*Ed’s note: this story is fiction, but based on historically true events.
Let me share a story with you.
There was a young girl in Cambodia named Chantou.
Chantou was a quiet girl, she was studious and never caused any problems. She dreamt of a future becoming a successful businesswoman and opening her own restaurant.
In her family, she was closest with her grandma, who often plucked tropical flowers to place behind her ear, and combed her old, beautifully wrinkled brown fingers through Chantou’s young, silk hair. Everyone complimented her parents on what a pretty girl she was. Sadly her family was poor—poor beyond most measures; they resided in a shanty designed of cardboard and tin in the middle of the bustle of Phnom Penh.
One winter night her parents decided to say yes to an offer. A woman asked them to sell their daughter to a café, and they would receive a small monthly stipend for her service work as a waitress. Unbeknownst to them, this “café” was a front for the darkest of evils: a brothel. The night of her sale was the last time Chantou would ever see her parents.
For the following years, she was trafficked from man to man, enduring bruises to her body and soul, slowly forgetting her family, her grandma, her sister, her identity, and dreams.
By the age of 20, she had been raped countless times by white monsters in the dark hole, the name given to the brothel by its children. She barely had a will to live. The only sign of life at the dark hole was a tiny flower growing through the cracked cement of its entrance.
From the basement of her imprisonment, Chantou strained to look out the tiny, fist-sized window that overlooked concrete to see this little flower’s colors. She looked at her hands one day, and hardly recognized them as her own; the cracks in them looked like her grandmother’s. Around this time, she was purchased for good and escorted on a flight to the United States. Upon landing, she saw a police officer in the customs line. She looked him dead in the eye, silently screaming for help.
Chantou thought on repeat, “Will he notice? Will he notice? Will he notice?” A single tear fell heavy from her eye, crashing onto the tile floor below as the officer stood stoically, looking through her onto the sea of travelers beyond.
Chantou’s new life of torture in the United States seemed to strangle her no less than her captivity in Cambodia. She had one final thread of hope that she may one day escape. On a stormy night in June, she took it one last time.
After the abuse, Chantou’s captor stumbled into the bathroom and complacently left the door to the room of her exploitation unbolted, and unlatched. This was her golden chance for escape. She slid off the mattress, and silent as a mouse, tiptoed across the room so no floorboard made a creak. She squeezed her body through the crack of the front door and into the rain she ran. Her body got big and bold as she gained speed. She ran and ran as fast as humanly possible, her humble lungs breathing heat until the rain caught fire, not even noticing her bare feet tearing against the concrete, leaving a trail of tears and blood.
She learned of a women’s shelter that a nice stranger brought her to. It was in the outskirts of New York City. She stayed there for some time, in hiding, just feeling the breath in her body return again. Maybe it was weeks, maybe it was months, but before long, she started her life anew, working at a local café. This time, a real café with fair-trade Central American coffee beans.
Every day she looked forward to her work: it was a safe haven, and a place to make her first friends in life. Her work afforded her rent for a small space in the basement of an odd building. She didn’t like being underground again, but she was alive. She didn’t mind her small living quarters. Besides, nothing could be smaller than the shanty she once knew for the first nine years of her life in Phnom Penh. She made it her own, bringing in the café’s leftover, almost wilting flowers that would otherwise be tossed at the end of each week. She placed them tenderly in a cup by her bedside to try to keep her place colorful and cheery.
She liked that her name Chantou means “flower” in her native Khmer language. She proudly told her landlord once about the meaning of her name, and he smirked whispering, “Pretty…like you.” Was that’s why he gave her near-to-nothing rent, because he thought this? Regardless, she was thankful for a home, her own home. Yet she would rarely sleep a full night.
She would often wake in hot or cold chills that were brought by the nightmares that cycled her mind with the torment of her passed life. No matter how much time passed, those memories wouldn’t dissolve.
Big hands gripping her. The dark hole.
One night, her landlord was drunk and in he entered. He had his way with her. She tried to get him to stop, saying she’d tell the police, but he threatened her saying he would get her fired. That couldn’t happen. He was a powerful man in the community, owning many businesses. His sweaty pores seeped the wretched smell of alcohol onto her beautiful, bronzed skin.
A few weeks passed and she finally built the courage to go to the police. They questioned her as if to not believe her, and said it wouldn’t be realistic to pursue charges, because she didn’t have evidence; too much time had passed. The police seemed to have bigger fish to fry. She was sent away, and as she walked out, a cop made an off the cuff remark saying she should be grateful she is still here, “A lot of women don’t get out of those situations alive.”
Years passed by. Chantou got married in her late 20s. Life was starting to be better; the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter. She met a decent man, one of her customers at the café. He bought a coffee from her every day, visiting with her, building her trust with his eyes that cared and his ears that listened.
It took a year for her to finally say yes to go on a date with him. But after her first date, she knew he was good. She knew she was safe in his arms. It was the first time she had slept a full night since living in her childhood shanty.
Seasons passed and in Chantou grew a heartfelt hope for a new life. He proposed and she said yes. She often thought of opening a restaurant with him. Like the dreams she once had as a child. She’d imagine the recipes she learned from her grandma, reminiscing over smells of ginger, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves swirling in the stews they would cook together.
But like a ship at sail, her memory would drift into dark waters, and she’d be overcome with unspeakable sadness over what her parents did…and her little sister. She wondered if Bella was also sold into human trafficking. Where is she now? She tried for months searching for her. Her husband pleaded with her, “Honey, we’ve tried so long, you’ll likely never find her. Maybe it’s time to let it go.”
Chantou’s husband didn’t know the dark truth about her past. “Maybe he’s right,” Chantou thought, but still she couldn’t help but to try one last time on an Internet search engine. Her sister’s name appeared in an article from the local news. As she read, Chantou’s cheeks became a riverbed of hot tears. Bella was raped and beat. She died in the hospital a few days later. She was here. Chantou’s jaw clenched and her tears dried to salt.
Her sister was so close and she didn’t know. Who trafficked her here? Even if she knew, “What difference would it make?” she thought, as she reflected on her experience of the broken system.
Chantou flashed back to her darkest, powerless hours. During the nights that preceded her great escape she remembered thinking, “If somebody dies it’s not going to be me.” How her heart ached, knowing it was someone she loved. She managed her whole life to deal with her own trauma, but the survivor’s guilt of her sister’s loss was too much.
Discouraged, hopeless, and heartbroken, she walked into her local church that she and her husband attended together. She sat in a pew, with legs and arms tightly crossed, her back hunched over, and chest sunken. A beaming, smiling man sat down next to her and introduced himself as Deacon Dee, “Just call me Dee. How can I help you?” She noticed how he resembled her old landlord.
Through her barely parted teeth, she slowly whispered, “Can I…trust you?” She had never told her story, but she wanted to. She was ready to share it for the first time. To heal.
Still smiling, he replied, “Yes.”
Cautiously, her eyes lifted from a soft gaze on the crucifix and looked into his. “I haven’t been able to trust men because I’ve been hurt…” That’s as far as he let her get before eagerly interjecting, “We’ve all been hurt with heartache and sorrow before, sweetheart. But it doesn’t mean you can’t trust me. Of course you can. I am a man who loves people and don’t consider myself judgmental. I have donated the majority of my adult productive life to youth and hospitals and jails and family and am always grateful to do more, if possible. I do not expect anything in return, and I am not paid for my services. So you see, you can trust me.”
Chantou crumbled at his words. She forced a reply, “I need help.”
Was she disappearing into the dust that lined the pews? Her attempt at words dissolved into a fixed gaze on the floor and her ears became as tone deaf as his, while he continued to talk at her, “God bless us all, especially those in greatest need.” He continued, “Everyone has suffering. But no one must expect a handout.”
Chantou’s mind questioned—what did he think she was there for? She never asked for a handout. Deacon Dee was now preaching, as if from the pulpit: “Regardless of who has hurt you, Chantou, We are taught to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us…”
“Pray for our enemy?!” Chantou muttered.
“Yes, and even ask for the forgiveness of the sins of our own executioners. We are, after all, in the house of the Holy Father, it’s the perfect place of forgiveness, so let us pray…”
Her stomach turned and her vision started to black out as her mind went on rewind. She knew prayer well, she prayed in the dark hole for it to stop, in the airport, in the streets of New York, and the last night in the house of her own mother and father, where she was sold into the most unholy of places.
Deacon Dee encouraged her, “You see, whatever your problems are, you must surrender them to the powerful force of our Creator’s love. Just surrender. Let go of your past. That’s how you’ll pick yourself up and you won’t need anyone’s help, you’ll never have to ask for help again.”
She swallowed hard as she flashed through the years she was made to surrender. Surrender.
An earthquake rose in her bones, rumbling with God’s power. Chantou’s soul ruptured and she didn’t know if she was screaming on the inside or the outside. Every inch of her body burst from the ache of the life that was taken from her. Her rage settled back to silence. The deacon kindly sat there. He placed a hand on her shoulder and the other on his heart as he went into deep prayer with his eyes closed, “We are all precious and loved by Love Itself, the creative substance of the universe…”
Chantou stood up. Her knees snapped straight which elevated her to her feet. The deacon looked surprised. She didn’t bother going any further with this mute counseling session. He would never understand. She knew she needed somebody to help her process lifelong grief and trauma, not somebody who assumed she was asking for a handout while praying at her like she was an object of veneration.
As she rose, her lips formed these words, “I see you do good work in the hospitals, and jails, and for youth. I see you are a good man but I must leave now.”
The deacon continued to smile at her. At her. He never saw her in that moment, and he would never see her again. She walked out of the church, taking one last glance at the cross of Jesus.
Day by day, Chantou prayed and prayed to be free, often waking at night in a silent shriek. Sometimes the nightmares fade, sometimes they become more real than ever before. But life continues on, and over the third decade of her life, Chantou and her husband were blessed with three incredible children. She was amazed at their joy. People would tell her that her children were beautiful, her youngest one was described, “as precious as a flower.”
She never let her daughters interact with men. Ever. Her behavior taught them to distrust everyone except her and their father. Chantou now had a good life, a wonderful family, and was surrounded by love. She was in a free, prosperous country, unlike the oppression and poverty of Cambodia. She reflected, Shouldn’t she feel free? Shouldn’t she feel unbroken? Shouldn’t she feel whole?
From time to time, words of oppression, heard over her lifetime, echo through her heart like a hallow canyon, “Surrender. Stop fighting. Let it go. Move on.”
She can’t. Because she was never safe at her home, she was never believed when she reported crime, and her trauma continued to live on in the small injustices she faced each day. She hit a boiling point when she discovered her sister’s life was over.
Chantou can’t heal until her story is acknowledged and recognized, until her husband has empathy, until police officers see her, and until community members listen to her and believe her and dignify her. One day she will feel safe in her skin, in her community, in this world, but until then she is unhealed. Because everywhere she looks, her story is ignored and overlooked—just like the police officer who gazed past her at the airport. She will never heal until somebody has interest in her past and says sorry.
All she wants is for somebody to see her and let her know what happened is wrong. For somebody to protect her and for somebody to promise her that she is free and worthy of respect and that she can live safely, without fear that her body will ever be taken as property again.
Even though Chantou teaches her children to distrust, she delights in their playful freedom. She rejoices when their voices boom, and lets them choose whatever activity they wish, each day of summer. They choose the playground across town, so they walk there every day.
One afternoon as Chantou was walking her children home from their beloved time at the park, they walked past a sole wilting wildflower in a barren field.
It was growing in dry, cracked earth.
She paused, gave it some thought, and then decided to uproot it and take it home to give it new life. And so it grew.
You see, acknowledging the past of anyone’s story requires empathy, the capacity to recognize injustice, and a conscious effort for restoration. It takes a humble love with a willingness to work.
Right now, in this moment in history, we have the opportunity to counsel a wounded woman. Will we arrogantly bypass her story suggesting to buck up and move on, or will we look her in the eye and say, “I’m sorry, how can I help you?”
The story of Chantou represents the historical and ongoing plight for justice, equality, respect, dignity, and freedom of the native indigenous and people of color in the United States.