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A Bridge to Freedom: How Education Supports the Recovery of Survivors

by | Apr 25, 2023 | Leadership Development, Restoration

Over a plate of spicy papaya salad, our sweat and tears intermingled. Sitting in the dark corner of a red-light district in northern Thailand, we poured out our hearts with mutual respect and brave tenderness. She and I were born into different worlds, a generation and oceans apart. English is my native language, abrupt and sharp, while her heart and tongue created melodic rhythms, dancing through the tonal language of her people. We had each navigated unique cultural paradigms and been shaped by divergent worldviews, but tragically, we shared an all-too-common experience. Both of us were survivors of human trafficking, and as children, both of us had been sold into the sex trade by a family member.

The fiery spices of the communal meal lent a stinging reality to our lips as we gave voice to our combined stories of violence and survival. A neon light buzzing overhead illuminated the shadowy space and our collective grief in shades of crimson and violet. A mix of 80’s pop provided a grotesque soundtrack proclaiming seductively the availability of the young women held captive.

How Education Supports the Recovery of Survivors

Globally, rape-for-profit is lucrative, bringing in at least $32 billion annually. Every year, some 1 to 2 million children, women, and men are victimized in human trafficking, while traffickers, at the first point of sale, make anywhere between $4,000 and $50,000 per person trafficked, depending on the individual’s place of origin and final destination.

I know the numbers and brutal realities, but sitting among those priceless women that night, I was crushed with the knowledge that they were not statistics but each a vessel of blinding glory. These girls, made in the image of God, were the ones who would pay the price for the greed and lust that drives exploitation…and they would pay it with their own blood.

I turned to the girl as we simultaneously reached for another bite and looked into her eyes. Searching the windows of her soul for a wish, I asked, “If you had the opportunity to do anything else, what would you do?”

Startled, she responded, “I do not understand what you are asking. There is nothing else for me.”

I stumbled through my limited and tone-deaf vocabulary and tried again. “I mean, when you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Bewildered, she shook her head. “My mother brought me here when I was nine years old. My place has always been here.”

My heart raged against the cage of my chest, demanding freedom as I pled with her, “Maybe a teacher? A nurse? A lawyer? Surely, as a child, you did not imagine this place.”

“Big Sister,” she replied, “There are no dreams for me.”

This one, now 16 years old, had endured seven years of the unimaginable. The ongoing, complex trauma left gaping wounds and scars invisible to the untrained eye, but they did not escape my notice. Trauma changes the way we view ourselves, other people, and God. With trauma, the once-upon-a-time of our stories is transformed into a perpetual nightmare. Suddenly, and irrevocably, we are no longer safe in the world.
Her emotional scars, etched upon the canvas of a perfect soul, narrated a poignant tale of resilience and survival. The twisted ridges and jagged contours danced across an unblemished surface that inherently reflected God’s image, forever marking her journey through a tempestuous storm of human trafficking.

Like an artist’s brushstroke of pain and endurance, her scars and mine weave a narrative of struggle and triumph. The weathered texture, an intricate tapestry of knotted tissue, chronicles the battles valiantly fought, both external and within. Each raised line and indentation witness a history of pain, echoing the harrowing moments that left an indelible mark upon her psyche.
The scars’ hues, ranging from pale whispers to fiery crimson, paint an emotional spectrum that words alone fail to capture. She, like all survivors of human trafficking, carried the weight of anguish, where tears mingled with blood in an intricate ballet of suffering. Yet amidst the darkness of this brothel, hints of strength emerge, revealed in vibrant shades of resilience and courage. I see it in her underneath the makeup and glitter behind the forced, plastic smile.

Tracing her scarred history with my own trembling heart, I could sense the residual heat of the battles she has fought, those she has won, and the many she has lost. This beautiful woman-child, being sold for $7 USD, serves as a living testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. Some claim to be voices for the voiceless, but she stands before me as a silent reminder shouting of the power to overcome even the most formidable adversities.

This mark of survival, like an ancient symbol etched in flesh, demands our reverence and deepest respect. She was not damaged goods. She was not then, nor has she ever been, broken. Flashbacks, triggers, disassociation, unleashed emotions, and the pathologized symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress prove that her mind and body work perfectly. These are all normal, healthy reactions to unthinkable violence. Her survival stood as a testament to battles fought; these scars, both hers and mine, serve as a symbol of beauty in imperfection, a reminder that healing and growth can arise from the ashes of pain.
Trauma had changed her, to be sure, as it does with all survivors of human trafficking. Trauma changes each of us stumbling through the devastation of a fallen world. But trauma, my friends, is not the end of the story. In the presence of survivors of human trafficking, like those on that steamy night in northern Thailand, I could not help but be moved by their resilience and strength. They are each a masterpiece, fearfully and wonderfully made, reflecting the undeniable human capacity to endure, heal, and thrive in the face of adversity. In this, I continue to find hope for her and for me.

I visited her again and again in the place of her captivity. We feasted on laughter week after week, and our mutual tears drowned the pain. I called her my friend, and she called me “Big Sister.” Each week, my heart ached, leaving her in the hands of those who would devour her body and attempt to steal her soul. For most of her life, she had been deprived of choices, forced to submit to the demands of others, and I knew that the only way for her to move toward freedom would be for her to grasp the power lying dormant within her. As impatient as I felt, the most effective way to empower her was to be fully present with her, honoring her pain and respecting her autonomy. If she was going to experience freedom, I had to hear the echoes of her voice even in, especially in, the silence, and I had to wait for her to believe that there was another life waiting for her outside the barred windows.

And then it happened. Slowly and suddenly, and all at once. One stormy night, amid a torrent of monsoon rains, I stood to leave her yet again. As we hugged each other tightly, she whispered an answer to that first distant conversation into my ear.

“If I could do anything else, I think I would have a store, and I would sell things and not people.”

Tears sprang from my eyes as hope was born. “Oh, my beautiful girl, let’s do that!”

The next week, she came home and began to study, ultimately pursuing a business degree at university so that she could step into the destiny for which she had been created.

So often in the counter-trafficking movement, well-meaning people mistakenly believe that survivors of human trafficking need to be rescued. They imagine Hollywood scenes where they play the leading role, kicking down doors and heroically carrying poor victims out to safety. But the road to hell is paved with such good intentions. This fierce and feisty girl didn’t need a hero; I would argue that none of them do. There is but one Savior, and He still sets captives free. What she needed was to be seen, loved, and heard. In this, she found the courage to move outside all she had ever known and into a life she never dared to dream possible.

Her trauma, like mine, was complex and compounded by repeated acts of violence over the span of many years. Healing, too, takes a great deal of time. Having been deprived of safety, of hope, and of resources, survivors of human trafficking need a supportive environment where a loving community can help identify their innate wellness and individual strengths. They need co-empowering relationships with individuals that speak life over them and call them to be all they were destined to be before trauma entered their lives.

This is what makes Compass 31 unique. Since 2011, our holistic, strengths-based restoration model has proven highly effective. We see the inherent value of each individual person, and through extensive academic support and scholarships, we empower them to achieve the highest level of education they desire. There is no quick fix, and we do not pretend to offer one. We are in it for the long haul. The youngest participants who have come into our program were freed from exploitation at just four years old. We have watched some graduate high school and university and even obtain master’s degrees. They reintegrate into their communities as influential catalysts for cultural change. These courageous and resilient ones teach us what it means to rise in adversity and lead the charge in creating a more just world. Their fearless passion challenges us and drives us to do better. At Compass 31, we enable survivors of human trafficking to break generational cycles of poverty and exploitation through gaining an education, but it is we who learn from them.

How Education Supports the Recovery of Survivors

Imagine being part of a movement that empowers survivors of human trafficking to heal, grow, and thrive. With your help, we can create a world where hope and possibility are the prevailing forces – powered by the invincible strength of Christ’s love. If you are ready to take action against human trafficking, read our free e-book, Human Trafficking Knows No Boundaries. It’s not just a dry collection of statistics – It’s an inspiring call to action that will empower you to make a difference. Download to start making an impact today!

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