It was six years ago when I packed the extra small t-shirts that always seem to be the leftovers in our merchandise section and flew to Thailand. Handing them out to our students, I realized how unsettling it was to see the word SOLD on the back of these kids we work so hard to offer Freedom to. It was then and there that we branded our Thailand chapter 'The FREEDOM Project' to more accurately represent what we strive for: freedom from exploitation, freedom to study, freedom to dream. Today, I'm hit with the harsh reality that with Freedom comes the freedom to fail, the freedom to hurt yourself, the freedom to hurt others, and the freedom to make choices that cause pain.
A few months ago I woke up to gut-wrenching text messages and missed phone calls from my colleagues in Thailand. One of our students, Mai*, a bright and bubbly 14 year old girl, was picked up just hours before from a karaoke bar in Chiang Rai. She's had a rough last year, not to mention childhood: mom a former prostitute, now living with step dad #2, and last year she was solicited by a trafficker but thankfully reported it and said no. So you can imagine the emotions and shock to see this beautiful little girl dressed in an (empty) bra, short shorts, her face heavily made up to cover her youth and dancing on a table. Our heroic staff in both an act of desperation as much as love, walked in to that bar, picked her up, and walked out without looking back. That night she slept at the FREEDOM Resource Center in Chiang Rai.
As Thailand Director, Tawee Donchai, shared through his tears about his pain and disappointment, we shared a feeling of helplessness. To our knowledge, she had 'chosen' this. There was no trafficker. She has a scholarship. She has people that love her. She has hardships, yes, but she also has access to the key ingredients that could set her up for success should she choose.
I fell asleep that night with my mind spinning. Watching the children you love and care about so deeply make decisions you don't support leaves you feeling helpless. Giving them freedom to mess up is painful. There's always the alternative: lock her up in the resource center so that she is protected from herself and the big bad world. But this isn't reality. Nor is it freedom.
The next morning I woke up and my first thought was of our sweet student. Where was she? How was she? I quickly texted Tawee, who responded with a thorough update. She was safe. And going back to school.
Months later I'm still reflecting on this story. I'm not a parent myself but I can only imagine that this is what my parents must have gone through in my teenage rebellious years as I made choices that surely were not in my best interest. It is a fine line to walk between freedom and controlling, and as a staff we reflect on this often. The majority of our students are still in their family structure - meaning that they have a Mom, or Dad, or Grandparent that cares for them. Yet often, like in the case with Mai, we find ourselves at The SOLD Project playing the role of parent when parents don't know how. And so our prevention work continues -- mentoring the entire family, not just the child. Prevention is not a straight line towards justice, but rather a scribble with many stops and starts and loops and squiggles. The road to freedom is not simple and sometimes not even ideal, but in reflecting on Mai's story I am reminded that when freedom is in front of us, we still have the choice to choose it. So why, for a moment, did Mai choose NOT to choose it? We have our theories: she may have been woo'd by her then 22 year old boyfriend, or perhaps she wanted an 'out' from the sleepy village she grew up in, or maybe there are things from her past that contribute to this seeming like a better option than not. We may never know for certain.
I often wonder in these 'on the fence' moments what would have happened if six years ago we didn't choose to set out on the untrodden path of prevention. There's no doubt that she would have stayed in that bar. There would have been no staff to rescue her. No mentor to ask her the right questions and encourage her. No safe place for her to sleep. No group of people who believe so strongly that freedom is possible... and all it took was showing an alternate course.
We have a tendency to want to see things in the black and white: choice or trafficked, freedom or enslavement, love or hate. Very rarely in my own life are things this simple: so it is in the case of our students and the majority of women and men that find themselves in situations of exploitation. I'm not saying that there are not very obvious cases of trafficking, but I am saying that more often than not it is far more complex than our media, or even these articles, make out their stories to be. So when freedom (almost) flops, it is my hope that we will enter in to the complexity and nuances of each other's stories with empathy and grace.
And so to prevent children from being SOLD we offer freedom. Freedom to study, freedom to dream, and freedom to make their own choices. Prevention is not fool proof: but it is choice. And it is freedom. And we book end this with love - notorious love that knows no bounds and has no expiration date.