The girls in Hagar Cambodia's Aftercare Shelter are getting excited about Christmas. For most of them this will be their first Christmas ever. They will have a small party, receive a gift, and learn the story of why we celebrate.
The 25 girls in Hagar's Aftercare program will join an additional 125 women and children from other Hagar programs. They will sing, dance, and eat a special meal together. We know it will be very festive, and we anticipate the excitement it will bring to all. For girls rescued from egregious abuse, there's not a lot about their pasts to celebrate. It's essential to find ways to celebrate the present and the future: holidays, birthdays, school exams.....any reason at all! Throughout the year we hear, "this is the first time I have every had a party for my birthday." Soon, many girls' "first Christmas" will be a very special day.
At Hagar Vietnam a few weeks back, 13 women stood proudly and confidently receiving certificates and flowers. Each was a survivor of human trafficking or domestic violence. Each had completed an important part of the journey toward wholeness. They were graduating from Hagar's 'Career Pathways' program in Hanoi, ready to begin their first work placements at Joma Bakery Cafe, Hagar's enterprise partner. For most, this would be their first experience with safe and dignified work, earning a sustainable income.
Each woman survivor made a bold statement that night. Their pasts would not define their futures. It was a night to remember, with nearly 200 people watching in awed silence. "The women had no idea that so many people cared about them," said Agnes Lam, Hagar Vietnam Country Leader. "Many of them were in tears at the end of the night, as were many of our guests."
One of the women who celebrated her empowerment was Bih:
Bih grew up always feeling different from others. She didn't feel smart, because she only finished fourth grade. The hardest part was she had the nagging feeling that she would never be a daughter that her parents could be proud of.
When a kind friend of Bih’s asked her to go shopping at the Chinese border, she jumped at the chance. But a fun excursion turned into a nightmare. It wasn’t long before she realized she’d been trafficked. Bih spent three years in a China brothel and was only rescued when a man alerted the police. When she got back home, her family rejected and disowned her.
Now Bih is safe with Hagar. She is learning to take care of herself. A self-portrait painted by Bih was displayed at the Career Pathways graduation ceremony. Bih said, “My portrait reflects the strength I have found in myself, despite my difficult past.”
Girls served in Hagar's Aftercare program have suffered unspeakable abuse. Yet, there are many stories of hope. Malis' (not her real name) is one of them:
At seven, when her mother took her to 'work' at a brothel in her village, Malis was not able to refuse. Some nights she met with 3 - 4 men. She always returned home to give the money to her mother. She was rescued at 10. The rescue, itself, was terrifying. There was shouting and running and Malis had no idea what was going on.
In 2005, Malis came to Hagar's Aftercare program, for girls needing long-term care. Malis was afraid of new people and new situations. Particularly when foreigners came to visit, Malis would be terrified and run and lock herself in a room. Slowly, though, she has regained hope and started to blossom.
Earlier this year, Malis completed Hagar's new Trauma-Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy program. She worked through lots of questions about her past, many of them about her mother. She acquired skills to tell her story, and she learned to challenge unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts. Her confidence and self-esteem have grown tremendously. She no longer needs intensive shelter care, so she is living with a foster family in the community.
Recently, Malis volunteered to to tell her story for a documentary on human trafficking. Throughout the process, her inner strength shone through, moving all involved in the filming to tears.