A Life-Changing Experience

Christina at Can Cau Market
Scholarship receipients

We followed two girls back to their homes during our scholarship recipient survey visits

If you had asked me a year ago where I thought I would be by 2016, never in a million years would I say “Vietnam.” A year ago, I had envisioned myself working as an intern or an entry-level employee in some company or organization in Washington D.C., my adopted hometown. I would have been living a clockwork life: commuting to D.C., working for eight hours, going for happy hour or dinner somewhere with friends, and returning home to sleep, only to rinse and repeat again in the following days. However, my fortuitous encounter with Patrick Arnold (VIA’s Director of Asia Programs)’s post in a LinkedIn alumni group in mid-March couldn’t have come at a better time: I was (almost) desperate for a job – any job – to fall on after I would graduate in May.

People often ask me: “Why Vietnam?” Well, why not Vietnam? I had never been to my parents’ homeland, or as I affectionately refer to it as “the Motherland.” I did not want want my first time in Vietnam to not be another tourist vacation, but rather as a Vietnamese American living and working in the country that raised my parents. Moreover, and with the utmost honesty, not once did I have any regrets about what I consider to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Factory Awareness to Counter Trafficking (FACT) Training

My supervisor is giving a presentation at our Factory Awareness to Counter Trafficking (FACT) Training

I am a VIA volunteer with Pacific Links Foundation, an American anti-human trafficking non-governmental organization that is purely run by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American women. That in itself is special and rare to find; I often see organizations in foreign countries hire – not work with and empower – locals in the country.

The work that we do is extremely difficult but very, very rewarding. Not only do we work to prevent trafficking through educational and economic opportunities through our scholarship and factory training programs, we also work with trafficking survivors to empower them with interpersonal and technical skill sets needed to become self-reliant. In a country where trafficking is a huge problem – Vietnamese citizens are often trafficked to China, Cambodia, Malaysia, the U.K., or elsewhere in the world – we face an uphill battle in combating ignorance about human trafficking and the stigma surrounding survivors of human trafficking.

Hmong woman

People from the Hmong ethnic group in the mountainous Northwest region of Vietnam are often trafficked due to their proximity to China’s borders

In my role with Pacific Links, I assist our scholarship and reintegration programs as Program Specialist. I help write and edit reports; I assist with program development, monitoring, and evaluation; and I teach English to the residents in our shelter for trafficking survivors in Southern Vietnam. My colleagues, whom I refer to as my older sisters, are all exceedingly friendly and welcoming; I never felt out of place in Vietnam or in our office as I transitioned into my new role back in September.

Every day brings a new challenge and adventure. I never know where I will end up next week, whether it’s traveling back to Ho Chi Minh City or going on a home visit in a remote mountainous village in the North. The excitement of not knowing what to expect keeps me on my toes and brought a much-needed break in my previous monotonous life in D.C. I’ve learned so much throughout these short four months. Because I’m still young, I still have a lot more room for growth. Therefore, I’ve already decided to sign on for another year with VIA and Pacific Links Foundation. Another year of rewarding development work and adventure awaits me! ☺

Before I end this post, I’ll share one small anecdote from my nine days with the young women living in our shelter:

During our small New Year’s Eve party for the women, we decided to ask them small, fun questions. One received the question: “What do you think is the longest road and the shortest road?”

She replied: “The longest road…is living without my parents…… The shortest road…is seeing my parents again.”

Teaching English at Northern shelter

I’m teaching English to the young women in our Northern shelter

The response to the given question stunned us all. The complexities underneath her simple response – the privilege of having living parents and coming from loving homes, the intellect that trafficking survivors possess (and the way many are perceived or written off because of the trauma they endured), the internal emotional and mental struggles they face every day as they work to overcome their past – all fell at our feet as we said goodbye to 2015.

I’ve had the privilege of spending my last few days of 2015 with trafficking survivors at our Compassion House shelter in Northern Vietnam. An area fraught with trafficking due to its proximity to the Chinese border (it’s literally a stone’s throw away across the river), our shelter here is never empty. Despite the difficulties these girls have faced in the past, they welcomed us with open arms, huge smiles, and joyful laughter. They care for us as they do for each other: they ensure that we are relaxed and have enough rice to eat; they tell us not to worry about cleaning up or washing the dishes; they ask us if we have enough boiled hot water to bathe with.

Women at shelter during New Year's Eve

The women in our shelter received gifts on New Year’s Eve in celebration of the incoming new year

It wasn’t just this one courageous soul’s response that captivated us; it was their confidence, determination, and love for themselves, each other, and anyone they welcome into their home that easily won us over.