Most of you may know about the colossal events that have happened in my life this past year. But for those of you who don’t know, here the bullet points since my last blog post….
• I quit my 15+ year career in the salon in America.
• I sold everything I own.
• I moved to Cambodia indefinitely.
Yup. You read that right. I moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to help build a salon and teach Cosmetology School full time with The Trade. It was a decision I didn’t come to lightly, but it was a decision I felt that was already made for me long before I stepped foot on Khmer soil.
I’ve been teaching with The Trade for 4 years now and something struck me differently about Cambodia than the other places I’ve been to. It was hotter then Africa, more humid than Brazil, and dustier than Mexico. On paper it seemed as though this would be the last place I’d ever want to come back to. Yet, despite all its negative qualities on paper, I saw beneath the surface and I truly came to love this place. This country is full of history, charm, and love. Every other place I’ve traveled to has these same qualities, but for some reason Cambodia got under my skin and nuzzled right up to my soul.
I first came to Cambodia in August 2013 to teach beauty school to 8 beautiful girls who all desired to have a career in Hair Styling. They each craved opportunity they didn’t otherwise have. Upon coming home from that first trip, all I could do was count down the days until I got back. Melissa Lingo and I shared dreams of Christmas in Cambodia and the possibility of “one day….” but as much as we dreamed, for the mean time that’s all it really was. We went back in February 2014 and I knew my calling was upon me. We both knew. It was as if all the life we had lived up until now had been preparing us for this. Funny how God works like that.
On November 11, I boarded a plane with my life packed tightly away into three suitcases and didn’t look back! I’ve been there for two months now. In this short time, I have seen two of my incredibly talented friends, Brett Wagoner and Nate Prusso, build an upscale salon out of crocked 2×4′s, wrapped 1×8′s, and no Home Depot, eaten a tarantula, bought a moto, crashed a moto (more than once), landed myself in the hospital as a resulted of infected wounds from said moto crash, transported furniture on the back of Melissa’s Pepto-pink moto, worked all day on Thanksgiving, met some amazing people, met some not-so amazing people, breathed in a questionable amount of lead paint, fought spiders and mosquitos from destroying our clothing, battled red fire ants from eating all of the food in our kitchen, been to Thailand and back, fed street kids on Christmas, cut off Melissa’s hair, gotten more bug bites, scraps, and bruises than I care to count, laughed, cried, and everything in between.
To be honest, Cambodia has kinda beaten me up. I’d have to be an idiot to think moving from the most affluent of first world countries to one of the most impoverished of third world countries would be easy. I just never knew how hard it will be until I did it. Losing people I thought would always have and gaining friends I never thought I would. It’s hard everyday. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. Physically. All of the above. This life isn’t for everyone, but I know its for me. For now at least. And I couldn’t be more thankful.
NGO workers turned furniture deliverers…
Some amazing people….
Some not-so amazing people….
The craftsmanship of Nathan Prusso…
….. and Brett Wagoner.
The salon is almost complete! More pictures coming soon…
To put it mildly, my last day in Cambodia was a roller coaster of emotions. Sadness that I’m leaving. Joy that one day soon I will return. Pride in seeing my girls work so hard. Fear for what is to come next. Anxiety for all the girls left in brothels fighting to survive. Hope for their future. I’m left so filled and so empty at the same time.
Three of my amazing friends from my church, Alex, Lisa, and Pam, came out to see all the work AIM is doing to free women and girls from sex slavery, from rescuing to housing to job placement.
Since I’ve started my work with The Trade, I’ve bragged about all the talented women I’ve had the privilege to teach, so I was so thrilled to take them to Rahab’s Salon, a salon where some of my students are working as certified hair stylists. Lisa, Pam, and Alex all came to have their hair done.
Alex went first. His stylist was so nervous! She had never cut someone hair who wasn’t Cambodian. Alex is very tall. Like most Cambodian women, she is very petite. As he sat down in her chair he was still much taller than her, so she hid behind him and whispered to me in her Khmer accent, “D, you do for me!” I giggled and shook my head at her. She nervously and quickly set up her station and began cutting with clippers searching for my approval with each cut. Thirty minutes later she looked to me to check to make sure she passed. Now, Alex is Lebanese and his hair is very curly and course. American stylists would called his hair unruly. In Cambodia, they would call his hair “cha-cood” (translation: crazy!). Just a few adjustments needed to be made and his hair cut was perfect!
Next up was Lisa for a shampoo and style. The salon was shorty staffed that day so I shampooed Lisa’s hair. When I was finished, she sat in her chair and she began blow drying taking such care of each section as she round brushed. Forty-five minutes later Lisa’s hair was perfectly and beautifully coiffed!
Now, it was Pam’s turn and she got the works! A Khmer style shampoo with scalp massage with a trim and style. Pam was so happy to have her cut her hair. Before she started to blow dry I told her that Pam likes her hair messy, tousled. and textured. Those are 3 things that all Cambodian girls are trying to escape. They want their hair sleekly and straight despite the humidity. Half way through I saw how smooth she was styling it and went over to her and messed it up and said, “No. Like this!” The second I turned around, she combed it smoothed and Pam just laughed out loud! Oh, well. Pam still looked great!
After everyone’s hair was done they paid her. In this part of town, a man’s hair cut is $2. A woman’s hair cut is $1. A shampoo with massage and style is $2. Even with these inexpensive prices, gratuity isn’t customary or even expected. One by one they paid her quadruple and then some of she would normally make. Each one of them left her dumb founded. She couldn’t believe anyone would pay her what they did. As they left I stayed with her. Her eyes began to fill with tears. Overwhelmed and grateful at the trust that foreigners would have in her, she hug me tight and said, “Thank you, D!” She put her money away and skipped all the way home.
Later that evening, we went to dinner in the Beer Gardens. That’s the nickname people prefer to use to brothels. It just doesn’t sound as wrong if you say your going to “The Beer Gardens” right?
Rahab’s Salon sits in the heart of the red light district and caters to women and girls still working in hundreds of brothels on dodgy red dirty roads. They come daily to the salon to have their hair and makeup done for the night. Foreigners only visit this part of town if they have an intent purpose in seeking prostitution. Korean and Chinese business men frequent this area of Siem Reap by the bus load. Even middle aged American men will show up to the Beer Gardens every now and then.
The group of us walked up to the front and the madam met us outside to greet us and ensured us that we’d be very satisfied with her selection of girls. As soon as she turn around, all the girls sitting in a row stood up so militantly so we could examine them one by one and made our choice as to who would be our hostess for the evening. Employees of AIM go to these places regularly to have dinner with girls and establish a trusting relationship and to let them know they can have freedom and protection from this dangerous life. The two girls we chose are two that they have met with a few times. Although serious and straight faced first, as soon as the conversation began they were giggling and happy. Half way through dinner, a very large air-conditioned tour bus drove up to the brothel. One by one each of men who entered examined the girls who stood before them and stopped to give blessings to a statue of Buddha just inside the door. No more than 5 minutes later, our girls where summoned to entertain the high paying business men.
They politely said goodbye and where on their way to the table adjacent to ours. As we were finishing our dinner, we invited our waitress to sit with us. She was a sweet innocent young girl, no more than 15. It was her first week serving food in this brothel and her sister was a prostitute there. Having young girls start out serving is a very common way to glamorize what the girls are doing and lure in desperate poverty stricken young girls to what their pimps call “a life of luxury”. After a short conversation with her, Bella (our translator) got her number and will begin English classes next week and AIM is already starting to find another job for her. WIN! A girl who was destined to prostitute herself to dozens of strangers weekly now will guard her innocence and be free from the bonds that hold her sister so tightly.
We left that night feeling so wonderful that a young girl was saved from ever having to endure a life of prostitution. However, her sister is still left there. The two girls we had dinner with are still there. Over 50,000 girls are left within the bonds of sex slavery in the small town of Siem Reap. Over 30 Million people are enslaved all over the world.
Therefore, we fight. Until justice is served.
A week in and each day is getting heavier. We know our girls now on a much deeper and more personal level. Their families. Their kids. Their habits. Their lives. The more we know about them the more we love them and desire for them to find success.
Yesterday after a long day of teaching and brainstorming with the team in the 90′ heat and 95% humidity, we went out to see the brothels at night. Knowing where they came from gives us more motivation to continue our work here.
Proactively dressed young girls lined up like cattle was horrific. The bright flashing brothel lights were mesmerizing and intoxicating to anyone passing by. Luring in men young and old to fulfill their perverted fantasies with girls who are left broken and empty inside. As enticing as the brothels are, they each tell such stories of lies and despair and each of their pale painted faces feared any outcome of the night.
“You know you want to.”
“Haven’t you always wondered?”
“Please choose me!”
“Don’t choose me!”
“If you don’t choose me, I won’t be able to eat tomorrow.”
“If you do choose me, I will be at your mercy.”
“If I am left to your mercy, please, God, let me survive.”
Terror and numbness on their each precious faces left us all feeling hopeless as we slowly rode by each brothel, one by one.
On our way, we ran into our student who is still working in the brothels. She is one of the brightest and most talented students we have ever taught in any of our programs around the world. Her goal to start her own salon is driven by her wanting financial success, as well as helping sustain her mother as well as provide for her brothers and sisters.
It startled us a bit to see her dressed the way she was. Pale faced with long dark hair extensions and the highest of heels. Such a beautiful girl naturally that her ensemble was so distracting. Having no shame at all, she waved and was genuinely happy to see us knowing we’d never look down on her. We all see her for the silly little rascal she is with her button nose, squeaky laugh, and big smile. We usually see her racing to school just after 9am on her bike in Hello Kitty pajamas and a baseball hat exhausted from working all night. The fact the she arrives to school 20 minutes late would normally cause us to reprimand her, but in this case we are happy she shows up to school at all. From school, she hops back on her bike riding along the dusty dirt roads and goes home for a quick bite to eat and then she is off to work in a salon across town. In between a busy day with customers, she is getting ready to work in the brothel at night. As soon as she is done with a busy day doing hair and makeup in the salon around 9pm, she walks across the street to the brothel where she forced to drink alcohol, do drugs, and service men sometimes until 4am. At 9am she is back on her bike racing to school along the dusty dirt roads and her day starts all over again.
This is a typical day for her. An average day for a girl who is determined to never give up. A girl who deeply loves and respects her mother. A girl who will stop at nothing to succeed. A girl who is often ridiculed for her “choice” to work in a brothel night after night. A girl who despite her current career path has goals for owning her own business one day. A girl who manages to go to school and work 2 jobs on only 4 hours of sleep a night. A girl who dreams of having a husband who will love and treat her the way God intended for a man to love a woman. A girl I look up to and admire for all the courage I couldn’t have given the circumstances she was given.
We, as Americans, often complain being here. About the heat and humidity, the dust and dirt. But for our Khmer girls, it is their life. My team and I live in a dormitory-like house on metal bunk beds with 2″ plastic mattress adorned with hot pink mosquito nets, a bathroom with gaping holes in the ceiling, a shower with little to no water pressure, spiders and cockroaches coming out of every corner, floors that are impossible to stay clean, a kitchen stove that works only when it feels like it, and a washing machine that makes all our clothes smell like mold, B.O. and cigarettes.
Our students all live in either a safe house much like our dormitory home (sans air conditioning) with 20 other girls who have been rescued from brothels OR in very humble and tiny un-air conditioned houses with their families who they are often the sole providers for. And they are all proud to call where they live their home. They are proud to invite us to visit, cook us dinner, and welcome into their lives. They give even though they have nothing. They live daunting lives, yet they choice to smile and find the joy every day. Because of the example these girls have set, there’s no place I’d rather be.
The perspective I have gained from this culture and our students is overwhelming. I have learned such incredible life lessons from every one of our girls. Lessons of humility, determination, patience and faith. All things God wants to instill in me. Like Mother Teresa said, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”
And that’s just who they are to me.
I couldn’t be more excited to be back in Cambodia. My journey in this eccentric country began in the summer of 2013. I yearned to write about my experiences but found it difficult to get these captivating and intricate thoughts onto paper. You see, it was hard to put into words- the beauty, poverty, charm, ignorance, love, and the hate that makes up the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia. As much of an irony as those characterizes are, they completely encompass these grounds and it was important that I become competent of that. I hate the poverty, but love the beauty I find in every sweet child, naked and dirty, with a smile from ear to ear. I hate the ignorance, but love the charm in every girl who sees a hope for a future that her society won’t allow her to have. The biggest irony of them all though, is that some may call these girls naive and their dreams hopeless but I… I call them warriors.
My first day back to school- I run into the salon (which was built for our students so they would have a place to work as soon as they were done with school) and am immediately overwhelmed with the space…its lovely! Wood floors, track lighting, and a beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling. I was so happy to finally see it in person. Even more than the space, though, I was most ecstatic to see the girls. They ran towards me as we squealed and jumped up and down like a bunch of giddy school girls! It has been 6 long months of missing them and I was overjoyed that I finally with them again. My feelings of a proud mama were overwhelming with how much they have grown from the first time I meet them 7 months ago.
After school that day, a student invited me and one of the other instructors, Heidi, to her salon, which is one the other side of town. It was Heidi’s last day and she wanted to give her a manicure as a going away gift. As we waited for her to finish with another client, we began chatting with them, along with the salon owner ( mind you, in our broken Khmer and their broken English). As we shared our passions and purpose for being here, she asked for me personally, to cut her hair and our student’s client asked for Heidi to do her makeup. Although a small gesture to many, this was a bonding experience that broke through language barriers and allowed us to share love and friendship. This was just another normal day in the salon.
After I was done cutting and styling the owners hair, our student’s next client came in. She was a sweet smiley girl, no more than 15. She greeted us all before she bounced into her stylist’s chair. She pulled out a small bag from her purse and began doing her makeup at the same time as her hair was being done. We became intrigued as her demeanor slowly started to transform coinciding with her new face and hairstyle. Starting with her foundation, which would have better suited for my pale skin rather than her natural deep olive tone, I was mesmerized at how her spark dimmed with each pass of her makeup sponge. As the stylist finished her hair and as her face turned geisha white, she added pastel pink blush, black eyeliner, mascara, and bright pink lip gloss. I sat across the salon from her gazing at her reflection in the mirror which was filled with so much sadness. Holding my breath was all I could do not to cry, knowing that in 5 minutes she would walk across the street to work at the largest brothel in this red light district…A brothel that caters to men from all over the world.
The young girl paid her hair stylist $1 and left without saying goodbye to anyone. Her head down and so focused, as if she were talking herself into what she was about to do. I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that this was the life that my students used to live every night. Night after night. This is a reality for thousands of girls in this city. This is a reality for millions of girls all over the world. And now, this is still the reality of one of our beauty school students. I kept telling myself that one was too many, that there had to be more I could do…
The Bystander Effect (if you don’t know what that is, shame on you and Google it!) happens on a daily basis. I promised myself that I would never be a bystander. Ever. No matter how uncomfortable the situation. Today, a horrible feeling and guilt and shame came over me. Why didn’t I continue to talk to her? Why didn’t I try to stop her from leaving? Why didn’t I help her? Was I a “bystander”? Today, was I the one thing I promised I’d never be?
I dwelled on her for while. Too long maybe. But being right in front of a girl who is suiting up for the fight of her life is the motivation I need to continue my work here. While she is fighting to survive tonight, I will fight for her further. However long it takes, I will fight.
I keep telling myself that one is too many…
Photography and Direction: Amanda Peixoto-Elkins
Assistant Director: Sara Higley
Hair: Lady Dianna
Hair Assistant: Susana Cordova
Makeup: Kristina Goldberg
Makeup Assistants: Katie Johnson and Joseph Advari
Styling: Mary Lalittle
Styling Assistant: Twyla Monti and Lisee Moore