Dusty gravel shifted under our songthaew as it turned into the driveway at the COSA facility north of Chiang Mai. We tumbled out of the open back and were greeted with an idyllic view: soft lawns, flowering shrubs, palm and fruit trees, several low buildings with shaded patios, and the laughter and chatter of girls playing in the grass or carrying school books to their dormitories. They barely noticed us.
I turned around, wide-eyed, breathing in the light fragrance of burning grass that seemed to be ever-present during Thailand’s dry season, and surveyed the grounds. Immediately I understood how lucky these 35 girls are to live there. They go to school five days per week, are fed healthy, home-cooked meals and are provided with medical care, a dedicated social worker, and access to mental health care. Additionally, long-term volunteers help with conversational English, walk the younger girls to and from school, help COSA with social media coverage, and other assorted tasks as needed.
Some of the girls at COSA grew up in rural hill tribes, in the far northern regions of Thailand. These are areas that rely heavily on agriculture for income, either coffee or soy, mostly. Many of the residents there have emigrated from Myanmar (Burma) and can’t obtain Thai citizenship. In a sense, on paper, they don’t exist. Some families are poor and expect their children to contribute; this is where hard decisions are made. Recruiters for brothels will come around, and offer to buy girls, sometimes as young as three. Many parents are so destitute that they accept these offers. To them, it isn’t unusual.
Mickey Choothesa, COSA’s founder, often negotiates with hill tribe and rural families before their daughters are sold. If all goes well, he is granted legal guardianship of a girl and she comes to live at COSA for a chance at a better life through education and opportunity. Sometimes, girls come to COSA after they’ve worked in a brothel. This is where access to their social worker and mental health care is absolutely necessary. We weren’t told each girl’s story. It doesn’t matter who they were; they now all have a foundation for a safe, healthy, happy future.
The first night at COSA, we were served the first of many delicious meals. Home-cooked curry over rice, with tart pineapple and juicy watermelon for dessert. Our later meals over the weekend included a pho-like soup with clear broth, meatballs, fresh veggies and noodles. There were the hard-boiled battered and fried eggs, cut in half and displayed elegantly with pickled cucumber and onions. Another dinner was a red coconut curry with chicken and succulent oyster mushrooms. Almost all meals came with the Thai equivalent of ketchup and mustard: a caddy of white sugar, red pepper flakes, spicy chili-infused vinegar, and fish sauce. The food at COSA was absolutely the highlight of my trip.
Our two days with the girls were full of laughter. Our first day, we concocted a photographic scavenger hunt. The girls were given a list of twenty-something words of objects or ideas to photograph. On day two, we all walked as a group into town, where the girls showed us their school, market, and the local temple. We had assigned them a “day in the life” photo-walk project. It was fun to be included in their daily routine. On our last night, after dinner, we finally convinced the girls to break out the karaoke machine that we had been eyeing. A couple people sang, and apparently it wasn’t anyone’s favorite activity because the dining patio was soon deserted.
Before the trip to Thailand, I tried my best to clear my head of any expectations. One that I couldn’t shake was my desire to feel fulfilled in this volunteering experience. As a former Girl Scout counselor, I have worked with groups of young girls before and always loved it. I suppose I expected to feel a deep connection with the girls at COSA, but that wasn’t the case.
My roommate for the trip, Anna, asked a question of our leader Kate. It had been a barely-noticed niggling in the back of my head, but when Anna said something like, “How do we deal with the guilt of our short time here?” I realized I needed the answer too. As in, how do we justify spending only three days with these girls? Does it really make a difference? As Kate has lead many TGL trips with similar timelines, her answer introduced the concept of “planting the seeds.” No, a few days with these girls may not have an instant impact. But the long-lasting impact, the slow-growing education and ripple effect is there. These girls have learned a new skill. I saw several of them that had a natural artistic eye, and I’m sure they will continue to find an appreciation in photography and hopefully delve into other forms of artistic expression.
It is difficult to return home and feel like we haven’t made a lasting connection or a meaningful change. I think about the girls often. One morning at the facility, Mickey took the time to tell us his story, the founding of COSA, and plans for its future. Even he recognized that his battle is an arduous one. Will he ever end human trafficking of young girls into sex slavery? No. But he believes in the importance of helping one girl at a time, educating the rural families who believe they have no other option than to sell their girls. This idea resonated with me, and removed some of the guilt I felt in not spending much time at COSA. Helping one girl at a time is better than none.
Now, I feel compelled to share my experience to simply spread the education about social injustices like human trafficking. It was a few days, one person, a drop in the bucket, but it is still “planting the seeds.” Sometimes that’s all we need to do.
*A small truck with a covered cab for hire. Cheap way to get around. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songthaew
**An NGO whose mission is to prevent human trafficking and child exploitation through education and community empowerment. http://cosasia.org/