Photo Essay—Cambodia's Forgotten Souls: A Journey of Hope and Empowerment

10/11/2016 02:04 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2016

After a tiring, yet exciting, 30-hour journey via Shanghai from New York City, the airplane floated down into the lingering smog of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, while heart-warming nostalgia began to cloud my head. The constant chaos of the city streets, the generous warmth of the children I had worked with, the unpopular smells emanating from the market stalls: it all poured in as if only one day had gone by, and yet it had been six years.

Double exposure of the Angkor Wat temple
©Erica Simone
Double exposure of the Angkor Wat temple
An elder woman wanders the market stalls
©Erica Simone
An elder woman wanders the market stalls
A woman gets primped at a beauty salon in the market
©Erica Simone
A woman gets primped at a beauty salon in the market
Meat
©Erica Simone
Meat

This time, I was not on a solo journey, but on a humanitarian mission as an ambassador to the organization Beauty for Freedom, founded by renowned philanthropist, Monica Watkins, in order to help victims and survivors of human trafficking and sex slavery around the world. It was to be a physically and emotionally taxing two weeklong project, yet embarrassingly shy in comparison to the difficult lives of those we were to work with.

Cambodia was hot. And I don’t mean hot as in “It’s a nice day for the beach, hot.” It was sweltering, irrationally humid hot, where your clothes are feverish in sweat, you can’t catch your breath and you feel like you might actually die, hot.

A woman sells bread from a basket she balances on her head
©Erica Simone
A woman sells bread from a basket she balances on her head
Girls at the hair salon in the market
©Erica Simone
Girls at the hair salon in the market
A woman and her son, frail from malnourishment
©Erica Simone
A woman and her son, frail from malnourishment
A woman weaving silk in fashion designer, Eric Raisina's design studio
©Erica Simone
A woman weaving silk in fashion designer, Eric Raisina's design studio

We were a group of six women staying in a quaint hotel in the center of Phnom Penh and traveling to the AFESIP/Together1Heart (Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire) center every day to work with female survivors: approximately 50 girls from the ages of 3 to 22 who had been abused, sexually victimized or trafficked in some way, and eventually rescued by the organization.

Founded by one of the world’s most famous women’s rights activists, Somaly Mam, partnered with Hollywood actress, Annalynne Mccord, the AFESIP/Together1Heart center is a non-profit organization that physically rescues female victims of human trafficking and sex slavery, providing safety, shelter, food, education, therapy and, as importantly, love and care. The organization saves these women from physical and emotional trauma and, ultimately, from a life of complete misery. The staff also frequently visits local brothels, bringing food and hygienic supplies such as soap, condoms and toothbrushes to the women who are currently unable to escape.

Somaly Mam
©Erica Simone
Somaly Mam
AFESIP
©Erica Simone
AFESIP
The girl's quarters at AFESIP
©Erica Simone
The girl's quarters at AFESIP

Somaly Mam is a Survivor with a capital S and one of the most heroic people I have ever met. As a child, she was kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, where she was held captive and raped by an outrageous amount of men each day. Her life story, told in her momentous autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, will blow your mind. Like many of the women and children in similar situations, she experienced repeated, extreme assault that no human being should ever have to endure for even a second. After years of torture, she eventually was able to escape, prosper, and build a life completely devoted to helping other girls, saving thousands, while putting her own life at risk in the process. Working with Somaly and witnessing such courage, love, generosity and such tenacity in helping others was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. This powerhouse of a woman takes the word ‘strength’ to an otherworldly level.

Life in Cambodia as an impoverished woman who has suffered from the sex trade is extremely grim, with an unpromising future. Forced labor in Cambodia, including sex work, is statistically alarming, where children are a main target. The stories of child molestation and abuse we learned about during our time there were horrific, including those of the girls we were directly working with which were worthy of anyone’s worst nightmares.

It was alarming to look into the glistening eyes of an innocent child of barely 6 years old and imagine that she could have experienced repeated rape and gruesome physical abuse, wondering if she had also contracted a life-threatening disease in the process. I wondered how it would be possible for a young girl who had been chained, beaten and tortured to eventually find peace in her heart and mind? How could such monsters and monstrosities exist in this world? My heart ached over the robbery of these gentle little beings’ bodies and souls.

"Together 1 Heart"
©Erica Simone
"Together 1 Heart"

Hope, however, was atmospheric and the girls were all very grateful for the life they now live and the safety they now feel. It was wild how loving and appreciative each one of them was with us. While we conducted daily art therapy and photography workshops, the girls were present and focused, while eager to learn, generous with their smiles, and sharing with each. On the last day of our mission, after hosting an art show all over the center’s compound of the pieces the children had created, each one of the 50 girls lined up in a single file to thank us and hug us individually, expressing specific things that they had learned or cherished during our time working with them. Over the last ten years of doing similar type humanitarian work with children around the world, this was the most humbling and grateful group I’ve ever worked with—the touching moments shared with these kids were beyond powerful.

Installing the art show at AFESIP
©Erica Simone
Installing the art show at AFESIP
One of the girls from AFESIP painting for the art show
©Erica Simone
One of the girls from AFESIP painting for the art show
Girls painting for the show
©Erica Simone
Girls painting for the show
Famous artist Magda Love painting a mural on one of the buildings at AFESIP
©Erica Simone
Famous artist Magda Love painting a mural on one of the buildings at AFESIP
The bathrooms got a fresh new look
©Erica Simone
The bathrooms got a fresh new look
Photography workshops at AFESIP
©Erica Simone
Photography workshops at AFESIP

During the trip, we also experienced two different brothel communities. Unlike the girls at the center, the women we visited there were not safe from abuse. They were sick, famished, and hopeless. We arrived with local staff from AFESIP/T1H, bringing rice and other necessities, so we were greeted with appreciation, not as strange foreigners infiltrating their neighborhood. They gathered seated, listening to the staff trying to influence them to seek their help or to send their daughters to the center. You would think that it wouldn’t take much to convince these women to escape their hell on Earth, but most of them are terrified of their pimps, discouraged by the debts they owe and by not having any other skills in life to survive. They believe they are condemned to prostitution and do not have hope for any other kind of life.

We were invited into several of the women’s dilapidated shacks, avoiding puddles of dirty water, giant splinters and missing panels from the wooden floor. We politely documented the living skeleton of a woman of maybe 35 years old, who was laying on a thick comforter flat to the ground, painfully dying of AIDS. We were shown the women’s quarters, which might have had a bed, an old TV, and a fan—and we were confessed autobiographical stories of horror.

A woman shows us her scars from daily torture
©Erica Simone
A woman shows us her scars from daily torture
A woman sits quietly waiting for us to give her and her baby rice
©Erica Simone
A woman sits quietly waiting for us to give her and her baby rice
A 35 year old woman dying of AIDS in her quarters
©Erica Simone
A 35 year old woman dying of AIDS in her quarters
Inside the brothel homes
©Erica Simone
Inside the brothel homes
An HIV+ woman tells us about her 12 year old daughter who she desperately wants to leave the brothels to have a better life
©Erica Simone
An HIV+ woman tells us about her 12 year old daughter who she desperately wants to leave the brothels to have a better life
One of the brothel women poses for me under the fluorescent light of her empty room
©Erica Simone
One of the brothel women poses for me under the fluorescent light of her empty room

As we listened carefully to the women’s life stories, we captured footage to raise awareness. The one that affected me the most was told in tears by a 34 year old transgender woman named Proueng Pov who made a soft transition with hormones she purchased on the black market from Thailand several years ago. She became a prostitute so she could earn the $40/month that it would cost to care for a young boy she had adopted, abandoned by a friend who had disappeared. All Proueng had in the world was the love she had for this child that wasn’t even hers. She was HIV+ and told us that she was constantly beaten and raped. Proueng had other skills, once having worked as a construction worker, but it did not pay enough to support her family and she could no longer go back to the male-dominated career as a transgender woman: a now outcast. I cannot find words to express the amount of sadness and despair that conquered our hearts during her interview.

Proueng Pov, a 34 year old HIV+ transgender prostitute tells us her story
©Erica Simone
Proueng Pov, a 34 year old HIV+ transgender prostitute tells us her story
A brothel community in Phnom Penh, where Proueng Pov lives and works
©Erica Simone
A brothel community in Phnom Penh, where Proueng Pov lives and works
Inside the stairwell of a brothel community in Phnom Penh
©Erica Simone
Inside the stairwell of a brothel community in Phnom Penh
In the corridors of a brothel community in Phnom Penh
©Erica Simone
In the corridors of a brothel community in Phnom Penh
Proueng Pov waiting for the day's work
©Erica Simone
Proueng Pov waiting for the day's work

One afternoon, we were invited by one of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni’s nephews to conduct workshops in an extremely poor community living amongst trash behind a sewage dump at the very end of a long skinny alleyway, called Shanty Town Spirit. In the unlit humidity of a run-down shack, we sat sweating and swatting flies among ten kids between the ages of 8 and 18, decorating canvases with acrylic paint, something some of them had never done before. The older kids were then equipped with cameras after a brief translated lesson and we went exploring the tightly bound neighborhood, capturing the soulful faces of their daily lives, being greeted by some, and shunned away by others. Life in this community was particularly hard and poverty-stricken, amplified by a reigning odor of rotting feces. Yet, watching the smiles of pride on the children’s faces over their artistic creations was so rewarding and all I could hope for in that moment was that they would be able to experience that again someday soon.

The alleyway to Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
The alleyway to Shanty Town Spirit
Painting with the kids inside a shack in Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
Painting with the kids inside a shack in Shanty Town Spirit
Living amongst the trash in Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
Living amongst the trash in Shanty Town Spirit
Shanty Town Spirit resident
©Erica Simone
Shanty Town Spirit resident
Back from school, Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
Back from school, Shanty Town Spirit
The Kids of Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
The Kids of Shanty Town Spirit
Shanty Town Spirit living behind the sewage dump
©Erica Simone
Shanty Town Spirit living behind the sewage dump
Little girl and her grandma from Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
Little girl and her grandma from Shanty Town Spirit
Beauty for Freedom founder, Monica Watkins, showing the kids photos during the photography workshop at Shanty Town Spirit
©Erica Simone
Beauty for Freedom founder, Monica Watkins, showing the kids photos during the photography workshop at Shanty Town Spirit

To complete the trip, three of us traveled to the Angkor Wat temple-bearing city of Siem Reap to visit with girls who had been rescued by AFESIP/T1H and offered educational placement in a beauty school and salon, the Vimean Beauty Salon in town. It was so wonderful to see survivors now thriving in a safe, active workplace and the possibilities for such positive transformation of girls who were once hopeless and defeated.

Thanks to private donations, these life-changing opportunities are available to the youth and more are always in development. If you would like to actively help make life better for women in Cambodia, I encourage you to donate to Beauty for Freedom and/or AFESIP.

As a treat to ourselves, we went to visit the temple ruins, even catching the magic of sunrise. It was a beautiful way to end the trip, reminding me that despite some of humanity’s horrors, the world is still so rich: so filled with magic and beauty

Angkor Wat double exposure
©Erica Simone
Angkor Wat double exposure

Please join us on Monday, October 17th from 6-9PM, where Beauty for Freedom, Bravo TV Star Dorinda Medley, Supermodel Diandra Forrest and art consultant Daria Borisova, will be hosting a collaborative art exhibit of works by the girls of AFESIP with renown artists such as Tim Okamura, Erica Simone (me), Bar Ben-Vakil, Ryan Keeley, Zephy, BY Flore, and others at the JIMMY, on the rooftop of the James Hotel (15 Thompson St., 10013 NYC) to fundraise for AFESIP, Beauty for Freedom and Shanty Town Spirit. 100% of the proceeds from ticket sales and artwork will be donated to the organizations. RSVP: info@beautyforfreedom.org — tickets available at: www.beautyforfreedom.org

To support our Beauty for Freedom Arts Therapy initiatives in SE Asia, please visit our site and donate at www.beautyforfreedom.org or email us at info@beautyforfreedom.org.

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