In a compound of bamboo houses, Aum is painting cartoon animals and flowers on the outside of her bedroom walls. Her friends are there too, and she’s teaching them painting techniques. The confidence, creativity, and artistic spirit she exudes now belies the impact her father’s absence and her parents’ separation had on her.
Born in Eastern Thailand, Aum grew up with memories of her father being frequently absent. When her mother met and married another man, however, this did not bring much more stability to her life. They moved to Chiang Rai, where her stepfather worked as a day laborer and her mother sold snacks, together bringing in only about $225 a month for their family of three to live on.
At first, it was hard for Aum to find friends. She felt distant from others, and she was a quiet kid. She knew she had to make careful choices with friendships because many of the kids in her neighborhood were troubled and, in her words, “[got] involved in many different bad things.” The area she lives in presents many pitfalls: poverty, substance abuse, a history of a high prevalence of trafficking. Even among her stepfather’s family, there is a history of involvement in sex work.
In a recent survey of parents of our students, we found that 25% had never been to school, and a further 50% had some primary school education. Aum’s own parents only had the opportunity to finish 6th grade, because they grew up in poverty. Her mother didn’t expect to be able to support Aum past 9th grade. “My mom told me the expenses were too much. I always wanted to study more but my Mom was worried she wouldn’t be able to support me. She thought we wouldn’t be able to afford it.” If she couldn’t finish her education, finding employment and a living wage would be incredibly difficult–especially for an underage girl. Given the social milieu around her, too, she would be at risk of trafficking.
Then a neighbor introduced Aum to The Freedom Story. She got a scholarship, which not only made further education possible, it opened up a different world for her: she learned about the joy of art. “When I first came to the center, I really liked the English and drawing. I really liked it. I tried to continue to study it and improve my abilities. I had never studied [it] anywhere else before.” Though she had always liked art since she was a child, and dreamed of having a gallery of her own, for the first time she felt supported in it. Having this kind of support did something else too: it unlocked her confidence. She says, “In the past, I was really quiet. But once I came in to TFS I can speak and express myself more. I am much happier now.”
Spending time at The Freedom Story also meant she had access to mentors who could advise her and workshops and learning sessions about the dangers of trafficking, child exploitation, and abuse online. She learned it so well, she began teaching it herself. “I always volunteer to go teach. It makes me feel good. I want others to know this information, and we can have less of this situation in the country. My friends come to me all the time about issues they see online. They come for advice for themselves or for other people.” She believes firmly in not talking to strangers online. “We don’t know what they want.”
What Aum Has Achieved
Now at 17, she is in her third year of vocational school studying fine art. But she’s doing more than just studying it. Recently, Aum led a team to win second place at an art competition! Run by ECPAT International, the competition on raising awareness of the negative effects of child abuse included fierce challenge from older students also competing. She didn’t think they had a chance–and she screamed when she heard the results! It’s no wonder they won, though. Reflecting on their piece, she says, “Because we’re still kids, I wanted to show that it was possible for both [girls and boys to be abused]. I wanted to say, ‘kids are the future, don’t harm them.”
Aum has a heart to help others. She says, “Preventing trafficking is good and important…If we don’t know about human trafficking, we can easily be tricked. Even more so while we were teenagers. Someone might see us and think we are easy targets if we don’t know about human trafficking. Everyone has risk, but poor kids who don’t have money are at an even greater risk of trafficking because they lack options.” She was a poor kid at risk, but with just a little bit of support to provide stability in her life, she transformed herself into a leader–not only freeing herself, but helping others as well.