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.