Light at the end of the tunnel: A reflection on 2020

By Maggie Crewes, Cambodia Director, Hope for Justice.

At Christmas, it’s good to be reminded of hope and of courage – the courage shown by the trafficking survivors that we have supported in the Cambodia Lighthouse, and the incredible dedication shown by my team all year round – now that brings me hope!

In that sense, 2020 is no different, but of course this year has been a totally unexpected and challenging oneThe global pandemic has left many people even more vulnerable to being exploited by traffickers, and therefore even more in need of our help.  

But it’s not just this year’s devastating events which affects our survivors, as well as my team and indeed the vast majority of people in Cambodia. In different ways, Cambodians are still living out the terrible legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and the civil war and genocide which took place here in the late 1970s.  

Many people’s families were murdered, their homes and livelihoods stolen, their lives forever torn apart. The genocide saw nearly all the educated and professional people killed. Everyone who survived was living in extreme poverty. 

The impact of these brutal events was brought to life before me recently, when I met with a professional woman who recounted her family’s story within minutes of meeting me. As a sixyearold, she witnessed her 15-year-old sister, father and grandparents being murdered. Her mum told her that if she too was ‘taken away’, then she would have to care for her tiny baby brother. 

AK47s used during the war transformed into works of art

The younger generation – including both the staff as well as the youngsters that we care for in our Lighthouse – also bear the scars of the atrocities. Their parents were born when the genocide was ending, or had ended, and were raised in its terrible aftermath.  

So the survivors that we care for have been raised in poverty and in fearLike their parents, they are desperate to survive. They have inherited a mistrust of the police and other authorities, and sadly even of neighbours and community. This makes them very vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.  

A devastating but common scenario is that a struggling family decides that one of their children must be ‘sold’ to allow the rest of the family to eat and surviveThis is what happened to 16-year-old Sreyna*, who ended up trapped in a brothel, forced to have sex with men over and over again.  

She never received any money to send home. Following a police raid, Sreyna was taken to the police station and then taken in by our Lighthouse. She is still in our care and we hope that she can soon return home, after we have also worked to empower her family to improve their situation, and greatly reduce the risk of any of their children being trafficked again. 

Thavy*, now aged 14, has a similar story. But she was able to send some money home each month. She knew that her family were relying on her to survive. Now that she has been rescued and is at the Lighthouse, she has to deal with terrible guilt because she can no longer support her family. She can’t stop thinking about her younger siblings going hungry. 

We are working with Thavy’s mum, a fisherwoman who lost her boat in a typhoon a few years ago, who has struggled to make ends meet ever since. We have helped her mum establish a fish stall in the local market, and she plans to save money until she can buy another boat. We hope that Thavy can return home in a couple of months, and that she will go back to school. 

I am so proud that, along with my incredibly talented and skilled team, I am able to help these young people recover. I see the support that we offer survivors as a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel of their terrible experiences. Here, they find safety, peace and community, and have their hope restored. 

I’m looking forward to us continuing this vital work in 2021 together, thanks to the help of our generous supporters all over the world. 

You can help support our vital work in Cambodia this Christmas by donating here.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the survivors. Featured photo: BBC / Getty Images