Mira’s Cambodia Journal – Day Two: Meeting Heroes and Survivors
Lim, one of the girls working at the artisan space in Rahab's House, and Mira wearing a bracelet Lim made.
December 12th, 2013
02:30 PM ET

Mira’s Cambodia Journal – Day Two: Meeting Heroes and Survivors

By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) - Today we drove out to Svay Pak, a slum notorious as a hub of child sex trafficking.  There we met Don Brewster, a white haired, blue-eyed bespectacled man in flip-flops with a pleasant face and high energy. He runs Agape International Missions (AIM), a non-profit for trafficked and at risk children and teenagers. The residence, Rahab’s House, is filled with bustling energy with a school and a children’s center. It takes its name from an Old Testament prostitute who provided sanctuary and was blessed. He says this and every other building used by AIM is a former brothel."

Don takes me on a walking tour of Svay Pak; we pass “The Lord’s Gym,” a center Don started, filled with local guys—human traffickers-turned-kickboxers. How he did it: He invited a “power team” of U.S. bodybuilders to display their might through the streets, leading the young men to the gym to work out, where they are inspired by a coach who teaches them respect for women and children.  They have traded the high money (they used to make U.S. $200 or more a month bringing girls in from Vietnam and selling them to brothels) for the prestige of being known pro-fighters. I'm very impressed by Don’s outside-the-box methodology, proving transformation is possible in this generation of young men.

As we continue our walk, Don points out a group, mostly men, sitting around a couple of tables at the end of road.  They are all traffickers, he says: They sell not only other people’s children, but their own.

As we approach with the cameras, they start to disperse, like roaches exposed to the light.  A feeling of utter revulsion and ire rises in me. I finally burst out: "It's not ok to sell children! It's not ok to sell children to pedophiles … The world is watching."

I felt so impotent with a rage that could do nothing in the moment. I felt a little ridiculous but I couldn’t walk away saying nothing.

Don felt we should move out of there quickly. Then we looked at each other and both started crying. I just can't stand it, that little children and teenagers are being hurt a stone’s throw away and we can’t get to them, can't swoop in like guardian angels and pluck them out of harm’s way; that those men and shifty-eyed women are using children for profit and going through with their ipso facto destruction without a shred of empathy or humanity.  I’m crying again thinking about it.

Then we enter the artisan space where Don has created jobs for the girls; downstairs there is sewing and upstairs there is bracelet weaving and beading.  It’s like hell is outside and this is a haven. The girls are generally happy-looking if shy, and there is lots of hugging going around.

I meet this cool girl, Lim, whom I want to help get a scholarship in the U.S. for studying kickboxing. My positivity is creeping back in. The girls are not just following patterns but coming up with their own beautiful designs; after I picked out a special one my kickboxing friend Lim proudly indicated she had designed and made it!

Later we went up to the top floor of Rahab’s House to interview two very young survivors, Sephak and Toha, both of whom had repeatedly asked Don for the chance to tell their story to us on camera.  I frequently interview survivors around the globe, but never with them on camera. The air was heavy with the questions about to be asked and what we knew would be impossibly painful answers. We had not one but two translators: one to translate from the girls’ Vietnamese into Khmer and one into English, which was challenging.

I remember reaching out a few times to hold their hands because they were overcome with emotion.  I tried hard to stick to the bare minimums of the stories of their abuse, so as not to re-traumatize them through harrowing details.  We had to get the facts of their trafficking straight, and hopefully share with the wider audience the tremendous pain and suffering they had been through, but still respect their dignity.

It must be stated that there is no such thing as “voluntary” entry into a virginity sale or prostitution for a minor, because they do not have the  legal, mental, psychological capacity to consent to their own exploitation.  The UN Palermo protocol makes very clear that no force, fraud or coercion needs be proven in the case of minors (under 18) for it to be deemed trafficking.  These girls are trafficked, whether they say they agreed or not; their parents, recruiters, brothel owners and buyers (johns) are the complicit criminals.

At the end of it we were all hugging and crying, and I worried about both of them: Toha because I was afraid she might attempt a second suicide attempt (she had described having tried to cut her wrists in the bathroom after her mother had made her sell her virginity and was pressuring her to go back out again with men); and Sephak, because she seemed very withdrawn into herself.  Don and his wife Bridget assured me they would look after them especially and a survivor/counselor would be with them all night.

Now it was time for some joy: we joined a procession of some 15 girls marching down the main street in front of the center carrying big plastic tubs of their belongings to a clean renovated building on the corner with an open air terrace on the top.  This was a former brothel, and is now the newest residential center for members of the program; tonight was the grand opening.

The girls were ecstatic, whooping and jumping up and down. They ran up to the roof, formed a circle and began calling out their thanks, singing, laughing and praying. It was a sight to behold, and a privilege to witness the happy, self-empowering sanctuary they experienced. After delving into the darkest parts of the life of Svay Pak, here was light, human and pure and joyful; all the faces of the girls beaming out, one saying in gratitude she never thought in her life she would get a chance to live in such a place, in such a way.

We were honored to get to be a part of it, and now it was time to go back to the hotel, and crash into much-needed sleep.

Next: Day Three – The Front Lines


soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Brian

    I traveled to Cambodia this past spring, and I understand completely how upsetting the situation is that Mira is talking about. In Phnom Penh, you see it right out there on the streets, and everyone pretends it's nothing out of the ordinary. I was at a cafe along the river, and a sleazy looking older white man walked in and sat down a few tables from me with a little Cambodian boy who couldn't have been more than 6. He ordered him an ice cream, and started rubbing his leg. I felt homicidal, but at the same time powerless. The waitress pretended not to notice. Some Buddhist monks gave a blessing to another customer, then walked on. A police man across the street was keeping a closer eye on me than on the pedophile. I left shaking with rage. I couldn't believe such a place existed on earth, where these men all swarmed from across the globe to abuse children. I hope stories like these reach as many people as possible, because this is something that needs to stop.

    December 12, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • Christopher Minko

      http://peoplethingsliterature.com/2014/02/17/krom-me-twice-a-conversation-with-christopher-minko-part-ii/

      February 18, 2014 at 12:22 am | Reply
  2. Rachel

    They are immensely brave.
    Thank you for sharing this!!! And THANK YOU Brian and Bridget and Agape Ministries.
    I will keep spreading the word to anyone who will listen and donating. I hope to goto Cambodia too one day to physically help these girls.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
    • Christopher Minko

      http://peoplethingsliterature.com/2014/02/17/krom-me-twice-a-conversation-with-christopher-minko-part-ii/

      February 18, 2014 at 12:23 am | Reply
  3. Rachel

    I mean than you Don and Bridget.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  4. Mark

    Watching this, it is admirable to see Mira's clear passion and commitment. However, she believes she has the solutions and does not really try to engage with the officials she speaks to. She speaks in complex English, doesn't listen and simply waits for her chance to make her point. Passion should be tempered with engagement if she really wants to make a difference.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  5. ewelinakawczynska

    great initiative Mira thanks for rising awarness of this problem in Cambodia. I have just been there and was shocked by the conditions that those girls needs to live in. Looking forward to see the whole show.

    December 15, 2013 at 6:42 am | Reply
  6. on your side

    Is tough subject. Inside the box, outside the box. What can the world do.... ???

    December 16, 2013 at 2:11 am | Reply
    • Miles

      What can the (Western) World do...? bring about a more equitable economic system that does not impoverish 3rd World countries... and the lies the USA mas made about "ensuring democracy"... the USA backs those that supports the USA's own greed and wishes. Has no one considered the history of what the USA has done to Cambodia, particulry under Nixon and Kissinger. I don't reptend to be an expert in this area, but the USA has plenty to answer for in many many countries.. child-trafficing is just th tip of the iceberg, just that it is one of the easiest aspects of depravation to get emotive about. This really is a very "comfortable middle-class" reaction without ever looking at the deeper issues. Just ignore those eh ?????????/

      December 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Reply
      • Christopher Minko

        http://peoplethingsliterature.com/2014/02/17/krom-me-twice-a-conversation-with-christopher-minko-part-ii/

        February 18, 2014 at 12:23 am |
  7. Hank

    Are you the same Mira Sorvino who won an Oscar starring in pedophile Woody Allen's movie?
    http://www.tribute.ca/news/index.php/woody-allens-adopted-daughter-confirms-he-abused-her/2013/10/03/#.UrHXxCc7XdQ

    December 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
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  12. Samuel Ohemeng

    You are doing a good job....GOD HELP US ALL

    March 2, 2014 at 5:12 am | Reply
    • Miles

      GOD HELP US ALL ??? was this not "GODS WILL" in the first place??? the same "GOD" that sent millions of women and children to the Gas Chambers... So this is your vision of a comapssionate GOD? This is the reality and any notion that we need a GOD like this is an insult to these people.... what would GOD be saying to these and other unfortunate people for whom there is no way out or relief. What did any of these young people do to "deserve" God's punishment ???

      March 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  13. LAURA

    What I find amazing is the Cambodian's mother's interviewed they seem to have beautiful eyebrows and nails, not the sign of a poor household at all. Are you sure these people are not using their children? no mother in her right mind would sell her child , please verify these stories. Thankyou for all your help and assistance but do not get taken in by false stories.

    March 22, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Reply
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