During the summer of 2008, at the age of fourteen, I spent six weeks with Cambodian prostitutes. I had been to Mexico, and seen what happens to people living in poverty, but Cambodia, I saw a whole different effect from poverty. It was a summer that changed my life forever, and also changed the lives of many Cambodians. It was the summer I spent with child sex slaves.
My first impression of Cambodia was totally different than I expected. I thought it would be similar to third-world Mexico, with people living in shacks. But Mexico and Cambodia have very different histories. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge communists killed a quarter of the population in the capital city of Phnom Penh, and then evacuated the entire city as slaves to work on farms. After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, there were many empty buildings left behind, so housing was available to everyone left alive, even if merchants had to sleep in their tiny shops. The city blocks were filled with two and three-story buildings, with only the most desperately poor living homeless, and the Tuk-tuk drivers sleeping in their little carriages pulled by mopeds. Despite the available housing, many of them were still starving. Food was incredibly cheap; you could buy a large meal for two dollars and fifty cents, but most Cambodians earn about a dollar a day.
Corruption combines with desperate poverty to form the worst kinds of evil. In Cambodia, poverty drives the greatest form of evil, child sex slavery. As Christian missionaries, our plan was to fight child sex slavery through love and education. In Cambodia, I met families who had to choose between starvation and prostituting their daughters. When I was in Cambodia, their 8 to 12 year old daughters spent the days with my family, and the nights with pedophiles from around the world.
In Cambodia, we worked with Agape International Missions (AIM), which was created by Dr. Moses Seth. Dr. Moses is an amazing man, who inspires me by what he has survived, and what heís accomplished. At sixty years old, he has led an amazing life, and continues to be an influential leader and role model to Cambodians. During his life he has been a Buddhist chief monk, colonel in the army, governor of a province, a legendary evangelist, and received two PHDs. He escaped the Khmer Rouge killing fields, and lived off the land in the jungle for two years of his life. Later, while living in a refugee camp, he converted ten thousand people to Christianity. In the last twenty years, he has started over seven hundred churches in Cambodia. His example inspires me to respect people despite their situation, and to help other people who are less fortunate than me.
We also worked with an organization called International Justice Missions (IJM). IJM is the organization that sends investigators to search for brothels, and then raids brothels to free the girls from slavery. They also investigate rich western and Asian pedophiles. If IJM investigators are discovered while they are under cover, they will be killed instantly. Iíd never met anyone who put their life on the line every day, so the IJM investigators became my new role models and inspiration for bravery. They risk their lives to help girls who are helpless; I can certainly risk some discomfort for a good cause. When IJM rescues girls from sexual slavery, they are taken to the Agape Restoration Center (ARC), who houses and rehabilitates them. Girls in the ARC receive protection, counseling, medical attention, housing, and job training. When girls leave the ARC, they can support their families with skilled jobs, so they arenít forced back into prostitution. When I met the girls at the ARC, I saw what true courage is, because these girls had experienced horrific, crippling cruelty, but were facing their past, and making a future for themselves. Iíd never experienced that kind of courage before.
Working for Moses, my family taught week-long Vacation Bible School (VBS) in four different Cambodian locations. At first, this seemed to have little to do with rescuing girls from sex slavery. Moses told us the most important thing we could do was show the children love, and teach them that they were valuable, so thatís what we did. We started with a singing time, went into a story time, played games, and then made crafts. It was very tiring to corral the kids, and we were happy to get back to the air-conditioned hotel after four hours of work. This was harder than eight hour days building a house in Mexico! Itís hard to control rowdy kids when you donít speak their language.
What we didnít realize was that many of the girls we were teaching were actively being trafficked each night. We thought that all girls in sex slavery were physically confined by their pimps, but these girls were being forced into prostitution each night by their families. One place we taught was called Rahabís House, which used to be a brothel before it was raided by IJM. AIM bought the property and reformed the building, turning it into a community center. That week, we used it for VBS, and every one of the 30 girls we were teaching was being actively trafficked each night.
By showing these children love, we opened the doors for AIM to work in other ways against sex trafficking. When the parents see their children being loved, they are open to the AIM team, who will provide food and other supplies to keep the girls out of prostitution. For example, after our VBS at Svay Pok, a village infamous for child sex slavery, the Sunday church service was packed for its grand opening. Through these kids, AIM reached entire families with its humanitarian and spiritual aid. I saw that just by caring about people, I can free entire families from poverty.
As we were getting ready to leave, I wondered if we had really accomplished anything. Sure, we had played with kids, taught them some stuff, but had we really made a difference? Did we change the sex slave trade? Then we received a call from Bridget, a career AIM missionary, who was close to tears. Eighty people had come to the opening church service at Rahabís house and were receiving rice, and learning not to traffic their girls. Bridget felt blessed that we had done so much for the kids. The parents had seen the love we had shown the kids, and come to church to learn more. A month later, two hundred Cambodians come to the church service at Rahabís house every Sunday, and the last time we received an email, attendance was over 700. From the inside out, we helped change the most infamous trafficking center in all of Southeast Asia.
This trip was the most life-changing experience I have ever had. It changed my understanding of how truly little is needed to support human life, or to rescue them from enslavement. People in Cambodia are crying out in distress, but they donít have the rights that I have, the rights that come with being an American. How did this trip change me? I have a new understanding of what it means to be an American, and a passion to help those in need rather than spending my time on my own entertainment. Iíve been deeply changed, and all it took was a summer spent with prostitutes.
Read more articles by John Kraemer or search for articles on the same topic or others.