Lesley and Alexis were chatting over breakfast with Hayley from AFESIP when I was introduced. The Frangipani Hotel is a little way across the river and not a little upmarket from Smiley’s Guest House. I sat patiently in the foyer until a kind receptionist took me in hand and led me to them. I had downloaded from iTunes the latest album, On Your Roof, and listened several times, enjoying the style of music and Lesley’s lovely voice. On the website site I also discovered the connection with St Louis, Minnesota, where Andy my son-in-law was raised. I went there once to visit the HQ of Cerner on a trip to research health care information systems for the NHS. Armed with these tenuous connections I felt a little more prepared to hitch a ride on their tour of the AFESIP centres.
Acronyms are very popular here. Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire is a rather cumbersome name for an organisation which helps rescue, support and reintegrate victims of the vast and powerful network of people traffickers for the sex industry which exists in Cambodia but which has ties throughout South East Asia as girls are sold or kidnapped and transferred across the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma. Started by Somaly Mam, herself a victim, the organisation currently has three centres doing outreach into the brothels and parks, educating, providing condoms and health checks, and offering a life-line to those who need rescue.
We travelled in a tuk tuk across the city to a quiet quarter where, enclosed by a wall and barbed wire fence, a garden compound with several buildings and a catfish pond provide sanctuary for some of the 200 women and children currently in the programme. We had a guided tour and met the residents in the sewing room – where 20 or 30 treadle operated machines were used to teach tailoring and dressmaking skills, in the kitchen – where the women take turns in preparing food for the community, in the classroom – where lessons in several subjects are offered in lieu of the school education most of them missed and in the nursery – where we sat and played with the little children for a while. These are children of the residents and staff, including one little boy who is in need of heart surgery and is small for his age and unable to join in any active games. Here I felt at home, missing my grandchildren acutely and feeling able to relate without the need for a common language and without the awkwardness of our intrusion into their safe haven.
In truth we were welcome here and not intruders at all. As I sat on the floor listening to Lesley’s singing, watching the women, so many of them still teenagers, enjoying and responding to the music and appreciating her expression of concern and support for them, I found myself dissolving into laughter at the antics of the girl holding the microphone, a natural comic who provided hilarious gestures and facial expressions to accompany the reading of the lyrics in Khmai. Afterwards I talked with some of the girls who asked about my family and I played more children’s games before we ate lunch as their guests.
The process of healing will never be complete for most of these people here. Sufficient perhaps to know their common bond and to journey together into a more hopeful future, no longer alone and afraid. Counsellors and psychologists are working in the project too but the combined psyche of Cambodia is to leave the past buried, to keep silent and try to move forward. It is better not to unearth what you cannot handle. It is a big challenge to find the best ways to help the healing process in this culture. Only those who have themselves been personally affected can really understand and they too are still dealing with their own issues. The problem of people trafficking is not going to be solved quickly either, as long as there is corruption and collusion at high level and across borders.