MAY 26. A trip to the border region

May 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

A trip to the border region
by Lillian Forsyth 

Since March I have been working with the Pacific Links Foundation, concentrating on their ADAPT program to prevent human trafficking in Vietnam’s remote border regions. While my primary role is communications, networking and fundraising for the program in Ho Chi Minh City, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the organization’s yearly Parent’s Day in each of the border provinces where we provide scholarships to at-risk girls. I have spent the better part of the last five years in Vietnam. But this was a level of exposure I had yet to experience.

We were on the road by 6 a.m., the fresh morning air rushing in through the windows of a rickety 14-passenger van as we crossed our first ferry of the day. Dong Thap province, on the opposite side of the river, is one of the poorest provinces in the Mekong Delta region, with a high rate of trafficking and migration across the long border with Cambodia. After three hours on barely paved roads and a second ferry crossing, we reached our first middle school of the day and climbed the stairs to a room full of bright-eyed young girls, ages 12 – 16. Their mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other caretakers sat on narrow wooden benches at the opposite side of the classroom, wearing polyester pajamas and weary expressions.

I was most nervous about the interviews. Annual Parent’s Day activities have two purposes: raising awareness about human trafficking, and providing ADAPT staff the opportunity to speak with each family about their economic situation and evaluate how it is affecting their daughters’ risk of being trafficked. With a shortage of staff, I was tasked with interviewing some of the families.

My first interview was with Ms. Dao and her daughter Men (names changed). While I spoke with Ms. Dao about the family’s situation and how it had changed over the past year, Men wrote down each of the members in her family and her address on an interview form. Her mother dropped out of school after third grade and can’t read or write. This year has been tough, Ms. Dao confided: with more and more farmers moving to mechanical rice cutting techniques, day laborers such as herself have fewer sources of income. She has resorted to taking in laundry to support Men, Men’s 3-year old brother, and Ms. Dao’s older sister, who is too ill to work. With this, she’s able to scrape together 200,000 – 300,000 VND per month—the equivalent of $10 – $15 U.S. Dollars. When I asked her what her hopes were for her daughter’s education, her eyes began to tear. “I want her to study as far as she can. I don’t want her to end up like her mother.”

The typical story that you hear in the news and in the papers here is that people in the Mekong Delta simply sell their daughters as a way to help the family’s economic situation. Looking into the faces of these parents and their daughters confirmed for me that this is simply a myth bred by those who fail to understand the complicated nature of the poverty that exists in the remote parts of this country. What parent would ever willingly sell her child into prostitution, labor exploitation, or other danger? But presented with an attractive but false opportunity by a trafficker who may be a neighbor or even an extended family member, what parent wouldn’t agree to provide her daughter with what seems like a better future in another place, be it in another country? This is one type of manipulation that allows human traffickers to prevail. Hearing the scholarship recipients and their families recount the information they have learned from Pacific Links about how to keep themselves safe from this risk, I could see concrete ways that the organization is making an impact.

At the end of the week I found myself on a comfortable air-conditioned bus back to the city. As we approached, the neon lights and the urban bustle surrounded us, and I was once again sucked into the increasingly cosmopolitan world of prosperity that is Saigon. That Friday night, I was able to collapse into my own bed for the first time in ten days. But for some reason I was unable to sleep. I tossed and turned until nearly two in the morning, cursing the fact that I would arrive for class the next day looking and feeling as if I’d had a wild night out on the town. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the faces and heard the stories of Ms. Dao, her daughter Men, and each of the other girls and parents I spoke to during the interviews. The next morning brought a return to the normal routine, but my brain has been effectively detached from my actions for the past 5 days. Perhaps this is simply a new and more profound kind of mental disconnect that I will have to overcome if I am to continue to this work of bridging the ever-widening gap between the organization’s donors and the people we serve.

Pacific Links Foundation is leading the counter-trafficking efforts at the borders of Vietnam by providing shelter and reintegration services, increasing access to education, and enabling new economic opportunities. 

Help us stop human trafficking. Get involved. Spread the word. Support Pacific Links Foundation.

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