I have a very clear memory of the moment that changed the trajectory of my life forever. I was crammed into the back of a tuk-tuk with four other men (three fellow “rookies” along with the executive director of a local anti-trafficking NGO), and we had just taken an unplanned turn onto one of the darkest, most dangerous roads within Phnom Penh’s seedy underbelly. We had already visited a handful of local bars known for housing victims of sex trafficking, and we were searching for one last establishment that our leader was intent on investigating. I was only half paying attention to the passing lights and sounds as my soul was on fire with the ramifications of interacting with trafficking victims, as well as perpetrators, face-to-face, and I was deep in thought about how those experiences would shape my future. I was brought quickly back from my reverie, however, when flashing lights were suddenly replaced by dark alleys and quick glimpses of girls lined up on the floor of unmarked and unfurnished entryways. Perhaps the lines between “bar” and “brothel” and “safe” and “unsafe” were blurrier than I imagined, but it appeared as though we had stumbled upon a row of brothels from which the only way to safely exit was to purchase and follow through with sex with an underage girl. After maybe a minute or so, a gang of men on motorcycles crept from the shadows, surrounded our tuk-tuk, and attempted to force us into a side alley (and presumably into one of the brothels). I could tell from our leader’s startled response that this was a new and worrisome experience for him, despite his years of experience investigating sex trafficking and background as a former marine. However, in that moment, I felt absolutely no fear whatsoever. On the contrary, I felt more at peace and more confident in what I was doing than I had ever felt in my entire life. It was in that moment that I knew that my purpose in life was to rescue girls from sex trafficking, and I made a silent promise – to myself, to all of the girls I met on the streets of Phnom Penh, and to the girls I had yet to meet who were and would become trapped in the perpetual cycle of rape and abuse that constitutes sex trafficking – that I would be back.
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