Is This What Child Trafficking Looks Like?

The strange white car pulled up beside me as I walked to school.

I was only a few hundred yards from home and remember turning to see if my parents were still out the front of the house, waving me off. But they had long since gone inside.

My heart started to race … I was all alone.

The car pulled in front of me and the passenger door immediately opened. The smell of cigarette smoke filled my nostrils as a man I’d never seen before extended his hand and offered me a ride to school. He wore a thick black sweater with faded white graphics on the shoulder, and smiled politely through yellow and crooked teeth.

I was close enough to also see that another man sat in the back seat … watching … a large black garbage bag balled up on his lap. Almost 35 years later, I can still see this second man’s face—unshaven beneath a dirty baseball cap—his eyes fixed on me, waiting expectantly for me to join him.

I was nine-years-old when this happened.

A week or so later, I was playing safely in my bedroom when my parents told me that the police had arrested a local man fitting the description I had provided. I can’t imagine how different life would be had I stepped into that car.

I’ve thought a lot about that encounter recently, and realized that my experience is the terrifying daily reality for many of the world’s poorest children. And for these kids, the stories don’t always have a happy ending. They may not have parents to run home to, a safe place to hide, or any local police keeping an eye out for them. But most of all they lack the knowledge, and are easily tricked by evil men.

Throughout the month of May, World Concern is focusing its efforts on raising awareness of child trafficking, and giving you the opportunity to protect a vulnerable child from the threat of exploitation, abuse, and slavery.

It started with an event—the 8th Annual Free Them 5k—a family fun-run that attracted more than 1,400 participants and raised more than $200,000 to help stop trafficking. And this effort now continues with a special initiative that allows you to go one step further, and help cover a child in God’s love and protection.

These children live in poverty, so when something happens you won’t see their stories featured on the evening news, or an article written about their disappearance in a local newspaper. An Amber Alert won’t interrupt your television program, and you won’t see their faces on the community notice board at the local grocery store.

These children need our help.

From an early age, I was taught about the dangers around me. I was educated and kept safe in a loving home and nurtured by a community of people that cared and looked out for my well being. But in villages across Southeast Asia, children don’t have this blessing, or the awareness that potentially saved me all those years ago.

So when I think about the men in the white car, and what could have happened that day—it makes protecting a child an easy decision.

A decision no parent should have to make

Imagine having no choice but to sell your child in order to survive…

That is the anguishing decision Nirmali, a young widow, faced. Alone and desperately struggling to provide for her children, Nirmali was given an offer by evil predators; she could have a well-paying job as a housemaid if she sold her 3-year-old son into slavery.

This is a choice no parent should have to face. Ever.

In Sri Lanka's coastal regions, boys are more likely than girls to be forced into prostitution for child sex tourism.
In Sri Lanka’s coastal regions, boys are more likely than girls to be forced into prostitution for child sex tourism.

What Nirmali didn’t realize is that she and her precious toddler would no doubt be sold into trafficking or forced to work as slaves.

It horrifies me to think of what happens when a child is trafficked. Imagine the terror a 3-year-old feels being torn from his mother’s arms by the hands of criminals—then forced to beg on the streets, work endless hours as a slave, or be abused by pedophiles.

This my heart, and it breaks God’s heart. I cannot sit passively and do nothing.

At World Concern, we hold child protection as a top priority in our programs—especially in Southeast Asia, where sex trafficking and child labor are rampant.

We focus our efforts on prevention because protecting children from these horrific experiences before they’re harmed is critical. Sexual abuse and slavery leave deep scars … sometimes beyond healing.

Nirmali’s older son, who is just 8 years old, is the real hero in this story. He is involved in our Child Safety Program in Sri Lanka. When he learned about how traffickers present deceptive job offers to vulnerable moms and children, he immediately alerted our staff about the offer his mom had received. We were able to intervene and rescue his 3-year-old brother before he was sold. I thank God for this.

The “price tag” traffickers placed on Nirmali’s toddler was $1,000. But it cost just $40 to educate Nirmali’s older son about the danger of trafficking and protect him and his younger sibling from becoming victims.

$40. Isn’t a child’s life worth that?

Children in Sri Lanka draw pictures to express their feelings in our program.
Children in Sri Lanka draw pictures to express their feelings in our program.

Our Child Safety Program provides a safe haven for children to heal from trauma, learn about child rights, and learn how to protect themselves from harm. We also provide an opportunity for teens and young adults to learn life-long skills to earn income safely. We give them alternatives, so they know they have choices and a path to a better future.

If you’d like to give $40 to protect a child like Nirmali’s from becoming a victim of trafficking, you can donate here: www.worldconcern.org/safety.

Please pray with me for the safety and protection of God’s precious children.

The Freedom of Income

Leh showing her earnings for the day.

Seventeen-year-old Leh bounded into the office of the village leader in her rural Laotian community with a handful of money, beaming with pride.

“I sold all of my sticky stick snacks in just an hour!” exclaimed the ecstatic teen. She held up her earnings, which she planned to share with her friends who helped her sell the snacks.

Leh’s village is just a few miles from the border of Thailand. Young girls often disappear after crossing the border into Thailand to look for work. Many are trafficked into Thailand’s insidious sex tourism industry. Others are forced to work for no pay, or other forms of exploitation. Three of Leh’s older siblings have gone to Thailand in search of work. When her father passed away three years ago, she considered doing the same thing so she could help support her disabled mother.

We’re offering alternatives—helping provide job skills and awareness training for girls like Leh in this region to earn income close to home and stay safe. Leh recently participated in cooking classes at World Concern’s youth center. That’s where she learned how easy it was to prepare sticky sticks. She knew immediately she could start a small business selling the tasty treats.

Leh making her sticky stick snacks.
Leh making her sticky stick snacks.

Leh was determined and started her business with $2 she saved to purchase a sack of flour, sugar, and oil. She sold her first batch of sticky sticks at the school during the students’ break time for 10 cents each. In just one hour, she had earned $5—a profit of $3 for an hour of selling.

Ready for selling!
Ready for selling!

“Doing this makes me happy,” she said, after several weeks of operating her snack business. “I wake up at 5:00 a.m., do my chores, and start cooking at 8:00 a.m.” She’s home by 11 a.m. with the day’s profits in hand.

“Thank you not only for changing my life but also my family’s life,” said Leh. “I am very grateful to the project for guiding me in choosing the right path and for securing my future and making me safe.”

Leh is sharing what she learned with her friends, and is now an active member of the youth campaign in her village that helps raise awareness about human trafficking.

Leh teaching her friend how to make sticky sticks, so she can earn income too.
Leh teaching her friend how to make sticky sticks, so she can earn income too.

When you support World Concern’s child trafficking prevention programs, you help keep girls like Leh safe from harm. Whether by participating in the Free Them 5k, or by donating directly, you’re helping protect vulnerable girls and put an end to this horrific crime.

3,200 Children Will be Trafficked Today

This boy walking along the Cambodia border is at risk. The UN estimates 1.2 million children are trafficked annually.
This boy walking along the Cambodia border is at risk. The UN estimates 1.2 million children are trafficked annually.

It’s as if the boys and girls were set out to roam on a six-lane highway. Their lives are at risk. Over the last two days I have watched hundreds of children walk around the roads near Cambodia’s border with Thailand. Some sell trinkets to strangers, others just wander through the crowds for hours. Left alone, these children are in great danger of being trafficked to other countries, then becoming laborers or sex slaves.

I am writing this blog entry from Poi Pet, Cambodia, as I visit our humanitarian projects to prevent child trafficking. What I see here around the border is alarming.

Around here, men and women try to convince children to travel with them across the border in hopes of a job that may bring money back to their families. Instead, children trade their childhoods for months or years in misery. According to the UN, as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. That’s more than 3,200 kids every day.

Public school is out of reach for many poor children near Poi Pet. They may not have a ride to school, or they may not be able to afford the required uniform. Without school, the kids do nothing all day. Parents may be at work, or gone entirely. So the children kill time by wandering near the border.

Humanitarian organization World Concern‘s working to stop the trafficking. Our work with a local non-profit agency, Cambodia Hope Organization, brings classrooms to villages.

Our 25 “School on a Mat” classrooms teach children the curriculum recommended by the government. It gives kids a chance a good education and a much better future. Beyond that, we teach children how to spot the lies of traffickers.

Because a lack of income often sparks risky behavior, we’re also giving young people opportunities for jobs. World Concern’s sewing and motorcycle repair programs give people real skills that they can use to find work or begin their own business. A stable family life often leads to better decisions.

So many children here have yet to find direction. They need the opportunity to attend a “School on a Mat” class, or need to learn life skills. I hope people you recognize the danger these children face, and are willing to do something to stop it.

Join World Concern’s “Free Them” 5K fun run to end human trafficking. It’s Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 9:30 am at World Concern’s headquarters in Seattle.

If you can’t attend, forward or re-post this story, and here’s where to give.

 

World Concern works with Cambodian Hope Organization to provide "School on a Mat," an education and child trafficking prevention class brought to villages.
World Concern works with Cambodian Hope Organization to provide "School on a Mat," an education and child trafficking prevention class brought to villages.
"School on a Mat" helps villagers know the dangers of child trafficking, while providing children with an education that incudes health, language, science and math.
"School on a Mat" helps villagers know the dangers of child trafficking, while providing children with an education that includes health, language, science and math.
Young men learn how to repair motorbikes in Poi Pet, Cambodia, a border community at risk for Child Trafficking.
Young men learn how to repair motorbikes in Poi Pet, Cambodia, a border community at risk for Child Trafficking.
Girls learn how to sew in Poi Pet, Cambodia. Child Trafficking prevention must include opportunities for income.
Girls learn how to sew in Poi Pet, Cambodia. Child Trafficking prevention must include opportunities for income.
Girls play with each other along the Cambodia/Thailand border, an area popular among those who traffick children.
Girls play with each other along the Cambodia/Thailand border, an area popular among those who traffick children.