“Xuân Xuân ơi ! Xuân đã về
Có nỗi vui nào vui hơn ngày Xuân đến
Xuân Xuân ơi ! Xuân đã về
Tiếng chúc giao thừa chào đón mùa Xuân…”
Sitting in a circle, we clapped in unison singing a traditional Tết song welcoming spring and wishing for a prosperous start to the year. We munched on chewy ribbons of coconut mứt and sipped on soda as laughter echoed across the spacious room decorated with beautiful displays of fruit and lì xì envelopes. I sat in awe of the resilience and joy that I have been able to witness through my experience at the Compassion House, a reintegration shelter for girls and women who have been victims of human trafficking, opened by the Pacific Links Foundation in 2010. The Pacific Links Foundation is a 501(c)(3) US-based nonprofit organization that works to “empower women and youth through improving life skills, raising self-awareness, bringing new knowledge, and opening opportunities and supportive network.”
Earlier that day, I traveled with two Pacific Links staff members from Lao Cai to the Si Ma Cai weekend market as a part of their outreach efforts to educate the public about human trafficking and common tactics that traffickers use to trick people into being trafficked.
The foundation was also there to record accounts from people who know someone who has been trafficked and thus help connect them to the proper authorities to report a missing person. The foundation chose this market to conduct their outreach efforts because it is a common place for traffickers to lure their victims, either through meeting them directly at the market or communicating with them online. I watched as people lined up to share their stories of a family member or friend who had either gone missing without notice or had been tricked into believing there was a legitimate job waiting for them. A woman came up to the table holding out a picture of her sister who had been missing for a month. They didn’t know where to begin looking for her.
Back at the Compassion House located in Lao Cai, I met young women who were recently rescued or had escaped from their traffickers. They were referred to this shelter through local authorities with whom Pacific Links works directly. Here, the young women will receive services they need before they can return home, services such as safe housing, emotional support, legal assistance, vocational training, academic schooling, and other resources. Every young woman may have varying needs and therefore receives individualized care. I chatted with a few of them who wore matching tulle black skirts, a recent purchase they had made at a nearby store. They showed me their garden where they grew fresh greens and herbs, and recommended some books I should read from their library to practice my Vietnamese. I learned about their quê and shared a bit about mine, both Vĩnh Long, Việt Nam and Orange County, California.
Through the invitation of the foundation, DVAN was asked to organize an art activity to add to the Tết celebrations. Poet, writer, and book artist Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen designed and facilitated an art workshop that asked the young women to think of an object that brought them feelings of comfort and draw that object on single strips of paper several times over. “My hope was that this repetition would give them some time to be in their bodies and thoughts, and create an emotional and mental space for them to really absorb the meaning of the things in their life that bring them comfort or help them move forward towards their futures,” said Anh-Hoa. At the end, each strip would be linked with one another, creating one collective chain made from all of their sources of comfort.
The young women drew images and wrote tales of home and family. “It was also heartwarming to see that even though we needed translation to help explain the concept and instructions of the exercise, we didn’t need language to understand how lovely the final chain of expression was to us all. In the end, art became our common language that bonded our hearts and became a bridge between cultures,” reflected Anh-Hoa. We concluded the activity by standing around the room each holding onto a piece of the chain, celebrating our shared experience before sitting down for a wonderful meal together. We sat in a circle on the floor picking at delicious delicacies prepared especially for Tết.
It was a meal I will always treasure and remember, fully recognizing that my participation did not impact them the way they have impacted me. I felt a bit guilty listening to their stories of strength, courage, and determination for survival and thriving when I couldn’t offer anything in return but a compassionate and listening ear. However, I guess that is the beauty of storytelling — to fully submit as a listener to what the storyteller chooses to share and tell and be blessed with their immense power.
I am truly grateful and feel privileged for the time I was able to spend with Pacific Link staff members and the young women of the Compassion House where I got to witness such immense compassion, care, and resilience. To learn more about the Pacific Links Foundation and their work, please visit: https://www.pacificlinks.org/.
Vina is a writer, storyteller, strategic consultant and community facilitator living in the Bay Area. During her free time, she loves hiking, exploring new bookstores, meditating, and learning how to cook more Vietnamese dishes. She is consistently envisioning a world where people can create their way to freedom. She is the co-founder of the Novalia Collective: novaliacollective.com