I devotedly shut my ears to the beeping and screeching of cars on Sisowath Quay as the sun crept into my bedroom, snuck its soft hand over the sheets, and pried my eyes open much too early on Saturday morning. One of the many benefits of living in Phnom Penh, I thought to myself; sleeping in is not an option. I sighed, threw my feet over the edge of the bed, and contemplated. The whole day to myself. No work. No email. No calls. Just me. I ambled about, taking my time in the shower while listening to Zakir Hussain’s genius beats on the tabla and attempting half-baked kathak in my towel.
I met with a warm-hearted motherly woman at Java café to discuss the girls trafficking shelter she directs called Transitions Global, and how I can be put to use there. Jaya told me the story of her family, half Indian and half Khmer, living through the past 50 years of Cambodia’s horror story. “We were split up, you know, during the Khmer Rouge. We had a very big family. Pol Pot, he saw me and saw I look different from the other Cambodians. He pointed to me. He tied my hands behind my back and took a knife. What’s that called? The knife when it is at the end of the gun? Yes, he took that, put it on my neck.” As she shaped her fingers into a knife the width of her palm she exclaimed, “I kept saying, ‘I’m Khmer I’m Khmer!’ I don’t know why, but he believed me. He listened to me. He said, ‘You work with Ongka, and I will let you live.’ ‘Ok, ok, anything,’ I said. Ongka is the army of Pol Pot, but I didn’t care, you know? Anything, so I could live. You will say anything, you will do anything, so you and your family can live.” I listened in half awe and half comprehension that this woman sitting beside me, wearing emerald earrings and gold bangles, who was on the chopping block not more than 15 years ago, now runs a shelter to help girls break the shackles of poverty and shame. Perhaps there is method to the profound heartfelt madness of Cambodia.
“These girls, they think they are different from everyone else. They think they are dirty and they don’t deserve to live like a normal person. You know, some of these girls, their mothers sold them away. In this country, you would never think of that. It was not until recently that this began here. Family is very important to Cambodians. I know the mothers love their daughters,” She broke off, on the verge of tears. “And they still ask their daughters for money. The girls are so sad and angry. It takes a lot to help them back into the world, to live on their own and be…confident.” She glances to the side and I watch her thoughts wander through the windows of her eyes, lost among the many girls she has tried to help, yearning for their absolution. “So,” she shakes herself free of the weight, momentarily, “tell me more about you!” I am at a loss for words.
I asked her when I could come by the shelter and she smiled her big warm smile, slapped my knee, and exclaimed, “We want you now!” The next day I went to meet 15 of the sweetest young women. As Jaya walked me through the house, we discussed the girls’ stories while they joined us in the hallways, a façade of oblivion and bliss painted across their tortured faces. It is near impossible for me to comprehend how a girl, not yet woman, could have endured such pain and struggle, and still smile as brightly as they do. Jaya made me feel so at ease, I left my inhibitions to the wind and asked all my questions.
“Do any of them have babies?” I ventured, slightly unsure of how far Jaya would allow our second conversation to go amidst her many foster daughters. “No, no babies here.” My legs stopped moving as we climbed down the staircase when Jaya asked, “What is it called, when you put some medicine in the arm?” She motioned with her hands and I said, “Oh, a shot?” The irony of the word struck me at once as she informed me of the horrifying way birth is controlled among the brothel underworld. “The pimp, you know, when he takes them, he gives them a shot. This stops their period for 3 months. Then when it comes back, he give them again. Sometimes, when they come to us, they cannot have their period anymore. We have to take them to the doctor to help them start again. They are just young girls, you know?”
As we sat at her computer looking at pictures and talking about Athena and James, the two angels who have begun this journey to empower young girls and remove them from the infinite loop of poverty and deceit, two of these sweet girls sat next to me, playing with me, proudly showing me pictures and pointing out their friends, asking me to take photos with them, and telling me their dreams. Each and every girl was immediately respectful and awestruck by me for no reason other than my being a visitor to their home. I wondered if these morals were taught to them at their new home or if they were simply innate. I wondered if the culture and society teaches people from day one what morals are and to treat others as if they are family. Perhaps that is what eats away at Jaya, when she thinks about the girls, there is no doubt in my mind that they are like her own daughters, every one of their adversities becoming an affliction of her own. Was it her own tribulations that steered her towards a path of selflessness or her born and bred culture that taught her there is no other way?
I rode away from the girls that afternoon with a feeling of peace settled upon me, wondering if I had at long last found my way home.