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Archive for March, 2009

Closing thoughts…

We’re back in NYC, back to the daily grind. It took me a while to post this entry because… I was at a loss for words…

This amazing experience we were both blessed to have the chance to take, with our jobs still intact in this economy and our apartment in pristine condition after the sublease.

I learned so much about life: my roots, heritage, culture, poverty, dispair, and hope. I don’t want to forget, so I journal. We (Liem and I, The Blind Project, etc) cannot fix the entire problem. We can only offer to help be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. If we did not ground ourselves in God’s word, it would have been impossible to see into the lives of sex trafficking victims and keep our sanity. It also helps that my amazing husband is here to experience all of it with me. To laugh, to cry out, to discover… a true partner in life.
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It was nearly impossible to leave. So much work left undone. So many relationships to cultivate: with staff, with girls, women, children. So many things to discover and learn… about myself, life, and the world.

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But I have to trust that God does not need me or us to fix this entire problem. He invites us all to be part of the solution. Sometimes I believe it, and sometimes my dispair at witnessing such pain consumes me. Somehow I get back to trusting God. He allowed me to provide these people with vision care, but opened up so many more riches in my heart. I felt more spiritually and physically alive in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, than I’ve ever felt.

I have no idea what the future holds, or when or how God will say “Go!” but am so humbled to be part of an alternate story. Significance.

So thank you for all of the emails and facebook posts in support of me, us, the cause, etc. But, I am not special or super human, simply obedient. I hope that this little blog is inspirational to you: If God says go, GO!

Downy

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Back to the USA.

terrifynomoreThis trip to Southeast Asia has been a success. But before reflecting back, I just want to note on how it all began. It started in 2006, in a NY apartment with three roommates (me, Anthony, Chad) who read a book called “Terrify No More”. We discovered stories of young girls (some as young as 5) in Southeast Asia who were rescued from sex trafficking. They were slaves – trapped inside brothels and forced to have sex with 10-15 strangers a night. We didn’t understand why this was happening and we wanted to help. So we took a trip to Southeast Asia to uncover the truth for ourselves. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into so the name The Blind Project (theblindproject.com) made a lot of sense. Plus, we wanted to use our advertising skills to open the eyes of the world.

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The three of us have been on mission trips before but this one was different. After it was over, the trip never left us. We had renewed minds and continued to spread awareness about the issue. We wanted to unite people for the cause and create a louder voice.

“In 2007, slave traders made more money than Google, Starbucks, and Nike combined.” Slavery is still alive and well today because it generates a lot of money. It will take a united effort to put an end to this injustice.

The Blind Project isn’t about me, Anthony or Chad. It’s about everyone. Y is The Blind Project – she’s a makeup artist who provided makeovers to the women to uplift their self image. Kevin is The Blind Project – a strategic planner who met with organizations in Southeast Asia to lay out plans for future collaborations. The New Room – a rock band that wrote a song about us and sex trafficking called Pretty Little Things (click link to listen). Annalynne McCord – a Hollywood actress who frequently uses her publicity to talk about the issue to the media… we are all The Blind Project

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Switching gears to our personal lives…

A few months before leaving for Asia, Downy and I were both really stressed. I was stressed about planning the fund raiser and Downy was stressed by all the administrative work. We had no intentions of giving eye exams at all. And after talking one night, she was in tears and said the words “this is not my dream”.

And it finally dawned on me… night after night, Downy has been coming home from work (helping people with their eyes) only to come home with a stack of to-do lists with all the gritty administrative stuff for The Blind Project. For the past two years she has been putting her dreams aside to help implement mine.

“What is your dream?” I asked. She said she wanted to go on a mission trip and help people with their eyes. And that’s where it all began. She was afraid because usually there are mission trips of 10-20 optometrists who do this kind of stuff… not just 1. But I told her that every one would help her out. And slowly but surely, things started to happen. We got tons of glasses donated and money to make the lenses donated too. I put my personal agenda aside, and decided my only duty on this trip was to serve my wife the best I could. And everything worked out.

So how did we link eye exams back to fighting sex trafficking?

We served organizations in Southeast Asia who were rescuing and providing rehabilitation to sex trafficked victims. After all, if education and job skills training are part of the rehabilitation program… then they should have good eyes.

This trip has been really good because it showed me that things don’t always have to go my way. Great things can happen in many ways, you just have to be flexible enough to let those opportunities come.

Everyone is good at something, and chances are, it can be used for something positive. I get a lot of emails asking “What can I do?” and that’s something that people have to ask themselves. Because, honestly, if I provided that answer… I don’t think Downy would’ve given eye exams in Asia. And that would’ve been a shame.

Thank you all for your prayers and support.

God Bless,

Liem

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Taking a break in Vietnam

I’ve visited Thailand / Cambodia three times in the last three years but never went to the neighboring country of Vietnam. Even though I was born there, I decided to stay away from my birthplace because I was afraid.

Afraid of people staring at me because I didn’t blend in… Vietnamese American. And even more so, that when I spoke Vietnamese, the locals would laugh at how I pronounced words and my poor vocabulary. Afraid that I wouldn’t find a connection to my heritage. But most of all, since I am part of The Blind Project, I was afraid of discovering the problem in the place where I am from.

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After all, I know it happens. I remember going to Vietnam a little over ten years ago and asking a sit-low peddler (a bike taxi) to take me to a place where the local teens hang out. That night, I ended up in a karaoke room with a group of young girls. I honestly thought they were just there to hang out until the sit-low peddler walked into the room with a smile on his face. The place was a brothel. I remember leaving there in a hurry and being angry at the peddler for taking me there. The guy wouldn’t even take me back home so I hopped in his seat and peddled home while he sat in the passenger’s seat. I remember passing by other brothels and seeing filthy, old foreigners walking in and out. I remember being disgusted, sad, and really pissed off. But the bigger problem is that sex tourism perpetuates the demand of sex trafficking. I pretty much blocked this experience from my memory.

But recently, while Downy and I were in Cambodia giving eye exams, I was reminded of the problem in Vietnam. I met young, little girls from the aftercare facility who spoke Vietnamese. Why are there Cambodian girls who could speak Vietnamese? These girls weren’t Cambodian at all. They were trafficked into the country from Vietnam. They were rescued out of brothels where they were beaten and forced to serve pedophiles on a regular basis. Without the ability to speak Khmer, the Cambodian language, it makes it almost impossible for these girls to tell people what was going on. And even if they escaped and went to the police, they would be thrown into jail as illegal aliens without any rights — only to get bailed out by their Cambodian brothel owners. These girls were part of the vicious cycle of the sex trade.

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So here I am, back to Vietnam with the intention of just spending a few days to unwind (NO EYE EXAMS HERE) because Downy and I were pretty tired from all the work. What’s better than returning to the motherland? Finding mom and dad there at the airport to greet you. Yep, they flew up from the U.S. and wanted to show us a good time. Here’s a photo of my dad showing off his fruit plate he made for my mom.

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It felt good being in Saigon – foreign but strangely familiar. The city is a frenzy, I never thought I would see more scooters than Cambodia but Saigon definitely takes the prize.

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Vietnam used to be colonized by the French and you can see the influence, in the food and the buildings.

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Although Saigon is relatively modern compared to the rest of the country, you can still see glimpses of old… with rice hats from the farmers selling their goods and the monks on the streets.

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We spent a day in Saigon before flying to the oceanside city of Nha Trang. We spent a couple days there to relax and take in the beauty. While Saigon is big and bustling, Nha Trang is it’s antithesis – feeling much smaller and definitely slower.

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After a couple days in Nha Trang we returned to Saigon where we went to visit the local hospital. My parents wanted us to get a well-rounded view of Vietnam by experiencing the joy and the sorrow.

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We walked into the hospital and were given a list of extremely ill patients on a clip board. An assistant took us through various rooms where we met patient after patient. Face to face with the blind, the elderly, the crippled, those who couldn’t breathe on their own, people with large tumors on their faces, and tons of bald little children who were battling cancer.

Most of them were extremely poor and couldn’t afford the best medical care so we had the chance to help them out. I could feel a heavy emptiness and sorrow in all the rooms. And as I reached out and touched each hand to slip them money, I did so with a smile. But inside, I prayed that God would show them mercy and heal their bodies. It was a bittersweet experience.

The very few days we spent in Vietnam were great. I love the country, the food, the culture and the people. When I came here before… I used to feel guilty and sad. But I realize now that guilt only stifles – it never liberates. So instead, I feel lucky and fortunate – ant it’s through that where I find the freedom to help.

Liem

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Cambodia

When I stepped off the plane and saw Cambodia for the first time a year and a half ago, I could feel the sadness. The pain of a country healing from such a violent history. Pol Pot. Khmer Rouge. Human rights violations. Exploitation. It was thick in the air. Oppressive sadness of a country groaning in despair.

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I could only take 3 days here in the capital of Phnom Penh. Poverty. The human condition. It was so much…. darker than Thailand. I didn’t think I could make it here. Can’t handle what I see. I want to weep for every poor person, every child without shoes, or clothes, for all of it.

I felt safe in the walls of Hagar: an amazing NGO that is doing so much to help lift Khmer people up. At least at Hagar, I could see hope, life, the promise of a better future….

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I didn’t think I would find my way back to Cambodia. I dreaded it when I saw it on the itinerary. Ok. 3 days. Eye exams. In and out. Quick like a band aid.

When I arrived, I was reminded of the girls I interviewed a few years back. There was one in particular: Lak. Her story touched my heart. I couldn’t wait to go back to the Hagar garment factory… maybe she would still be there. Maybe she would remember me… how is she doing?

DAY ONE

100 degrees outside. We were inside: hotter. Screened 100 children. 35 pairs of glasses.

DAY TWO

4 hour van ride to a remote village. Screened 60. 35 pairs of glasses.

DAY THREE

Garment factory and aftercare girls… I heard that we had finished screening all the girls and I was sad because I was looking for one in particular. Where was Lak?

Ah five more girls… There she was… in all her radiance. Red collar shirt. Lak!!! I went up to her and asked her (with a translator) if she remembered me “yes”. I told the translator I was here a year and a half ago… and interviewed her. I told her that I think about her every day… I pray for her every day. I was so glad to see her and she looks very healthy. Not emaciated like before. Sabai dee (How are you? Everything good?) I don’t even speak Khmer but the words just came out. God is good. I am so thankful of Him for bringing Lak back so that I could see that she was ok. This is the reason I am back in Cambodia. To see that she is alright. And of course, she had perfect vision, and didn’t need me. What an amazing day. The perfect end to the perfect trip. I can leave Cambodia knowing that she is well.

Downy

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One of the first things you notice about Cambodia is that it is much more poverty-stricken than Thailand. What really got me was some of the aftercare girls that we gave eye exams to. These were “The Girls” that I read about in books. The young little girls trapped inside brothels and rescued… and here they were, standing before me.  Expression-less, completely void of emotion. I couldn’t  imagine what they’ve been through and though I came to help, I totally understood if they couldn”t trust me.

But through it all you can still find beauty here. Below are some snapshots, most of which are with Hagar International – an organization that aims to fight sex trafficking by providing rehabilitation, education and job training for rescued victims. Hope you enjoy them…

Liem

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Traffic is chaos here. Scooters rule the streets.

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And there’s not a limit with what you can do with cargo.

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A photo of Downy in Cambodia.

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And a photo of bizzarro-Downy or perhaps a close relative?

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The Hagar School where they provide education to at-risk and poor children.

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The eye exams begin.

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Wifey in action.
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Some of the kids were shy.

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Others, not so much.

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Phil, doing what he does best.

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Kevin, showing much excitement as we hit the road.

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And making pitstops for lunch (yes, Anthony actually ate one).

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A young beggar on the side of the road.

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Our destination is somewhere on this 5 mile dirt path.

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We arrive at a small village to give eye exams.

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A curious face.

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More kids…

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Kevin gettin’ in the groove.

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Phil helping out with the vision screening.

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SOI COWBOY

So we have yet another addition to our crew here in Asia… Phil Anema. Phil’s a good friend of ours and was recently a youth counselor for a youth ministry in New York but is now currently “Funemployed”. He arrived  in Bangkok for one night and will join us in Cambodia.

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We decided to show him a better view of Bangkok via The Banyan Tree, a rooftop terrace of a highrise building. 

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Coming in a little blind to the sex trade issue, we then decided to walk through one of the infamous sex tourism streets of Bangkok known as Soi (pronounced Soy) Cowboy. I’ve seen what goes on here before but I think Downy and Phil were pretty shocked by it. The street was covered with bright neon lights and everywhere you look there were young women trying to usher you into the bars. From end to end the area was filled with foreign men.

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Although, a lot of the bars claim to be only for shows, prostitution is pretty rampant in these parts. Picture taking is absolutely not welcome because the locals do not want to show any kind of illegal activity and the foreign men do not want to be seen documented in public. One of the reasons why foreigners don’t want to be seen is because they come to places like this to live their fantasy. A photo leaked on a blog or something like that could damage their secure lives. Thus, here’s a photo below of some of the men we saw. So if your husband is on a “business trip” and owns a tacky mustard Hawaiian or pink plaid shirt – surprise. 

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The women who work these areas are either tricked and forced to work in these bars by their pimps. Or, due to economic conditions, this is the only way for them to make money to support their families back in their villages.

Sex tourism is one of the driving forces of sex trafficking and Soi Cowboy is just one of the many red light districts here. Everything can be bought with a price here and if you dig deeper beneath the commercialized surface you will find scenarios of slavery, abuse, and pedophilia.

We were going to grab dinner afterwards but we pretty much lost our appetites. 

Liem

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