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.

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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.

Desperation in the Land of Smiles

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Sometimes Cambodia is referred to as the “Land of Smiles,” a name it often shares with its northern neighbor, Thailand. While I don’t disagree with its classification as such, I think it should be prefaced with the context of the Cambodian experience before its used. The implication derived is that people are always happy; believe it or not, many times this is the case. I see people each day who have every reason to frown yet still find ways to smile.

It takes me back to my childhood when I would see my mother laughing at a situation that would’ve seemed to merit crying; I used to ask her why she was laughing and she would respond, “well, what’s the alternative, son? Should I cry instead?” I eventually understood this reaction to mean that there wasn’t time to cry; at the same time it was an admission that there were far more important things in life than how she felt at that particular moment and an implied sense that she’d previously dealt with far greater burdens.

I’ve begun to gather that the smiles these lands are filled with are those of people refusing to let emotion dictate how they will react to their circumstance and the implied sense of having overcome far worse. It’s something I notice in the shop keepers I frequent, the drivers I’ve hired when we had no car, and the girls we’re working with. In situations like these, where people smile to cover up emotion, it’s difficult to get a true sense of what someone is thinking or feeling. The smiles, in this case, are also sugar coated with lies they must tell to save face (a common Asian practice).

Reading people here has proven to be more of a task than I would’ve previously thought. I often have to wait until the person thinks I’ve stopped paying attention to possibly catch a glimpse of what they really think.

Today I was coming home from my weekly trip to the market and, as has become habit, I slowed down while passing the Buddhist statue in the city center, which people believe to be an actual God, to see the people coming to worship. Usually Lygia and I sort of smile sheepishly as we see various people trying to feed flowers to, burn incense in front of, or leave a shot of liquor for the statue to gain favor from it. It usually seems more ceremonial than anything else.

but today I was struck with something I’ve rarely seen in this Land of Smiles: emotion; desperation, even. A woman (not the one in the picture as I took the picture after) appeared to be in tears as she was rubbing the idol’s face and then rubbing her own. Usually people bring things for the statue like as an exchange but this woman had nothing. She looked as if she was hurting and desperately reaching out for some “luck.”

In the Land of Smiles, this type of desperation hides in plain sight. If you aren’t paying attention you’ll walk right by it, you’ll look right through it, and you’ll have gone by completely unaware. I’m sharing this to say that one of my biggest struggles has been adapting to cultural differences. But day by day I’m trusting that God will help me understand and empathize more and more. While I feel terrible about the woman at the statue, I rejoice in the knowledge that God set her in my path to do just that: feel.

It took my surprise, even. I usually pass by the statue with nothing more than I mildly curious indifference, hoping to spot people doing something I find funny, like taking pictures of each other feeding flowers to the statue. While I still maintained control of my fine motor skills, I was baffled. I drove forward to the next safe point to turn around but really I have no idea why I turned around. I wanted to interact with her. I wanted to talk to her. In hindsight, I have no idea how I would’ve done that but still, I turned around. By the time I got back to the statue she was gone and all I was left with was the usual quirky group of tourists/locals burning incense and feeding the statue random things. I scanned the sitting park but she was nowhere in sight.

I never pretend to fully understand the Will of God but on other hand I never hesitate to point people to Romans 12:1-2 where Paul tells us that we can know the will of God through rational thought in many cases if we have the renewal of mind that comes from knowing Jesus. However, that’s not to say that we should make ourselves void of emotion; on the contrary, I believe we cannot. God gave us emotions for a reason but He also have us reason so that we could prioritize and understand the emotions we feel. As I remember that woman’s face, I cannot help but feel sad for her sadness, but at the same time, as the day has progressed, I’ve begun to realize that God may have placed her in my path to serve as a reminder that hidden behind the many smiles I see every day, there are very likely hidden a number of other feelings.

It’s been one interesting journey so far, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Rahab’s House of Siem Reap

Check out this video update we made. It has been an incredible journey thus far and we’ve seen some seriously amazing progress in our short time here. We wanted a way to more fully convey what is happening here so we’ve put together this short video to give you guys a glimpse into the ministry.

As we continue, please pray for guidance and that God would make clear for us each day what it is that we need to do. Pray for Siem Reap and especially for the girls we’re working with.

Teaching English to Cambodians

PDF Handout for Teaching English to Cambodians

I’ve been teaching English with Savry for the last couple of weeks and have come across some roadblocks the Khmer have to successful pronunciation. Even Savry, who otherwise has a relatively stern grasp of grammar and vocabulary, falls short in pronunciation.   The main problem she’s brought to my attention is the lack of proper pronunciation in the schools. University professors are often Khmer or Filipino, thus, their ability pronounce words correctly is shoddy at best and their ability to identify incorrect pronunciation in others is far worse.

This leads to the sorts of problems we have communicating with Khmer students. A second year university student studying English, to whom I’m also teaching English through the New Testament, couldn’t understand me when I said the word girl. I said girl. Then I slowed it down: giiirrrrllll. Nothing. Finally, in disbelief, I wrote it down and her face lit up almost as if to say, “Of course I know that word!” Then, in a demeaning voice she said, “giiiiii…” As if, all along, I had been the one saying it wrong!

Savry and I have tried sorting out the biggest problems in this one page pdf. If anyone out there is teaching English to Khmer students, please feel free to print this out and use it. To access the pdf, click here or on the picture above.

Mr. Vanna

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Meet Mr. Vanna.

He’s been our Tuk Tuk driver just about every day since our arrival in Siem Reap. He speaks a little English; just enough to understand where we need to go and for him to assist us in shops where people speak less than him. He’s very soft spoken: not the typical cheeky-type Tuk Tuk driver. His Tuk Tuk is simple. No flashy signs or gimmicky catch phrases. He’s always courteous and jumps at the opportunity to help us with anything but not in that expectant way like so many others. For example, we had some furniture delivered that needed hauling upstairs. He phoned a few other drivers and they came, carried the stuff up, and left without so much as even waiting around for a tip.

Earlier this week, Vanna had an accident with me (Steve) and our two employees (don’t worry Lyg and kids weren’t there). Our Tuk Tuk flipped on its side and we got a little banged up but we’re fine. It wasn’t his fault; some crazy kid was blasting down a bumpy dirt road and got way too close to us. As Vanna swerved to dodge a terrible pothole, they made contact and we went down. As we were in the other guy’s hood, and a bunch of witnesses came up out of the woodwork, Vanna was ‘proven’ at fault. I think he handled it with total class, even when being so terribly wronged.

Anyhow, the point here is that he’s a genuinely nice fellow. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his own dirty little secrets, of course. Nevertheless, as we hope to be acquiring a car soon, it seems as though we won’t be needing his services much anymore. We were thinking about that a lot this evening and it’s saddening because we don’t want to lose the opportunity to minister to this guy.

So we were thinking, how do we stay in touch with Mr. Vanna? While he’s friendly, I don’t think he’ll be hanging around just to chit chat. The man needs to earn a living. So we decided to offer that I teach him English for an hour 3 times a week free of charge. We genuinely believe God can change his heart and don’t want to miss the opportunity to be the catalyst for the gospel in his life.

More than him just being a good guy, Tuk Tuk drivers are some of the most instrumental assets to the sex-trafficking industry. That is, with no foreknowledge to the whereabouts of a brothel (or equivalent), a tourist can hop into any given Tuk Tuk and tell them they’re looking for a good time. The driver will give them options: do you want young girls? Older girls? Khmer? Vietnamese? Etc. And they get a cut from the owners for the referral. So for us to bring a Tuk Tuk in our area to Christ means one less avenue for perverts to get off, one less hand to be greased in corruption, and potential insight to the scandalous state of affairs in Siem Reap.

Pray for Mr. Vanna. Pray for us to be proper examples. And pray that God would have Vanna turn to Him. Ultimately it’s up to God.

Church in Siem Reap

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The reality that we’re actually living in (versus simply visiting) a new country is finally setling in. We’ve been slowly developing a routine with the kids and tonight we even found a church to call home: the Christian Fellowship of Siem Reap.

The church is comprised primarily of the small Christian ex-pat community of Siem Reap. We congregate in what I understand to be a Korean church during other hours, which is nice because most of the Koreans we’ve encountered until now were weird, drunk men at our hotel who shuttled to the Korean karaoke bars and equally strange Korean women who took pictures in front of the foliage at said hotel and shuffled to and fro with obnoxious speed and volume.

Anyhow, I’ve digressed. I’m happy to say we felt really welcomed at church and while it’s not quite home, it is a community of devoted believers from around the world and we’re glad to be a part of it.

More to come.

Napping in Tuk Tuks

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So, we’ve spent the last few days trying to secure the things we need for the next year (apartment, fridge, stove, beds, pillows, AC, etc) in Siem Reap. We’re finding that at home, what might’ve taken half a day to accomplish, here it takes days. Needless to say we’re adjusting to Cambodia time and I’m not referring to time zones but rather to their seeming indifference to time altogether. That being said, James and Arella have been spending many afternoons napping in the back of Tuk Tuks (think motorcycle hauling a covered diner booth without the table). It’s been trying and we’ve barely just begun!

However, I’ve written all of this to say that it is not in vain. Last week Don took a girl out of the karaoke bars and had her promise to never return in exchange for a proper job. That basically means I’ve now hired her! Well, praise God she’s been coming in as promised every day so far. I’d like to
take this opportunity to ask you to pray for her as it’s difficult at this point to say how she will fare.

Of course I believe God has big things in store for her. Pray that she will receive Him so she can receive true hope. Also pray that we will be the proper sort of examples to her.

We’ve also been blessed to be able to hire a second employee named Savry. She is an interpreter and Khmer teacher to us and a mentor and English teacher to the first girl. Her task is not an easy one. Please also pray for her safety and guidance. She has been a true blessing so far.