Courageous Heart: Mei Mei's Story
The air hung heavy with exhaust and fumes. Bicycles and cars whirred around Mei Mei with dizzying chaos. Where was she? The journey had been long and cramped. Her stomach grumbled as she took in the scents of street vendors hawking food. People seemed to shout all around her in a foreign language. Her handler held her arm firmly as he guided her through the crowds, and down a maze of side streets.
She tried to pay attention to where she was, but couldn’t read the street signs. She was wondering how she would communicate with her new boss and colleagues and what life would be like in her new job at the factory when they stopped abruptly. He muttered, “We’re here. She will take you the rest of the way.'' An older woman emerged, ushered Mei Mei into a vehicle, and drove off.
Instead of arriving at a factory, Mei Mei arrived at a small house. She tried to ask where she was, but the woman didn’t speak her language. Inside, she met James.
James' severe mental illness blocked his parent’s attempts to find him a wife at every turn. They wanted someone who could help bear the burden of his care, and possibly even give them a grandson to maintain the family tradition of caring for elders. So they turned to traffickers who sold them a wife for him – Mei Mei.
Instead of the wedding of a young girl's dreams, Mei Mei was trafficked into a foreign country. Rather than happily setting up house with a man who loved and valued her, she was forced to be with a stranger. She quickly became pregnant.
As if life could get any worse for Mei Mei, she gave birth to a daughter instead of a son. Her in-laws were very unhappy with this and their cruelty only grew as time went on. Her husband’s mental health seemed to be deteriorating even more at this time as well. Mei Mei was enduring greater abuse and growing more and more afraid of her husband.
One day when Mei Mei was at the market a woman gave her the number for the Myanmar Anti-Trafficking Police Force. Unable to take anymore abuse, Mei Mei contacted the Unit to tell them her story. To her surprise, when the local police came to “rescue” her, they arrested her like a criminal and handcuffed her in front of her small daughter, Lu Lu. Mei Mei spent the next four months in jail because of immigration paperwork issues.
During this time, she begged to see her daughter. But she was told that she had no rights to her, and would actually never see her again. She was told that she chose her freedom over her child and would have to face the consequences of that. Racked with guilt and shame, she tried to kill herself.
Mei Mei was eventually transferred to Eden’s Myanmar branch where she could work through her pain. Through no fault of her own, she was forced to leave her child behind to gain the freedom she has now. So many of the women we reach are devastated to have left children behind.
There are thousands and thousands of my sisters who are still being exploited... please fight for the rights of trafficking victims, for their freedom and dignity.
In Myanmar alone, with 20% of the population known to migrate with hope of a better life, risks of being tricked and trafficked is high. With only 1-2% of trafficking victims recorded to be rescued, Eden is striving to challenge this harrowing statistic.* We have a dedicated staff that makes every effort to reach inaccessible, hidden parts of Asia. One of our local team leaders traveled to the border of Myanmar and a neighboring country on a scoping mission. The area is conflict-torn and poor, resulting in huge amounts of displacement and migration as people living here have little access to basic needs and services. In many ways, people making the decision to move in order to attain a better standard of living can be a positive thing.
Nonetheless, population migration does not come without risks and challenges. Many are migrating with little to no information about the migration process or destination and little knowledge of the world outside their village. Instead, they put their trust in brokers. Our staff spoke to multiple community leaders who all reiterated the same concern: the people here are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, and the brokers are deceitful and exploitative.
Countless women like Mei Mei are tricked by traffickers posing as job brokers. One of the best defenses against this and other schemes of traffickers is prevention education. As well as our outreach every week into the red light districts we are running awareness trainings which teach participants about what trafficking is, how to recognize it, and what to do if they think someone is or has been trafficked. We identify at-risk communities, run workshops and train local community leaders. We also train hotel staff and other businesses in the border areas so they can identify trafficking victims. At times, we run awareness programs at orphanages, since orphans and people from disrupted families are particularly vulnerable. We have developed several communication materials that we hand out and show in known high-risk communities.
Reaching communities can pose a challenge, and requires multilateral cooperation between organizations. Eden is determined to form relationships with governments, anti-trafficking task forces, border police and other organizations actively working with victims, which can offer us their support and expertise. One vital component is training the police and border officials both locally and abroad. When we met Mei Mei, she had been picked up by local authorities, separated from her child, and served months in jail on immigration violations. It is our goal to train officials how to spot trafficking victims and get them connected with Eden or partner organizations, so scenarios like this don’t happen.
Since we started, we are happy to report that more people are being properly identified as victims and are being connected with us. Eden and partner organizations ensure that victims return home safely; if there isn’t an Eden safe house in that location, our partners are there to make sure she receives trauma counseling and support. Counseling is essential to minimize the risk of being re-trafficked. We are increasing our impact on a policy-making level, directly contributing to the US Department of State on the Trafficking in Persons Report and working with the Myanmar Government’s Department of Social Welfare, which directly refers people into our program. We are so excited that Eden is receiving referrals, and that we can pass on key information and recommendations to help the women and their families in Asia. We are bridging gaps, sharing information, and most importantly, setting more women free.
Mei Mei has been free from sexual slavery and working for Eden for a few years now. She is grateful for her freedom and restoration, but still hopes she will one day be reunited with her daughter. Mei Mei’s courage continues to inspire those around her. It is because of her, other survivors, and our volunteers that “Courageous Heart— The Mother and Daughter Collection” was created. It is a celebration of courage and a call to action.
*International Organization for Migration, 2017 and United Nations Office for Drugs & Crime, 2016