Updated: May 9, 2022
A long time ago I learned that we need to pay attention to the injustices in this world that cause us to weep. The ones that cause us to rise up out of our chair and declare, "I must DO something about this."
The injustice of human trafficking does this to me. It makes me weep, wail, and rise up in fury. It has ever since the day I encountered it firsthand nearly 20 years ago. I've been seeking ways to end it ever since.
Therefore, when extended the opportunity to consult on a program aimed at fighting modern-day slavery, you'd think I had hit the freelancer jackpot. However, when anti-trafficking org, The Exodus Road, initially approached me about launching a new aftercare home in Thailand, I wasn't so sure it was the best fit. I remember candidly telling them, “I’m not really an ‘aftercare’ sort of person.”
And it was true. Then.
Of the three prongs which traditionally support the anti-trafficking fight, I have always been slated toward prevention efforts. Most of my career has been geared toward understanding and attacking the root of the problem, focusing on reducing vulnerability created by poverty through entrepreneurship and trade. However, I found myself interested in the challenge and accepted the contract.
I am so glad I did.
I can now say that collaborating to plan and launch Freedom Home this past year has completely humbled and challenged my preconceived notion of the role aftercare plays in anti-trafficking efforts.
Freedom Home is a TER-led safe house and mentorship program in Thailand that specifically serves adult female survivors of sex trafficking and sex exploitation.
Located in an area where the sex industry is rampant, this program offers immediate shelter and care for women in crisis. In addition, it offers clients a one-year program that includes: trauma-informed therapy, life skills classes, counseling, medical care, community internships, and job skills training.
I was contracted to serve as the U.S. project lead for Freedom Home’s launch, alongside TER’s incredible Asian Aftercare Coordinator, Sola Long. Sola brings an astounding wealth of experience, knowledge, and heart to the project, without which it could never be what it is today. Together we spent 6 months conducting research, seeking best practices, and laying a foundation in writing: drafting operations manuals, creating budgets, case management forms, job descriptions, child protection policies, fire safety plans, life skills curriculum, and so on.
After months of intentional planning, training, and fundraising efforts, Freedom Home opened its doors in November of 2021. A five bedroom home in a quiet Thai neighborhood began welcoming adult survivors of exploitation to come and heal.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of getting on an international flight for the first time in two long years to see the program in person. My purpose was to support and encourage staff and train them to implement Neema Development’s Elemental Business Development course as a component of the survivor livelihood program.
When I finally stepped out of my taxi in front of the robin’s egg gates I had a difficult time grasping that I was actually here. Freedom Home is entirely real. Clients are living in the home. Caring staff are investing in their lives. It is all happening!
True, I had received a few hastily snapped “in progress” photos over the past few months, but they did little to capture the experience of witnessing a formerly two-dimensional plan suddenly become three. It was if Sola had reached down into our drafted pages and pulled them upward, resulting in the formation of this beautiful home, exquisitely tailored to serve survivors.
I felt the joy a sculptor must feel when they have chiseled and polished their way to a final likeness, seeing that the work is good. Bright, colorful, clean, sheltered by growing palms, filled with the fragrance of frangipanis, echoing with the sounds of laughter; the bright green and blue walls proclaiming safety and life, all the while holding space for staff and clients to gather and dream. Yes, it was indeed VERY good.
And perhaps most exciting - is that it is WORKING. Freedom Home is now nearly at capacity and clients are receiving counseling, trauma therapy, nutritious meals, a safe place to sleep, free childcare, dignified work opportunities, entrepreneurship training, life skills classes, medical care, and a monthly stipend for working their program. The stipend gives them the opportunity to fully engage with Freedom Home offerings while providing the agency to purchase what they need, send money home to aging parents, support their children, and save for the future.
"Since the first day we met ‘P’ in Freedom Home, we were really touched. When we asked her what she is dreaming of, she started to cry because no one had ever asked her that before. She said, “I have a dream but I don’t know how to reach it.”
Clients are surrounded by caring staff who are committed to helping them set attainable goals and create actionable plans to achieve them. Healthy relationships and appropriate methods for resolving conflict are consistently modeled. Young mothers are offered a low stress environment for perhaps the first time in their adult lives, and as a result, are able to parent their young children with newly discovered patience and joy.
"We have a holistic approach, case by case. We really encourage the clients to identify their dreams and take the steps needed to reach those goals. It requires lots of work, time, energy, and commitment from the client as well. It’s really good for the clients to reflect back and see that we care about them."
As I interviewed staff and clients of Freedom Home and met with several other aftercare providers, I became more and more convinced that the holistic breadth of Freedom Home's approach is critical to creating an environment that promotes lasting freedom. Survivors in the program are finally able to exhale as they access the mental and physical space needed to dream of a hopeful future -- perhaps for the first time.
"Our clients have a dream out there but it is just so blocked. They really cannot find a way out. There is a high tendency for them to go back to sex work. They have a pattern. It doesn’t mean she really wants that life, but in her mind she doesn't have any hope that she can do anything else beyond prostitution work. She has no other opportunity available. Other places don’t think she is qualified for a job. This is why it is very important for Freedom Home to exist and to respond to their needs. We allow clients to dream big, to identify what they really want, and our team is there to help them find a way to achieve it."
My time in Thailand taught me that while intervention efforts may succeed in making the crime of human trafficking more dangerous, if not coupled with quality aftercare programs, they are unlikely to result in prolonged freedom for survivors. With recidivism rates estimated to be between 50-80%, quality trauma-informed aftercare is essential to enabling survivors, once freed, to remain free.
When viewed in this light, aftercare actually becomes preventative in the form of keeping a survivor from engaging in future sex work or exploitative labor. The different program elements of a quality program can be seen as interventions which enable survivors to pursue an entirely different life. And in the case of survivors with children, a holistic approach to aftercare may disrupt a generational cycle that statistically ends in children being abused and exploited themselves.
"During the initial client interview, we don’t just talk about services. We are drafting a future plan. We do a lot of career path development, a lot of interview support, coaching, with them and it is a lot of fun. We give them a lot of tools - even the way they dress for first impressions. It doesn’t seem like they have gotten this type of encouragement before. That is what we are doing. Helping her see that the only choice is not to go back."
You’d think I would have better understood the potential impact of trauma-informed aftercare prior to visiting Freedom Home. And perhaps I did on an academic level - however, theoretical knowledge is often quite different from seeing and experiencing for yourself.
I am grateful for my updated perspective on critical role played by quality aftercare in the fight against human trafficking. I carry deep love and respect for organizations like The Exodus Road who are committed to doing the dangerous and difficult work of walking the long way to freedom with those who are enslaved. The longer I engage in any kind of justice work, the more convinced I am that it takes all of us playing our unique part to create a more equitable world. I wonder, as you've read, are you considering what your part might be? If so, reach out, I'd love to chat.
P.S. Turns out I might be an aftercare person after all :).
P.P.S. If you are interested in supporting the vision of The Exodus Road to pursue a world in which humans are never bought, sold, or exploited, please consider giving here.
P.P.P.S. All quotations attributed to Sola Long, Asia Aftercare Coordinator for The Exodus Road.