As I looked into her dark eyes, I saw they were filled with fear and doubt. She looked to be age 8 or 9. This was her first day at the center, and it was my first day there too. We had come to play with the children. We handed out brightly colored jump ropes to each girl. Oh the squeals of joy and excitement for each girl to be able to play with her own jump rope. Of course they tried to out jump each other with their consecutive number of jumps. It didn't take long before their ropes were tied together to make a rope long enough to jump in pairs. The smiles and giggles of these girls, ages 3-13, represented a universal language that transcends generations, languages, and cultures.
This trip was my third time in Cambodia, but the first time for the mission team with which I was traveling. The flight was long, but I am accustomed to it. The 21-hour journey felt like I'd traveled back in time. From clearing customs, to the first view of the city, I realized Phnom Penh is nothing like home.
I remember my very first time entering the country. I arrived anxiously, thinking, "What did I get myself into?" Then God reminded me, "It is I who wants you here." His peace framed the remainder of the emotionally exhausting trip, as it has with each one following.
Our purpose of this mission trip was to engage with the young Cambodian girls at the World Hope Assessment Center. They stay in these centers for up to 90 days after being rescued from either rape or human trafficking.
These girls should be playing with jump ropes, not forced to do horrid sexual acts against their will. The questions arose in my mind, "Why God? Why do these things happen? Why don't you stop it?"
I was reminded by the Holy Spirit that God didn't do these horrid things. He is not happy to see his children beaten and abused. Evil is in this world, but Jesus has overcome evil. Then I heard God ask me, "Why do you think there is a recuse center? Why do you think there are people with a desire to help victims? Why do you think you are here?"
I remember a young, dark-eyed girl, standing in the corner up against a wall. She was holding tightly to her new jump rope I had just given her. It seemed like it was the first time someone had ever given her anything she could keep. When I tried to show her how to use it, she snatched it away, fearful I would take it from her. I imagine she never had anything to call her own.
With all the power I could muster I held back my tears knowing the only reason this child was here was not by her choosing, but because of all the insidious crimes committed against her. I wanted to hug her, letting her know she was safe. To whisper in her ear, "God loves you."
But I couldn't. We had been firmly instructed not to touch the girls unless they initiated it. We were also informed that if they did approach us, not to be surprised if it came in a provocative way. We could not hug them face to face because they might think we were trying to initiate sex. Often victims as young as these girls have been taught it is normal to act in a way that would solicit sex as a response. These young children have been so violated that even a genuine, loving hug could be twisted into something harmful.
It can sometimes take days or weeks for girls to realize that the rescue center is not a new place where their human trafficker moved them to enlist new clients. They need to learn by experience and discover in their own time that the shelter is a safe place where the norm in life is not about sex. A place where God's hope, healing, restoration, and redemption are present.
Physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery for this type of trauma can take a lifetime. This World Hope Assessment Center provides God's healing and hope, and, ultimately, an environment to meet Jesus.
When I traveled to Cambodia for the first time in 2004 there wasn't even a name for human trafficking. We called it the "sex slave trade." In reality, human trafficking is slavery, a crime against a human being. It is the epitome of evil and seems so hopeless. If we say Jesus conquered evil, how can this still be happening? God is both gracious and just. He will put an end to slavery. He may use each of us in some way to accomplish the task, just like he used Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
On my first mission trip to Cambodia I met a beautiful survivor with a precious smile. Six years later I went back to Cambodia. The first restaurant I visited for lunch, the same beautiful girl with the precious smile was there. She was all grown up and managing the restaurant I was dining in. Guess who was on her staff? Many of the restored girls who once lived in the Rescue Center.
What joy! I wanted to run up to her and hug her but thought twice before I did. How many people want to be remembered as a human trafficking victim? I learned she came to know Christ during her time at the center. I proudly remember her as a child of God who is now a manager at a very popular Cambodian restaurant. She reminds me there is hope for each survivor.
We can offer hope to survivors too. You don't have to look too far to be an advocate or abolitionist against today's slavery. All over the world people are working to put an end to sex slavery. Seeing firsthand how God can restore a broken girl's life fills me with God-sized hope for the restoration of another young, dark-eyed girl, who holds tightly to a jump rope.
All across the globe we are seeing people rise up and take action against this atrocity. God is working in ways we don't always see or realize to end global slavery. He is using Christ-followers and non-believers, the public and politicians. The sex trade, which once didn't even have a name, has now become a hot-button issue. The darkness is being brought into the light and Jesus is shining in the dark places. He wins in the end.
Rev. Robin Schara serves as pastor of global missions and women's ministry at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Williamsville, N.Y.