One year ago, I shared a story that was difficult to write; a story that was difficult to admit. I shared with the world of our dear Srey Pich. Srey Pich was one of the first women hired within Landmine Design. Srey Pich was just 17 years old when she went missing one year ago.
Sharing the reality of her story was difficult. Srey Pich had left the LandMine Design program. She had left her family. She had left the safety of her village, and no one knew where she was. Our hearts crumbled at the thought that she could have been in the throws of a horrific story of human trafficking. I remember, in an effort to find words for the state of my heart, looking up the definition of heartache — 'emotional anguish or grief, typically caused by the loss or absence of someone loved.’ My grief was her absence. For many nights I shook awake, only to sink further into the difficult reality of the work in which we’re involved in - the preventative side of human trafficking. For our staff, its grappling effects were the epitome of leaning in and learning the hard way. Not knowing where she was or if she was safe made the hard way feel cold and void of hope.
A year later, Srey Pich has made it back to The Minefield Village.
Upon receiving the news, my heart rejoiced. Although we did not know the full story, we had received the report that Srey Pich had made it back to the village and was safe once again. Initial thoughts and visions of reuniting, getting back to work in Landmine Design, and letting her community wrap her in safety flooded my mind.
I just recently made it back to The Minefield Village to visit Srey Pich for the very first time since before she went missing. Before visiting her home, I asked the other women about her; an uncomfortable silence filled the room. I asked questions nervously: well, do you ever see her? is she happy? are you a friend to her? why doesn’t anyone know anything about her? I realized I was growing frustrated, a frustration the women did not deserve targeted their way. I believe my heart was preparing itself, and its sadness had nothing to do with anything they had ever done wrong. It had everything to do with trafficking prevention and the very cycle of poverty we are working tirelessly to fight against.
I walked nervously towards her. As I approached, I saw a young girl swinging in a tattered hammock under an unstable hut; there was Srey Pich. Now an 18 year old, she is a mother to one, and a wife to an older man.
I approached nervously and said her name. It was met with the same bright smile I had thought about through so many sleepless nights. Tears of joy filled my eyes as I bent down to hug her frail figure. I sat beside her as a gentleness flooded the air. In an effort to catch up, I began to ask questions. Srey Pich was timid and I read shame on her face. Her mother began to speak these words through our translator:
"She misses you guys. She talks about you all the time. She’s shy though, and she doesn’t feel like she can go back to her friends. Since she left her life is different now. She will just stay in her hut with her baby now."
I asked about her husband, they shared that he is gone most of the time doing contract work in Thailand. I asked Srey Pich if she liked being a mom, she smiled shyly and said “It’s hard, I don’t want another baby.”
I grew quiet and tried to turn my face away. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes and my heart-shattering. I felt ashamed of my sadness; I should have celebrated her safety, right? I should have rejoiced and celebrated her new family, right? But I wasn’t, I couldn’t. Srey Pich was one of the lucky few to return home safely. Redemption was right before my eyes. But truth be told, I dreamed a vastly different story for Srey Pich.
The fact of the matter is, as a staff we felt the feelings of failure. There we were, with a front row seat to the cycle of poverty - the very cycle that birthed heartache strong enough to start Landmine Design years ago. The very cycle we’ve seen strip women of opportunity, isolate them in fear, and leverage their vulnerability for profit.
As Srey Pich swayed in that hammock with her new baby, I thought of the lonely days before her with her husband gone, the isolation she believes is her story, and her fear to return to the community that was once home. Whether she chose it or not, there she was - an impoverished, vulnerable mother with little education living in poverty.
Before she went missing, we were writing a new story together. Today, in sad honesty, it is still one of heartache. My anguish was no longer the unknown but the known; my grief no longer her absence but her presence in the very heart of poverty.
You see, this is the raw reality of leaning in and learning the hard way. We don’t have clear answers for why Srey Pich fell to the cycle of poverty once more. Yet, our hearts have been convicted enough to continue moving forward; to continue leaning into the question of “why?” propelling us towards the solution of how.
Today, we’ll continue providing dignified work to women of worth. We’ll continue building a foundation through education. We’ll raise up leaders for a generation of children deserving a life far beyond the walls of poverty. Srey Pich will most likely not be our first loss, and we’re learning to admit this is okay; because how can one encounter their courage and desire to win without experiencing the feeling of loss?