3Strands: Why Sustainable Employment Matters

Perhaps over the last week or so you may have seen Lygia and me tweet or facebook about 3Strands.  3Strands is a fashion brand that is being developed by Agape and a US-based retailer called Apricot Lane. Apricot Lane’s designers have begun to hand over apparel items to our Agape Training Center in Cambodia where a team sources materials for the girls whom we’ve rescued throughout Cambodia to assemble and package for sale in their store fronts (and online) in the United States.  The first items that actually shipped stateside were the bracelets 3Strands and Apricot Lane are now selling. As the girls continue to train and develop a broader skill-set, 3Strands’s item inventory will grow.

First ATC Shipment

Isaac Saur making sure the last box of the first Agape Training Center shipment to the United States is packed neatly.

With this post I want to get into (a little) detail as to why this type of sustainable employment matters.

Having studied the politics and economics of developing countries at university, the question “why do some countries develop while others stagnate?” has come up in my mind a few times. Many people theorize about the reasons and develop complex answers. Some of these answers have merit; others, not so much. Naturally, living in Cambodia for the last nine months, this question has come up many times in my mind.

During our time here, Lygia and I have made several trips to Thailand (for visa runs, McDonalds, Starbucks, and Tesco) by land as it’s only 150 km (93 miles) away. The minute you cross the border, you know you’re not in Cambodia anymore. This realization comes not from the climate, natural surroundings, or the people; instead it comes from the roads, buildings, cleanliness, and development. Thailand and Cambodia share similar boundaries, similar natural resources, and (while they won’t admit it) similar people. Nevertheless, Thailand is decades ahead of Cambodia in terms of development.

Map featuring Siem Reap

We live in the northern Cambodian town of Siem Reap, which makes Thailand (as opposed to Vietnam) the most convenient country to go to when we need to renew our visas.

I cannot hope to breakdown all the reasons for Cambodia’s poor development in a single blog post, but I can say that I have made a rather unpleasant observation during our car rides to Thailand, one which I believe sums up the problem on at least a superficial level: the majority of big, cargo-carrying trucks travel loaded in only one direction.  The direction in which loaded trucks carrying cargo travel is important because it vividly demonstrates the import-export ratios between the two countries. Here is the problem: the full trucks come from Thailand and the empty trucks leave Cambodia.  That means, Thailand is able to produce enough stuff to satisfy their own demand and export to Cambodia.  This means money is traveling out of Cambodia and into Thailand. The same problem exists on the Vietnam border only I don’t live there so I’m not able to see it.

I’ve seen Thai trucks entering Cambodia carrying any range of goods starting from Styrofoam serving trays to tractors.  This is because Thailand has developed industry and a government that is friendly to businesses. If an outside company wants to choose between the two countries to supply their labor force, they will almost always choose Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, Thailand’s government has plenty of issues and they’re certainly not spot on but they have secure land rights, they invest earnings back into their education system, and they respect copyright laws more stringently.

Cambodia's Curse

Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley

If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the problem with Cambodian government, society, economy, etc, you should consider purchasing Cambodia’s Curse. Joel Brinkley does a fantastic job cataloging the problems that exist within Cambodia and the outside forces that play into it as well.

Inevitably, one problem we’re facing after rescuing our girls is reintegrating them back into Cambodian society. Just because we’ve taken them in and provided counseling and put them through school doesn’t eliminate the overarching social factors that contributed to their trafficking to begin with. Without a  stable income, they cannot find a safe place to live and provide for themselves and are therefore prone to falling back into the same societal traps that imprisoned them to begin with.  Thankfully, we’ve had several organizations whom we’ve partnered with over the last few years (Bloom Cafe, Daughters, etc) that offer training and employment to rescued girls but as AIM grows and the number of girls we rescue and reintegrate grows, and so must our ability to find or provide viable employment options.

That’s why we’re so proud of and thankful for Apricot Lane. They are a company who went against all odds and defied business principals to help give these girls another chance at life. Girls whom often times were sold into sexual slavery by their parents can now earn monthly salaries that double the Cambodian national average wage. They are developing the skills and gaining the education through Agape Training Center to overcome all odds and flourish into empowered members of Cambodian society.

You can help AIM and Apricot Lane launch this brand by buying a bracelet from 3Strands to show your support and encourage others to do the same; you don’t even need to leave your house.

Job Description

Celebrating 5 years of marriage

Lygia and I celebrated five years of marriage on July 7, 2012.

People have consistently been asking us the question: “So what do you do there (in Cambodia)– what’s your job description?”

That’s sort of a trick question; and honestly, it changes day-to-day and  month-to-month.

When we released our update video in February, we had just opened the school one month prior and were preparing for a lot of major changes. In hindsight, we didn’t even realize back then how huge these changes would actually be.

In March, two girls who grew up on brick factory grounds near our Rahab’s House in Svay Pak moved up to Siem Reap to help us open our salon. Brick factories in and around Svay Pak are practically forced-labor camps and the children of the workers often end up as trafficking victims; the transformation in these girls’ lives has been amazing and now they’re doing awesome work here in Siem Reap.

Brick Factory at Svay Pak

Svay Pak brick factory/labor camp: ovens (left), bricks (center), shanty housing (right).

Soon after, Jayme Moffard along with a girl who graduated from Agape Restoration Center (ARC), moved into Rahab’s House of Siem Reap to help with outreach and education.  The month of March itself saw some huge transformations with the opening of the salon and the beginning of our outreach program. It was also the month where we started to take in girls to live at Rahab’s House.

Jayme and Brittnay riding elephant

Jayme Moffard and Brittnay Knight riding an elephant in Thailand.

In April, Brittnay Knight moved up to Siem Reap to help with outreach and to teach English. She was welcomed to Siem Reap a bit crudely as our whole family had Dengue fever at the time and it seems she would fall victim to the same fate during her first week.

Despite the shaky start, we filled up our emergency housing bedroom early in April and had to add beds in an open space on the third floor to fit more girls. Here is an excerpt from a budget proposal I wrote some months ago about the situation:

Emergency Housing: Our last bed was filled on 7 April 2012. Three of the beds are occupied by RHSR staff and three by girls formerly in the employ of T** T*** KTV (karaoke club). In mid-April we bought 2 new bunk beds to house four more girls in an open space on the third floor that we plan to convert into another bedroom by May 25, 2012.

Also in April, Dr. Carla Kaczor began regular visits to Siem Reap to host clinic sessions. At introduction, she would see about 10 girls over the day-and-a-half she was in town.  Today, she sees more than twenty people a day on average and holds clinic for three day intervals every two weeks at our center.  She sees girls from local massage parlors, karaoke clubs, and some members of the general public (many of whom are relatives of the massage/karaoke workers).

In May, Alla and Michael Nagy took a month off of their work/travels in Europe to visit us and to help in any way they could with the ministry. Thankfully, Mike is quite the handyman and Alla is an excellent assistant so together they helped with the renovations we needed to expand the housing room to accommodate more girls.

Framing walls

Alla and Lygia helping Mike frame a wall at Rahab’s House.

After the renovations, we took in our last two girls into Rahab’s House. They were two sisters who we got to know because the younger of them was attending our morning school sessions. Only God could have orchestrated such a perfect series of events. The younger sister, 13, started coming to my English classes in January. When the girl from ARC moved up in March, they became friends and the younger sister even started to attend church with our staff. One day, we noticed that she hadn’t been coming to class. Our attempts at calling her and her sister were to no avail. Savry, our Assistant Director, and I went to the building where we knew this girl lived, asked around to find which room was hers, and found the girl inside crying with her older sister unconscious on the floor (probably intoxicated).  It turns out her mother had forced her and her sister to start working in the karaoke clubs. This girl is thirteen!  We immediately intervened and took them both out to live at Rahab’s House.

It was around this time when Don Brewster (Director of AIM) and I realized that what we had initially identified as a need for “short-term emergency housing” was actually greater. At inception, we thought that short term housing might be needed as a means of transitioning the girls into a proper job or something of the sort. However, we found that what was actually needed was housing for the duration of enrollment in vocational training or educational programs because most of these girls had little or no education, and certainly no other job training.

We decided that it was time to stop taking any more girls until we could really iron out, in more detail, the program that we were running and hire staff to handle the girls we had already taken in. In June and July, we worked extensively on handling this issue. We drafted a Plan of Care and revised Budget along with dozens of other operational documents.

Jimmy and Andrey fixing a curb in front of RHSR

Heavy rains, shabby construction, and careless driving ruin many roads and sidewalks. Andrey and Jimmy fixed ours and setup permanent planter boxes to dissuade drivers from needlessly driving over it.

Also in June, we were visited for about three weeks by Jimmy Munteanu and Andrey Burachek who came to serve the ministry in any way they could. During their time in country, they handled a number of small construction projects to beautify Rahab’s House.

We discovered that thirteen girls living in the same house doesn’t come without its share of problems. More than that, Jayme, who was acting as temporary House Mom, was leaving back to the States on July 8.  Luckily for us, God is good and he provisioned two wonderful ladies to take her place. We sent them to Phnom Penh for a week of training at ARC and they took turns settling in with the girls at Rahab’s House during Jayme’s last couple of weeks in country.

I spent many days during the month of July driving to the homes of the girls in our care to visit their families and village chiefs to complete paperwork and assess the previous living conditions of the girls. Not surprisingly, we’ve found that most of the families live in dismal conditions.

Phnom Khrom Village

The father of one of our girls (left) and Savry, our Assistant Director, (right) walking towards the home of the village leader in Phnom Khrom. In September-October, this village floods and becomes a fishing village. The homes on stilts are generally safe from flooding but the others need to move their homes uphill during rainy season to avoid being inundated.

In short, it has been quite the busy last few months. We are incredibly happy with what God has done in Siem Reap so far and cannot wait to see where he takes Rahab’s House in the future. We have an awesome staff that will continue to grow and serve this community.

Here is a list of prayer items for Rahab’s House:

  • One of the girls in our care and Savry, our Assistant Director, both have the same heart condition known as hole-in-the-heart where they quite literally have holes between the chambers of their hearts. As they’re both technically adults (over 16), they don’t qualify for the free treatment at the children’s hospitals in Cambodia, so we need to send them to Thailand for surgery. We anticipate this will cost over $44,000 for both girls.  Please pray and give if you’re able.
  • Over the last month, we’ve had two short term missions teams from South Korea visit Rahab’s House. During these two visits, which consisted of community outreach (mainly the children and the working girls) by way of fun educational and recreational sessions (guitar/keyboard/music lessons, dance lessons, jewelry making, sports, etc), we’ve seen a large influx of community children coming into Rahab’s House. This is an awesome thing: it means the community is starting to trust us.  However, it does put strain on us both financially and in terms of staff.  We want to serve these children in the best possible way and affect their community for the long term. We’ve started a sort of Kid’s Club type program like they have in Svay Pak for the moment. We’re not sure how long it will last or how consistently children will come, but it could mean expanding the scope of Rahab’s House even further in the future.
  • Lygia and I are transitioning home in November and Laura Linner, who has worked for Agape in Phnom Penh over the last few months, will be coming to Siem Reap to take our place.  Please pray for us as we catch her up on all that’s going on here.
  • We want to open a second Agape Training Center in Siem Reap in the coming months to both expand our program here while at the same time being able to provide good jobs for the girls we rescue from these vile places.
  • Bloom Asia is also hoping to expand to Siem Reap next year. They have been an excellent resource to our organization for the past few years, providing vocational training, healing, and education for girls rescued out of sex-trafficking. Siem Reap is in dire need of places like Bloom; they help facilitate the life-changing transformations these girls need.

So, you might ask: “What’s your job description?” and I would answer that it depends on when you ask. Some days, Lygia and I are counselors. Others, we’re construction workers. Still others, we’re clinic assistants, cooks, salon managers, ad men, teachers, janitors, party planners, social workers, book keepers, coffee runners, ambulance drivers (well, if you consider our old Camry and ambulance anyway), fund-raiser,  etc.

The one thing we can say with certainty is that God has big plans for Rahab’s House and the young ladies of Siem Reap.

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