Friday, December 21, 2012

Final (Belated) Cambodia Update

Letter co-written by Matthew & Kristen Campbell

Dear Friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Bay Area! We wanted to (finally) write to give an update about our trip to Cambodia this past summer. We really appreciate your prayers and support and want to let you know about how God is working in Cambodia and in us.

Our experiences on this twelve-day trip included some light-hearted ones in which we experienced some interesting aspects of Cambodian culture, and others which broke our hearts as we learned about some of Cambodia’s violent history.  On a lighter cultural note, we both tried fried tarantula (Matthew popped a whole spider in his mouth just like the picture of our friend Mark to the left!), and we each had a bite of durian cake, which is made from a notoriously stinky fruit. We also learned how silk is made by hand!

Perhaps the deepest impressions, however, were left by our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields, as we learned that around 25%-35% of the population of Cambodia was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s. At the start of the regime, all of the cities were evacuated, with people being told they could return home in a few days. In reality, families were forced into years of agricultural labor in the countryside, with the hope of developing a Communist agrarian society. Intellectuals, doctors, teachers, monks, even those who wore glasses (which were believed to represent education, wealth, or elitism), as well as anyone who opposed the regime leader (Pol Pot), were killed as enemies of the state. At Tuol Sleng prison (a former school), people were interrogated and tortured, sometimes by soldiers as young as twelve years old, and then taken to the countryside to be brutally murdered and left in mass graves (which are known as the killing fields). Out of nearly 20,000 people that went through Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors. Moreover, Tuol Sleng is just one of many interrogation prisons that were located throughout the country. Many other Cambodians who were not killed directly died of disease or starvation due to harsh working and living conditions in the countryside. The individuals who lived through this experience are now the parents and grandparents of today, and we learned that this historical backdrop is an important part of understanding the problem of human trafficking in Cambodia.

So what did we actually do in Cambodia? We primarily partnered with Agape International Missions (AIM) to run “Kids’ Club” at the Rahab’s House community center in a town called Svay Pak.  This town is known to be a “destination location” for pedophiles. At Kid’s Club, we sang songs, danced, told Bible stories with puppets, and did arts and crafts with the children. We were told that five years ago, nearly every one of the of the children in Svay Pak was being trafficked (sold for prostitution).  The very community center where we were holding Kid’s Club was a former brothel of underage prostitution that AIM and International Justice Mission (IJM) helped to shut down. Today, due to the work of a variety of nonprofit organizations, children in this town are much less likely to be abused; however, more work is left to be done.  The pastor at a new church in this village knew for certain that 17 girls in attendance at Kids’ Club were being trafficked. This represents tremendous progress, yet it was still heart-breaking to know that some of the six to twelve-year-old girls sitting in front of us were being forced to have sex with adult men (many of them “sex tourists” from the West) on a nightly basis.

In addition to Kids’ Club, we had time each day to use our individual gifts to assist AIM in a variety of ways. AIM recognizes that child sex trafficking is a complex issue requiring a multi-faceted solution, so they have a wide variety of ministries attacking the problem. For example, AIM runs a gym where pimps and traffickers can mingle with aid workers. As a result, some of these pimps and traffickers have renounced their former ways and are helping to turn other perpetrators around. Some of the men from our team got to spend time at the gym with the traffickers and have conversations with them.

Another important aspect of AIM’s ministry is the development of fair trade factories that provide formerly trafficked women (once they are sixteen years or older) with training in a trade.  One of the problems with child sex trafficking is that those who are rescued may feel that they have no skills besides prostitution, and ultimately believe they have no choice but to return to sex work for “good pay” or find work in a sweat shop for insufficient income. AIM is providing an alternative by opening factories that pay fair wages and provide a work environment which is much safer than most alternatives. These factories provide a living wage, family-style lunch, free child care, and one hour of education to workers each day. So far AIM has opened one factory and is aiming to have ten factories running within two years. Many members of our team had the opportunity to visit the first factory, and some members of our team used their experience in fashion design to consult on the clothing patterns being used, the methods of sewing being employed, the quality check processes, and the layout/design ideas. We also feel hopeful that over time, through both national economic change and through the education AIM is providing to the rescued women and to the children of Svay Pak, young people may have (and create) an even wider variety of economic opportunities in future. Perhaps some of the children we met will fill the vast gaps left by the Khmer Rouge regime's systematic extermination of the nation's professionals decades ago.

AIM also runs a school for grades K-12 and pays for the most promising students to attend local private schools after grade six. The students and teachers were eager to learn, and this is where we were able to help! It is a special treat for the students to attend arts classes between all of their academic study time. Matthew taught guitar classes every day for several hours, and Kristen taught a liturgical dance class. The Sunday before we left, one student played a guitar song during church, and the dance class (equal parts male and female) performed a worship dance in the Sunday service.

In between the Kids’ Club activities each day at AIM, our team also drove to several factories in the area, which manufacture bricks, to distribute clothing we had collected for the children. Some of these kids take a van to Kids’ Club every day, and they are easily identified by their extremely dirty clothing and their penchant to fall asleep, even during loud singing. These children live in one-room shacks and squalor, and many help their families make bricks in dangerous working conditions. Their joy at receiving the packages of clothing was tremendous, yet our hearts were heavy to know that their needs remain great each and every day.

Towards the end of our time in Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit Agape Restoration Center, a home run by AIM for rescued victims of child sex trafficking. We planned a luau-themed party for the girls there, including a lunch together, nail and face painting, games, and more. It was a lot of fun, and it was very special getting to see how resilient these young women are!

Throughout the week, we also dropped in on some other organizations that are fighting trafficking in Cambodia, including Hagar International, International Justice Mission, and Bloom Asia (a cake business in Phnom Pehn—the capital city—employing formerly trafficked women). They explained some of the ongoing challenges, such as underage prostitution moving “underground” in recent years as a result of the success in shutting down child brothels. While the brothel closings show progress is being made, the underground activity is much more difficult to prosecute, and corruption remains rampant in Cambodia’s law enforcement. Despite these difficulties, we also felt encouraged as they shared about how each of their organizations is uniquely contributing to end child sex trafficking.

Overall, we feel that God showed us a lot about what He is doing in Cambodia and how much is left to be done. After returning home and pushing through traveler’s sicknesses, we have had more time to process; indeed the experience was very inspiring and eye-opening. We feel confident that God is calling us to serve abroad for about two years when Matthew finishes his graduate school program, although at this point we are still not sure in what part of the world that might be.  As part of our discerning process, our plan is to make a short-term trip to another country this coming summer. Perhaps God will ultimately point us to a new place for our longer term service, or He may send us back to Cambodia!

Our team also shared responsibilities for keeping a group blog throughout the trip, which details our daily events: Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, and thank you again for your prayers and support!

In Christ,
Kristen & Matthew Campbell

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