Although these stories may be what draw you to this forum, as I once said, what you read is really only about 80% of the story. The remaining portion consists of things I cannot share because they are private, and are not relative to my purpose of writing the story! Many of you had questions after you read the fourth "unbelievable story," asking "within those two hours, Father, can you tell us what you said to the two girls?"
Here's the story. After arriving in Siem Reap this year, I told everyone that I had something "very important" to do alone, so I arranged for everyone to visit Angkor Wat without me. Of course, they did not know where I was going or what I was going to do specifically, but they knew about my work with Thus, no one complained or questioned my actions.
After sending everyone to the hotel gate and making sure the car would bring them to Angkor Wat, I returned to my room. I took a bath and put on a luxurious suit; I carefully looked myself over in the mirror. If I didn't have to blend in as a rich businessman while doing my "work", I would never wear or even own such an expensive suit! Usually the suit I wear is the traditional black suit worn by priests.
But today I was no longer dressing to play the role of a wealthy businessman from Singapore, but rather to have the responsibility of master of ceremonies in a wedding! I was honored to have this opportunity, and it was the main reason for my trip to Cambodia on this occasion. Now, I'm sure my cousin and nephew will finally understand why I could not change the dates we were traveling to Cambodia. They had previously insisted on changing the travel itinerary, but to no avail.
Dear friends, I am not only proud of myself, but also proud of the young woman I was visiting. She was the first of the children we rescued from "hell on earth" and now it was her special day. I smiled to myself in the mirror again, adjusted my tie one last time, and went quickly down the steps to the hotel lobby where the wedding car was waiting. This was my first and could very well be my last time to be the master of ceremonies at the wedding of "my child". I opened the door, climbed inside the car as I heard the engine turn over and the vehicle started. I smiled one more time because I would soon see "my daughter" filled with radiant happiness and was sure that she would be surprised to be whisked away by a luxury car like this one on the most important day of her life.
We traveled the dusty streets in the suburban outskirts of SiemRiep. The spinning car tires kicked up the dirt and dust, swirling around the vehicle. It looked almost as if the dust would fall and dirty the beautiful clothes of people inside the car, but the closed windshield prevented it from reaching us inside. I suddenly thought of the lives of these young girls: how many were marred and tinted by dust. While we, like the windshield, though it can be broken at any time - we are trying to protect and separate them from that dirt!
Like any "father" I was anxious, hoping no one, and nothing would ruin her wedding. I worried that her joyous day would not be perfect. I also worried for myself. This was the first time I would "appear" in Cambodia after writing the series of articles last year, clearly detailing the evils I had encountered. (I also received many phone calls and emails threatening to "take a little blood" of mine.) I just ignored all of the threats; I read the Bible and continued to offer everything to God.
It has been more than eight years since I had met her -back then she was no more than 15 years of age. When I met her, it was the second time I had come to Cambodia - at that time I was just "new business" in a place full of temptation, power, drugs, and money. The place that I later referred to as "hell on earth", where a person's life can be taken for only $50! She was not Vietnamese; she was Cambodian - but I saw that she spoke Vietnamese fluently. She was lucky to be one of four girls that I "chose". After spending the entire night talking, the next morning she attempted to meet me alone. I remember it very clearly. I had just returned from the restroom in a restaurant when she stopped me and said, 'Can you rescue me from here?" Of course, I answered "No, no way!" and pretended to be angry and annoyed. Yet as I quickly walked away, inside my mind flashed the first light of hope.
Days later in the little English she knew, she tried to describe her life to me. You may wonder why she spoke Vietnamese fluently but had difficulty speaking English to me. Remember, I was a "trader from Singapore," and could not reveal that I was Vietnamese. She must have had a hunch that I was a good person, and luckily she was right.
After I spent more time with her, to make sure that she was not a trafficking trap that had been laid out to lure me in, I decided to save her. I paid a$700 ransom, which was a lot of money in 2001! I later learned that I overpaid in the bargaining, but in my eyes the money was not wasted; it was the beginning of helping to save these girls.
About a year after I took her out of sex slavery and she had been educated properly, I came back to meet her and reveal my true identity. Her life story was now clear to me. I no longer had to listen through broken English, but could finally communicate in Vietnamese.
Her parents were Cambodian. After she was born, her parents brought her to a Vietnamese family who lived in Cambodia. They adopted her, and that is why she speaks Vietnamese fluently. At the age of 13, her adoptive parents made her go out with an "uncle". This "uncle" stole her virginity. She later learned that "uncle" was just a failed business man who believed that taking her innocence would break his bad luck streak. Her family and "uncle" were not even related! Soon after, her parents forced her into sexual slavery. At first it was only occasional - three to five times a week. A few months later, it became once or twice a day. It reached a point where she was in such "high demand", that she was forced to serve fifteen "guests" in a single day! She was living in a hell on earth. Thankfully, we were able to rescue her from her deplorable situation.
I was the only person who did not speak Cambodian at the wedding reception. Although I did not understand the language, I was no longer scared or worried. On the contrary, I was elated! What a contrast from when I first came to the United States and went to places where they only spoke English. I was so frightened and intimidated. I didn't dare to venture outside of the house. At home, even if I heard the phone ring I was afraid to pick it up because if they spoke English, I couldn't answer!
Seeing "my daughter" smiling in a traditional Cambodian dress, I could not keep my tears from falling. She was finally able to return to the person she was and meant to be ... she was a young Cambodian woman with a bright future ahead of her! I continually thank God for giving me the chance to be a part of her life. Near the end of the dinner, the happy couple invited me onstage. She spoke, laughing and then weeping. I didn't understand a single word; but I knew she was talking about me - perhaps what we did for her! She finished speaking, wiped her tears on her sleeve, and went backstage. Less than a minute later she appeared wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress! Everyone applauded loudly! I later found out that she had told everyone that her "adoptive father" was Vietnamese and asked permission of the guests to change from traditional Cambodian dress into a traditional Vietnamese dress to make her father happy - even though I never asked her to.
I estimate that in eight years, the money that we "invested" in her comes to about $20,000.You might think that is far too much! However, if you divide that by eight years the expense for each month is just over $100.This money was spent on tuition, food, housing, and hospitals - a result of many diseases; lingering scars from her sexual slavery days.
People often email and ask me: Father, how much does it cost a month to raise a child? There is no single correct answer to that question. Each child is different, bringing different diseases that need treatment. The diseases of the body, though expensive, can be cured. But curing diseases of the soul takes not only money and effort, but it also takes time, love, support and great sacrifice!
After 8 years of operating in Cambodia, we have directly and indirectly helped more than 200 children. Most children, after being rescued, were raised with the help of other organizations -we "take responsibility" for health care costs. The cost of preliminary medical testing costs about $600 per child after being taken out of the hell they were in. We always hope that after all of the tests and treatments they do not have any more diseases - especially the disease of the century (AIDS)!
Although living in worry, we still have hope: hope that they will have a brighter future - and she, the main character in the story today is proof! Testify and be a witness to the love you share for the children, we are just the bridge that conveys your love to those in need. Testify to their struggles, and be their hope as they strive to escape their hardships.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Spirit. In my homily, I emphasized two of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first gift is the gift of courage. I believe courage is doing the right thing even in the presence of fear. The second gift is hope, and as St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in today's second reading: hope that is seen is no hope at all; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we eagerly wait for it. (Romans 8:24, 25)
Lord, help us use the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the world! Especially, help us always dare to be brave, dare to speak the truth, even when faced with threats and fear; and always hope for a brighter future, even when it may seem impossible! In you, all things are possible.
LM Martino Nguyen Ba Thong
Extract the "real story"