May Zu Yi was the second oldest in a family of eight siblings. She grew up in a fishing community where her father worked long hours on the local fishing boats each day. He tried hard to provide for his family, but there was never enough. Brokenhearted, he could not afford to send Zu Yi and the rest of his older children to school. Slowly, Zu Yi’s father fell into alcoholism. While he was never violent towards Zu Yi or her siblings, his alcoholism deeply marked her childhood.
Despite her father’s alcoholism, the family’s finances improved slightly as Zu Yi grew older. Her younger brothers and sisters were able to attend school. Zu Yi was overcome with jealousy as she watched them leave each morning, going somewhere she so desperately yearned to be. Around this time, she began to date, and soon fell in love with a local boy. Even though she imagined a future with him, she couldn’t shake the feeling of injustice that her siblings had the education she was always denied. So she left home at eighteen to seek employment in the city.
Despite Zu Yi’s lack of schooling, she was able to get a simple job at a sewing shop. For the next seven years, she worked various disappointing jobs across the city. But her lack of formal education kept her consistently underemployed and poorly paid. Due to the expense of living in the city, she struggled financially and emotionally, yet she refused to move back to her hometown. Over these seven years in the city, she kept in contact with the boy from her village. She believed that someday he would join her and they would have an exciting life together.
What Zu Yi didn’t know what that the boy she loved was dating another girl in her absence. News of their relationship only reached Zu Yi after they were already engaged. The heartbroken young girl was overcome with anger at his betrayal. Despairing over her life, she cut off all her hair in hopes that if she looked like a boy, no one would want to date her. Therefore, she reasoned, she could never fall in love again.
Feeling deeply betrayed by everyone in her life, Zu Yin was inconsolable. Hoping to cheer her up, her friends took her out for a day trip. Zu Yin was shocked to run into a woman she knew from her home village! The woman asked her what she was doing in the city. As Zu Yin described her latest profession – a poorly paid role as an assistant in a small shop – her desire for a better job showed all over her face.
Identifying the young girl’s emotional and financial vulnerability, the woman immediately started telling her about a “fantastic job” in a factory. She could earn so much more if she just went to this other city! Zu Yin leapt at the opportunity for a change of scenery and a higher income. Trusting her old friend, she gave the woman her phone number so that she could learn more about the job.
The woman called Zu Yin the next day and pressed her to go immediately. Zu Yin packed up her things, and the two of them left the very same day. Unbeknownst to Zu Yin, her old friend was a successful broker who had already trafficked many young women into China to work in sexual exploitation.
She was planning to do the very same with May Zu Yin.
Thankfully Zu Yin and her trafficker were intercepted at the Chinese border. The anti-trafficking task force had acquired a photo of Zu Yin’s friend from her previous trafficking trips and had blacklisted her. When she attempted to cross the border, she was immediately arrested and sent to prison.
She received a 30-year sentence for her crimes, and Zu Yin was sent to the Muse Department of Social Welfare (DSW) border shelter for three months. Zu Yin was traumatized by the realization of what would have happened to her. She could not stop thinking about the alternate fate she had so narrowly avoided. As a result of this new trauma, the existing trauma from her childhood, and recent heartbreak, Zu Yin struggled to function on an everyday basis. The DSW advised her to come to Eden when she returned home. Determined to leave the border town, and realizing that she was deeply emotionally confused, Zu Yin was enthusiastic about coming to Eden.
When she first arrived at Eden, Zu Yin suffered from flashbacks, high levels of stress, extremely low self-esteem, and an inability to engage emotionally. She distanced herself from the other women and was reluctant to trust others after suffering repeated betrayals by those closest to her. As a result, she was prone to violent behavior towards herself and others.
During her first few counseling sessions, it was obvious that Zu Yin was hiding aspects of her story from the counseling team. Slowly, Zu Yin began to trust the counselors and opened up. She started to engage with the staff other beneficiaries, took part in the daily center meetings, and exhibited tangible improvements in her mental wellbeing over the next couple of months.
Because of her age and continued stability, Zu Yin was chosen as the first Eden beneficiary to attend a partner organization’s vocational training program when it opened. She received training in all areas of service, including hospitality, spa and beauty, and even golf caddying. She also received English lessons. As a result of her trauma and having never received a formal education, Zu Yin experienced a much steeper learning curve than the other trainees. However, true to her determined personality, Zu Yin was soon identified as one of the hardest workers in the group.
Participating in this course did wonders for Zu Yin’s sense of self-worth. When she arrived at Eden, Zu Yin was recorded as having extremely low self-esteem. She is now unrecognizable as that young woman. In deep contrast to her first month at Eden where she actively withdrew from everyone else, Zu Yin has fully engaged with the other trainees in the vocational program. She built lasting friendships and even trusted them enough to reveal her trafficking history to them.
Near the end of the training course, the CEO of Food and Beverages at the center came to address the trainees. At the end of the session, in front of the whole class, Zu Yin told the CEO “I am interested in working the kitchens here.” She asked him, “What do I need to learn to do this? How are you going to help me learn it?” Such confidence from someone who was previously traumatized from trafficking was astounding!
Zu Yin graduated from the training course and attended a shorter, specialized kitchen training the following month. At the end of this training, she interviewed for and was offered a job at an exclusive island resort opening later that year. We are immensely proud of her, but even more importantly, she is proud of herself.
The Desert Flower Collection was inspired by the resiliency of women like Zu Yin who come to Eden after experiencing so many disappointments and trauma in their lives. They are like the desert flower that miraculously not only survives – but flourishes – in the harshest conditions.
These women bring joy to a desolate place just like the bursts of pink, purple, and orange found in the most remote desert environments.
Facing traumatic experiences, betrayal, or abuse can feel like you are walking through a barren desert. Compared to the sexual exploitation experienced by women rescued by Eden, our own desert experiences may seem small. Yet every desert experience is brutal, and we all need to hear words of encouragement as we journey through them.
These jewelry pieces serve as points of reflection and inspiration. The arrow-shaped gold leaves represent the need to keep traveling forward and persevering through the harshest of places in our lives. The brave women at Eden choose joy over despair every day. These pieces are a tangible reminder of the exemplary courage of each of them.