By Sienna Oates
When she was little, her house burned down, and her family lost everything. Every day was a fight to survive, being homeless and afraid, so her mother did what an alarming amount of others have: she sold her daughter to a man named Michael Pepe. For almost a year, the nine year old lived in his house as a sex slave, sometimes visiting her mother at home on the weekends. During one of these visits, her already turbulent and confusing life was thrown upside down again as police surrounded her house and arrested her mother.
Reak Smey’s story is unfortunately not uncommon for a girl her age in Cambodia, a country in recovery from massive genocide and military occupation. Though some cases like hers are addressed by the local police, a disheartening amount are not; often the police are involved in trafficking as well. There are people, however, who do rescue girls and fight against human trafficking. Agape International Missions (AIM) is a non-profit focused on freeing the people of Cambodia; Reak Smey and her sister were transferred to one of their recovery homes shortly after the arrest.
Cambodia’s recent history is a tragic one; from colonial rule until the 50s, the country’s communist political party led the notorious genocide by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, killing millions. An almost French Revolution-esque climate lowered the mass population’s value of life and reduced society to a daily fight for life. Following this unbelievable tragedy was an extreme Vietnamese military occupation until 1989. Violence and gang rape further saturated the culture, leaving the infrastructure of the country destroyed. Pair a completely broken economy and society with plenty of impoverished families and a global supply of sex tourists, and it is hardly a wonder that the human trafficking industry boomed.
Though the issue of trafficking is a constant disease to worldwide society and always has been, it is important to recognize the factors that spurred its growth in Cambodia. True devastation and dehumanization created a culture in which selling a daughter into trafficking became a financially justifiable act. According to a report by UNICEF, a girl’s virginity can be sold for up to $800, which is triple the annual GDP per capita rate. AIM, which started as a church plant in 2005, works passionately to remedy this issue with multiple on-the-ground programs. These range from their SWAT team leading raids to safe homes for rescued girls to a gym dedicated to boys’ outreach.
Located in the town of Svay Pak, AIM’s headquarters occupy a five-story building originally built to be a luxury brothel. Their church meets there on Sundays, kids go to school there during the week, and countless lives are touched by the presence of the dedicated people serving the community with all their hearts. “AIM brings freedom to people who are exploited,” says Stephanie VanTassell, AIM’s VP of Development. The outreach spreads far and wide, but concisely put, AIM is committed to four things: to prevent, rescue, restore, and reintegrate.
Sweating at the kickboxing gym, ministering to young men, and giving them an alternate view of manhood than that given by society is what prevention looks like. Shifting the cultural mindset, especially by mentoring men, effects society long term. Since AIM moved into Svay Pak, the normalcy of trafficking is less prominent; they have established themselves as a proactive and capable group, and often receive calls from members of the community seeking help. This year, 3,738 people were impacted through medical clinics, schools, church, building projects, response to natural disasters, job training, and more. One of these people is the mother of Kong Vanda, a seven year old who was kidnapped from her home while her mother was away. She went to AIM for help, and they went into action.
Kong Vanda’s picture was printed in a newspaper, asking for information. AIM’s SWAT team headed for the Thai border, where many girls are smuggled across to be sold, to intercept Kong Vanda’s captors. Just two days after abduction, she was rescued and back in her mother’s arms, her kidnapper arrested. The newspaper ad had caught the attention of another mother whose daughter was stolen, and AIM’s swift response resulted in her rescue as well.
Often, they aren’t locked inside a windowless room; massage salons, beer gardens, and karaoke bars act as fronts for commercial sex businesses. Kicking down doors and leading abused girls to safety is what rescue looks like.
This is often how AIM’s commitment to rescue plays out; leads are followed, information is passed, and the clandestine industry is opened. The SWAT team is well equipped with investigators who collect intelligence by combing the internet or walking through the slums, posing as buyers or sex tourists. In her Roseville, California office, the U.S. headquarters of AIM, VanTassell describes the long stakeouts for gathering intel and dangerous raids. “We actually have undercover female agents who go out ‘looking for work,’ and they find out where all the girls are.” Often, they aren’t locked inside a windowless room; massage salons, beer gardens, and karaoke bars act as fronts for commercial sex businesses. Kicking down doors and leading abused girls to safety is what rescue looks like.
But the rescue is just the beginning. Truly transforming a girl’s life is the result of wholesome restoration. AIM’s Restoration Homes (ARH) and Transitional Homes are provided as options to girls as soon as their rescued. After a raid, they’ll be transported to a hospital, treatment for STIs is provided, plus an overall assessment. Young girls are placed directly in a secure, safe home, where a custom therapy plan is created and executed for each girl. “The older girls need more freedom with their restoration plan,” says VanTassell, “and [this freedom] has actually helped them a lot to realize that we are for them, and not trying to lock them up somewhere.”
Transitional homes give girls an opportunity to make their own choices, and empower them by supporting their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs, while keeping them involved in decision making. AIM is one of the only organizations offering this kind of complete care to girls 18 and older. After being assessed and given a suggested restoration plan, the girls can choose to go AIM’s Restoration Home, or stay at a transition home for an extended period of time. Girls receive a solid education here, and high school students will graduate with a valid Cambodian diploma.
Reak Smey, at nine years old, after being rescued from the house of a pedophile, was transferred to AIM’s Restoration Home in ARH. “The first day walking into ARH… I loved it. It was like a paradise,” she says. Each facility has a house mom, who cares for the girl’s daily needs and welcomes them into what is probably the first healthy home they’ve ever lived in. “Just having a place where I could cry… being told that God loves me, when my culture told me I’m worthless, that was a really big thing that helped transform my life,” said Reak Smey.
Equipping these women and girls with professional skills in extremely important in keeping them from ever having to return the the sex trade. Many want to become teachers or counselors, so they go through AIM’s teaching program. A girl named Mi who went through AIM’s restoration program now makes elaborate cakes for the Prime Minister of Cambodia, after landing a job at a high-profile bakery using skills she learned at ARH. Survivors working at AIM’s employment center sew clothes in an empowering environment, are paid high wages, and provided with childcare. Classes teaching latte art skills and how-tos on pulling the perfect shot are offered through their barista training. Said simply by VanTassell, “Reintegration is setting up a girl to be empowered, to live independently, to make choices that she wants to.”
Successful reintegration has the power to break the cultural cycle of impoverished families selling their daughters into slavery. “There is no back door to AIM,” explains VanTassell. When a social worker’s caseload is full, a new one is hired to take on new cases, so that the women rescued from trafficking truly have lifetime support. A social worker at AIM’s headquarters in Svay Pak will travel however far it takes to check in with a survivor of trafficking, offer counselling and support, and remind them that they will always be a part of AIM’s family.
“They didn’t even see my face or know my name when I needed them most, but they still helped me.”
This is a reason why AIM’s process is expensive. “If you rescued a ten year old, let’s say she was reintegrated at 14, and then cared for by a social worker for six years. That’s ten years of paying a social worker’s salary, she went through a very expensive restoration program, she might have been rescued by our rescue team, we care for her medical bills… and we don’t put an end to it[…],” said VanTassell. “But we believe that if we’re able to impact this generation, it’s going to impact the next, and that’s why it’s valuable.” AIM has rescued 580 girls, and that number is continually climbing. Sokha, who was rescued by AIM and now lives in Northern California, said, “They didn’t even see my face or know my name when I needed them most, but they still helped me.”
Donors and supporters of Agape Int’l Missions, (or as AIM inspiringly calls them, modern-day abolitionists), live all over the globe. On top of supporting AIM financially, they commit to fighting sex trafficking in their own country, working at the heart of the issue: cultural mindset. “It’s impossible to separate pornography from trafficking,” states VanTassell. Since so many are trafficked to create more content to be spread around the dark web, a demand for porn will always lead to a demand for more girls. Understanding this connection as a person in a first-world culture is extremely important; maybe it’s not possible to get on a plane to serve in Cambodia, but it is possible to refrain from partaking in an industry that furthers the exploitation of innocent girls.
Sex trafficking, though prominent in Cambodia, affects an estimated 4.5 million globally. The industry generates billions of dollars in the U.S. alone. “If my argument for not caring about someone in Cambodia,” shares VanTassell, “is that she’s not around me, and I should only care about the people who are around me, then it follows that the people around her are the people who should care for her. So my question would then be, if you should only care about your neighbor, but her neighbor doesn’t care for her, who cares for her? And I want to say, I will.”
If you would like to learn more about AIM’s story and support their mission, visit agapewebsite.org.