As the rain hammered into the ground around me, stinging my face and forcing my eyes to close, I realized that this moment, this very specific combination of feelings, was something I would never, ever forget. Racing on the back of a motorbike through the flooded streets of darkened Long Xuyen, I reflected on how surreal my life had suddenly become. Having just spent the evening working with human trafficking survivors, here I was, fleeing from the torrential downpour that had begun hours earlier. “How on earth did I get here?,” I thought to myself. Allow me to rewind.
Before arriving in Long Xuyen, I spent hours scouring the internet for NGOs I could potentially volunteer for. With a weekly teaching load of only 15 hours (including the random activities that are inevitably sprung upon me without warning), I was about to have more free time than I’d ever had in my entire life. I wanted to find an anti human-trafficking NGO, but it seemed that there were approximately zero of these in all of Vietnam. Until I stumbled upon the Pacific Links Foundation.
With an office in Long Xuyen, this American-Vietnamese NGO uses preventative education to prevent girls from being sold or tricked into the widespread human trafficking industry. Vietnam is both a source and destination country for human traffickers, although most girls are sent to Cambodia for sex work. Human trafficking is the third largest illegal trade industry in the world, and is expected to surpass the weapons and narcotics trades by 2020. Currently grossing roughly $9.5 billion dollars world wide per year, human trafficking is seemingly impossible to combat. It is possibly one of the most depressing fields to work in (combatting human trafficking, that is) but it is the only field in which I want a career.
Pacific Links works at both ends of anti trafficking: they educate girls in rural areas by sending them to school, both traditional and vocational, and they have shelters for survivors of trafficking. It is at one of these shelters that I volunteer twice each week. Twice a week, I arrive at the Open House and eat an awkwardly quiet dinner–I come to the Long Xuyen shelter to teach English, and language which none of the 5 girls currently living there know. The evening slowly turns into a riotous song-and-dance festival, with loud rounds of the Hokey Pokey and hilarious attempts at Patty Cake.
It was after my first night at the Open House that I found myself elated, shocked, near tears (as usual), heartbroken and blissful, flying through the Mekong Delta’s rainy season. I cannot express how scared I was to meet these girls–how would I possibly interact with these young girls? I felt sure I would burst into tears upon seeing them, felt positive that, when confronted with girls younger than I who had been to hell and back, I would break down. How was I to teach girls who had literally been told their worth? How was I supposed to be emotionally equipped for this? I am, after all, just a 22 year old college graduate who can theorize about the world until the cows come home, but who has fairly limited real-world experience. This was my first test, and I was desperately afraid I would fail.
But the thing is, when I met them, I did not see them as victims of trafficking, I saw them as shy, nervous, beautiful teenage girls. I saw them as ‘normal’ humans, which is exactly what they are. These girls have known seemingly impossible evil, but have survived. Instead of reminding me how limitlessly evil humanity can be, they constantly remind me how limitlessly brave and strong the human spirit is. These girls are my heroes, and they will never know it.
Since beginning my volunteering with Pacific Links, I have been seriously looking at master’s programs in Forced Migration or Development Studies, because I know now more than ever what I want to do with my future. Coming to Vietnam has already made an enormous impact upon my understanding of myself and the world around me, and I am excited (and a little nervous) to continue this journey both in the classroom and outside of it. Never before have I felt so satisfied with life: my entire 22 years have been spent, until now, looking ahead for something better, waiting to leave the USA and “start my real life.” Suddenly, I look around and realize that I’ve done it, I’ve actually started my real life and it’s infinitely better than anything I could have imagined. Now when I look ahead, it’s for ways to stay here, to keep working with Pacific Links, to continue doing the same things I am already doing. There is no way to describe how much this has meant to me. I finally feel still, and that is truly a sensation I never expected to have.