A week in and each day is getting heavier. We know our girls now on a much deeper and more personal level. Their families. Their kids. Their habits. Their lives. The more we know about them the more we love them and desire for them to find success.

Yesterday after a long day of teaching and brainstorming with the team in the 90′ heat and 95% humidity, we went out to see the brothels at night. Knowing where they came from gives us more motivation to continue our work here.

Proactively dressed young girls lined up like cattle was horrific. The bright flashing brothel lights were mesmerizing and intoxicating to anyone passing by. Luring in men young and old to fulfill their perverted fantasies with girls who are left broken and empty inside. As enticing as the brothels are, they each tell such stories of lies and despair and each of their pale painted faces feared any outcome of the night.

“You know you want to.”

“Haven’t you always wondered?”

“Please choose me!”

“Don’t choose me!”

“If you don’t choose me, I won’t be able to eat tomorrow.”

“If you do choose me, I will be at your mercy.”

“If I am left to your mercy, please, God, let me survive.”

Terror and numbness on their each precious faces left us all feeling hopeless as we slowly rode by each brothel, one by one.

On our way, we ran into our student who is still working in the brothels. She is one of the brightest and most talented students we have ever taught in any of our programs around the world. Her goal to start her own salon is driven by her wanting financial success, as well as helping sustain her mother as well as provide for her brothers and sisters.

It startled us a bit to see her dressed the way she was. Pale faced with long dark hair extensions and the highest of heels. Such a beautiful girl naturally that her ensemble was so distracting. Having no shame at all, she waved and was genuinely happy to see us knowing we’d never look down on her. We all see her for the silly little rascal she is with her button nose, squeaky laugh, and big smile. We usually see her racing to school just after 9am on her bike in Hello Kitty pajamas and a baseball hat exhausted from working all night. The fact the she arrives to school 20 minutes late would normally cause us to reprimand her, but in this case we are happy she shows up to school at all. From school, she hops back on her bike riding along the dusty dirt roads and goes home for a quick bite to eat and then she is off to work in a salon across town. In between a busy day with customers, she is getting ready to work in the brothel at night. As soon as she is done with a busy day doing hair and makeup in the salon around 9pm, she walks across the street to the brothel where she forced to drink alcohol, do drugs, and service men sometimes until 4am. At 9am she is back on her bike racing to school along the dusty dirt roads and her day starts all over again.

This is a typical day for her. An average day for a girl who is determined to never give up. A girl who deeply loves and respects her mother. A girl who will stop at nothing to succeed. A girl who is often ridiculed for her “choice” to work in a brothel night after night. A girl who despite her current career path has goals for owning her own business one day. A girl who manages to go to school and work 2 jobs on only 4 hours of sleep a night. A girl who dreams of having a husband who will love and treat her the way God intended for a man to love a woman. A girl I look up to and admire for all the courage I couldn’t have given the circumstances she was given.

We, as Americans, often complain being here. About the heat and humidity, the dust and dirt. But for our Khmer girls, it is their life. My team and I live in a dormitory-like house on metal bunk beds with 2″ plastic mattress adorned with hot pink mosquito nets, a bathroom with gaping holes in the ceiling, a shower with little to no water pressure, spiders and cockroaches coming out of every corner, floors that are impossible to stay clean, a kitchen stove that works only when it feels like it, and a washing machine that makes all our clothes smell like mold, B.O. and cigarettes.

Our students all live in either a safe house much like our dormitory home (sans air conditioning) with 20 other girls who have been rescued from brothels OR in very humble and tiny un-air conditioned houses with their families who they are often the sole providers for. And they are all proud to call where they live their home. They are proud to invite us to visit, cook us dinner, and welcome into their lives. They give even though they have nothing. They live daunting lives, yet they choice to smile and find the joy every day. Because of the example these girls have set, there’s no place I’d rather be.

The perspective I have gained from this culture and our students is overwhelming. I have learned such incredible life lessons from every one of our girls. Lessons of humility, determination, patience and faith. All things God wants to instill in me. Like Mother Teresa said, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”

And that’s just who they are to me.

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