of inspiration into each of our hearts. As we left that day, we all felt inspired by the love that comes when we become a voice for the voiceless and a protector for those who have no protection.
To find out about upcoming advocacy journeys with ECPAT to Colombia and Thailand, please visit http://ecpatusa.org/journeys.
Courtney Dukelow is a writer a healer, activist and soul mentor. To find our more about her and her work and writing, please visit www.courtneydukelow.com.