in love with the damsel in distress, Olive. Olive always seemed to find herself
being harassed by Popeye’s arch nemesis, Brutus. Each time Brutus goes to kidnap Olive, Popeye insists that he won’t butt in, that he’ll let Olive fend for herself and fight Brutus off if that’s really what she wants. However, in every episode, there comes a point when Olive’s cries for help are too much for him to handle. He throws his hands in the air, clenches his fists, and screams, “That’s it! I just can’t take no more!” He pops a can of spinach that explodes his normally measly muscles, and fights Brutus off in the blink of an eye.
It is critical that we all have a moment like this, a moment so vivid and so real that we clench our fists and cry out that we can stand it no longer. For me,
that moment came in the form of a pair of brown eyes and a little girl I will
never be able to forget.
I spent a month of my sophomore year of college in Cambodia. I went to study the current social justice issues there with a group of 24 classmates. The course took us from the genocide that occurred in Cambodia in the 1970’s through present day, teaching us what governmental, socioeconomic,
cultural, and structural factors contribute to the current state of the country
(don’t worry, I will expound on this in great depth in another post). It was getting towards the end of the trip, and, while it had been fascinating, educational, and extremely challenging, we were all growing homesick. The trafficking of women and children for sex is running rampant in Cambodia.
Many factors play into this pandemic, but the abundance of villages and
rural communities surrounding the capital city of Phnom Penh make young people especially vulnerable. We learned that families are selling their children to traffickers in hopes of receiving a cut of the cash these children bring
in. Children are also being tricked into believing there are jobs for them at hotels or restaurants in the city, and they will be able to send money home to their starving families. The harsh reality sets in though, that they have been sold to a brothel. They are immediately financially indebted to their trafficker, all of their identification and legal documents confiscated. Toward the end of our third week in Phnom Penh, we had the opportunity to head to a nearby village called Svay Pak. Svay Pak was the home for a major brothel until it was raided and shut down thanks to the dedicated work of the International Justice Mission. A local church had moved in, and a leader was working fiercely to transform the village. He had a gym built so that males could exercise and learn how to appropriately express their energy and masculinity. Programs were started at the church for children to have a safe place to play and adults to have a support group. We even got to walk through the building that was once a brothel, a place that held so many horrific memories for the village’s women and children. They left the stalls where they forced the victims to perform intact as a memorial for the living hell they had to endure. It was a wonderfully exhausting day of walking and learning. We had learned who is the most vulnerable to this atrocity, how to recognize an undercover brothel, what to do when we suspect there is trafficking happening, etc.
But it’s as if we all hit a wall, and we just needed a break from it all.
On the way back to Phnom Penh, I couldn’t stop talking about how badly I wanted some American food. What I would give for a burger and fries! My roommate and I had discovered this little café right down the street from our hotel. We had eaten there a couple of times already and recommended it to the
group as a fun place to go altogether, so all 24 of us headed to this restaurant. I immediately noticed the little girl at the table next to ours. She wore the most darling little pink dress and her hair was curled perfectly. She was sitting across the table from a middle-aged European man. I tried not to jump to
assumptions. I figured I was being overzealous because of all the information I was processing from the day. However, other group members started to notice. We realized that the waitress kept bringing the little girl drinks, and the drinks were making her giggle and flail her little body. The old man sat across the table from her, devouring her with his eyes, and it hit each and every one of us.
That little girl was being sold to that man.
I stood, knowing I had to do something. A couple of other students started moving around too, none of us feeling prepared to stare the transaction of a human being in its ugly face. But we quickly realized we were not the only ones watching closely. A couple men came from what we thought was the kitchen and stood by the bar with their arms crossed. I remember making eye contact with one of them and his eyes shot me a look that made chills run up my spine, in spite of the beating sun. The waitress hurried to the table with a princess back pack, fluffed the little girl’s hair, and got her ready to go. As the European man grabbed the little girl and put her on the back of a motorcycle that had just pulled up, she made eye contact with me.
And that was my moment.
I’ve never been able to get that little girl’s face out my head. I remember
feeling truly sick the rest of the night, knowing that little girl was going to
have her innocence, and probably her life, stripped from her. She was going to face days, weeks, even years, of beatings, coercion, rape, and drugs. All she needed was somebody to step in. Somebody to clinch their fists, throw some spinach in their mouth, and refuse to take anymore! But I was silenced. The muscles of the common day Brutus caused me to stand by and watch as this little girl was sold into a life of abuse. A life no one, NO ONE, should have to face.
I made a promise to that girl that night. I promised her that her brown eyes
would stay forever engraved on my heart. I would fight every day for the rest of
my life for her. And that even if it meant one little girl was rescued from the bondage of modern day slavery, that’s one set of eyes I would get to gaze into with joy, rather than mourn. There are 27 million women and children trapped in the bonds of slavery today. That’s an overwhelming truth. But there is one little girl that I was less than 5 feet away from in Cambodia that was sold to a man for sex. That’s intolerable. And that’s my motivation.
What is yours?
By Alison Hofmeyer
Picture by classmate and friend Gabriel Hymer