There I saw her. Dressed in red, on a bench opposite the embassy. A mother of five, I would later find out. Drawn into prostitution to simply make enough money to get by after her abusive husband left her.
Life in Phnom Penh is rough if you are on the poverty line, single and alone. She was the same age as me, 30 at the time. I felt embarrassed at the simplicity and selfishness of my life in contrast.
We visited her home and met her family in the dark, musty streets – one small, dirty room where she worked and the kids played – and I remember feeling the hopelessness of the situation. As we got chatting, she told me that she loved to paint nails.
Her eyes lit up as we talked about it and a beautiful, strange idea popped into my head… perhaps, just perhaps, she could come and do our nails. We were a big group, and I knew people would give generously. So we asked our hotel whether she could come, and the next evening, she did.
Over those two evenings she had the dignity of doing something different, something meaningful and purposeful for her – and making money for it. One year on, and my sources tell me that she has never returned to prostitution and had managed to find another job.
I pondered how such a small thing made such a big change. Was it the act of kindness? Was it the spare cash she got from us as a group of well-meaning tourists? I concluded it was perhaps something else. Hope. Hope of a better, more purposeful future. And the belief that she was worthy of it. The ink of her story was beginning to be written with hope.
It’s a funny term, ‘hope’. I like to think of it as ‘joyful expectation of good’. It’s contagious. Seeing good, and experiencing goodness, helps you believe goodness will knock on your door again.
For the survivors of trafficking that we work with, every story of transformation begins with a seed of hope. And we use this hope to fulfil our purpose: to empower survivors of trafficking to build hope-filled futures. To start to write their stories with hope. And we have seen some beautiful futures start to emerge as we foster this hope, which we’ve been sharing with you.
Before you go, let me tell you another story.
We finally get on the tube together. It’s taken an early morning trip to a safe house on the other side of London to persuade Chiara* to come on her placement day with a tailoring company as part of our Day 46 programme.
Sometimes it can be hard to believe something might just work out when your life looks like Chiara’s had – prostituted by her uncle from a young age, and then trafficked around the UK for several years.
Four hours later, she’s beaming. Her tutor is astonished. “We’ve never seen anyone pick this up so fast,” she exclaimed as Chiara busily hums away on the sewing machine. Chiara looks up, and with a mixture of emotion – both happy and sad – she said: “I never knew I was good at anything.”
Tears prick in her eyes, and in mine, and we look at each other. And I knew I saw hope. “This day has changed my life,” she said. It sounds dramatic, but it really had, as hope struck again.
Chiara has since moved cities, and has started working with another tutor there, who is helping her build her natural talent for tailoring to prepare her for the future.
So yes, this I truly believe: as one story leads to another, the ink they’re written in is hope.
*Not her real name.
Over the next few days, threads will be highlighting more stories of hope, as told by facilitators from the Sophie Hayes Foundation, who work with survivors of modern-day slavery to help them regain a sense of hope and confidence.