When Mai* was seven, her parents sent her away from their home in Myanmar to live with her aunt in Thailand so she could get a better life. It was not the promise they imagined it would be. “My life was so difficult. I had to help my aunt with everything. I had to wake up early, make breakfast, get water from the well, wash clothes for her children. I was late to school every day and was hit every day for being late, but they understood what I had to do before school. We didn’t have any money either, because my aunt was addicted to drugs. She would use all the money my parents sent for her addiction,” Mai explains. On weekends, she had to walk two hours to her aunt’s farm to help out. During the week she had to do housework, and if it wasn’t done by the time her aunt got home–for example, if the school had an activity–Mai would be hit with bamboo sticks, more than once to the point where she almost died. This was not the life her parents thought they had secured for her.
A Child At Risk
Mai couldn’t escape. She had no phone and couldn’t call her mother. Luckily when her older sister moved to Thailand for work, she was able to use a moment when her aunt was out to call her sister for help. Her sister sent money to them, but again her aunt took it all.
When Mai was in 4th grade, her uncle attempted to sexaully assault her while she was sleeping. The whole family slept in the same room, a common practice that sometimes leaves children vulnerable to abuse. Mai escaped and slept at a friend’s house for a week afterwards, afraid to go home. She told both her sister and her mom but they did not believe her. They thought she wanted to go back to Myanmar. Finally her aunt admitted it had happened.
At that point Mai moved to a local children’s home. “I felt so much better. When I lived with my aunt, that was a living hell, but when I went to the dorm that was heaven. I was so relaxed, I didn’t have to think about anything,” she explains.
Through the children’s home, Mai became acquainted with The Freedom Story staff. When she was 14, she was accepted into the scholarship program. The financial support allowed Mai to continue in school, and her staff mentor became a source of emotional support in her turbulent life.
To study for her high school vocational degree in tourism and pursue her dream of becoming a tour guide, Mai moved from the children’s home to live with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in the city. However this move also proved disastrous. While there, her safety was again violated when her sister’s boyfriend attempted to sexually assault her. At first it started with teasing, and inviting her to do things, until one day he was standing in only a towel in front of her asking, “Do you know how to use a condom? I can teach you, come to my room.” Mai felt beholden to him living in his house, but she refused his advances. Mai reached out to another relative in the city and asked to move in with her.
Meanwhile, despite graduating from the vocational degree program, Mai’s hopes of becoming a tour guide were dashed. As an immigrant, she did not have the right legal status to become a guide. She decided to further her education by studying to become a beautician, in the hopes of one day opening her own salon. But her family had no money to support her. She’d have to cover all her expenses herself. Determined to further her education, she decided to study at the open university, as it would allow her to work and study at the same time.
The Freedom Story was able to cover her school expenses, but Mai had to find a way of making enough money to support her living expenses in a way that didn’t involve working in the daytime when she needed to study. Her sister was working in a bar at that time, and invited her to work there too. “At first I told her, ‘I don’t want to do it…I fought with her so many times…But I needed money.”
At first, working at the bar and making enough money to support herself was a source of immense pride. But it was a double-edged sword because Mai was taking on a lot of risk.
To keep herself safe, Mai had to know her boundaries. She is very articulate about how effective the lures of trafficking are. She said, “If you offer money, nowadays, people will go anywhere. If you don’t love yourself, if you don’t see your value, people will go. If you think money is more important than yourself, you will go. I have people who invited me to leave the bar with them for money. [Editor’s note: leaving the bar with someone is generally a euphemism for going home with a client to perform sexual favors in exchange for money.] I always tell myself, ‘No matter how much money it is, I am not going with them.’ It’s just money, you can always find more money. It’s not worth it for the money–we don’t know what they will do.”
How Support Secured Her Freedom
Mai’s incredible resilience and strength is evident in how steadfast she kept to her dreams. She knows her value; it was only support that she needed to pursue her dreams. “The Freedom Story has helped me so much. It helped cover my school expenses. Without the scholarship, I don’t know where I’d be. It has taken so much weight off of me. And I’ve had so much encouragement. And people to ask for advice. I can’t ask my sister anything. She didn’t get a chance to study. I have no one I can ask. If I want to do something, I have to think about it alone, and sometimes I just don’t know what to do. When I come to The Freedom Story, I have people to talk to and I get so much praise and support ….Not only that, but I’ve learned so much through the trainings. Last year, I joined a training on legal status and learned a lot about what my options to pursue full citizenship might be.”
In early 2020, Mai graduated with her beautician degree and no longer works in the bar. She used the money she made to open her own salon and employ her sisters. “I wanted to work in this to save money, so I could study, so that I could open my beauty salon, so I can pull my sisters in to work with me, to pull them out of that cycle.” She used her opportunities to not only pursue her own freedom, but to liberate her sisters as well.
Having a strong foundation of support is essential for children at risk to grow beyond their circumstances. Stability is what secured Mai’s freedom, and the freedom of her sisters too. We know COVID-19 has increased risk of domestic violence, like what Mai herself had suffered. Will you help us provide the stability to secure freedom for children in 2021? Please help us reach our goal of raising $50,000 by the end of 2020 to protect vulnerable children and keep them safe through next year. Every gift will be matched for double the impact!
*The student’s name has been changed, and the photo does not depict her, in order to protect her privacy.