By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Dec. 15, Seattle natives Thuy Do and her husband, Jesse Robbins, met Linh Doan, director of One Body Village (OBV) in Cambodia. They had a long day ahead. They would visit two villages, where Do, a doctor, would be examining 30 patients. The villages stand in stark contrast to the modernity of nearby Phnom Penh.
Built with makeshift materials, the villages are inhabited by poor Vietnamese immigrants. It’s estimated that ethnic Vietnamese only make up 5 percent of Cambodia’s population. Because of their undocumented status and Khmer hostility — due to centuries of past colonization — the Vietnamese men who manage to be employed work for extremely low wages.
Do began her work, consulting with men, women, and children who have rarely, if ever, met a medical doctor from the United States. Her notebook was filled with details to help others in their OBV group remember which supplies and medication to bring on their next trip to the village.
Robbins stayed nearby. Though he stood apart from everyone else because he’s not ethnically Vietnamese, his friendliness ingratiated him to the children, who loved having their picture taken with his camera.
Origins of OBV
Based in Atlanta, One Body Village is headed by Father Martino Nguyen Ba Thong. Nguyen was born in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War. His family immigrated to the United States and Nguyen graduated high school in Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance before earning a Master of Divinity at Mount St. Mary’s University and Seminary in Maryland. He was ordained in 2004.
In 1996, as a second-year college student, Nguyen worked with homeless children in the States and in 21 countries.
A pivotal moment in his charity work occurred in 1999 on a trip to Cambodia, where he witnessed Vietnamese children being sold into sex slavery.
He formed OBV in 2008, to save children from sexual abuse, sex slavery, and trafficking.
According to a 2012 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation and abuse because they don’t have the maturity of adults, nor the legal empowerment, to make life decisions. Many are dependent on guardians that don’t have their best interest at heart, and many are understandably prone to trusting adults easily, which criminals capitalize on.
According to the UN report, there were 10,000 recorded cases of trafficking in South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific to draw data from that year. The report acknowledges that the actual number of persons trafficked can be much higher. Many crimes go undocumented, and many of the crimes were persecuted as other offenses. It was estimated that 47 percent of those trafficked in this region was for “forced labor,” and 44 percent for “sexual exploitation.”
The UN data from 2007 and 2010 shows children make up 27 percent of world wide trafficking victims. Two-thirds of trafficked children are girls. Reports vary — UNICEF estimates that children account for a full third of trafficking/sexual exploitation victims.
OBV has a presence in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Singapore. It’s currently looking at expanding into Malaysia.
Its work is unique in that it deals with the sensitive issue of sex slavery and children in countries with strict government control and certain types of corruption. OBV currently supports 140 male and female children who are victims of sexual abuse and/or trafficking.
The mission idea
Do fairly recently came out of the University of Washington medical school program, having spent the better part of the last 15 years in school. As the completion of her residency neared, she and her husband discussed ways they could celebrate. Both enthusiastic travelers, they toyed around with the idea of taking a trip somewhere — though the thought of lying on a beach didn’t fit them.
The idea of a mission trip abroad seemed compelling. After all, it made sense, with Do’s medical background.
Robbins, who has a knack for languages and speaks Vietnamese well, jumped on the idea.
“I wanted it to be a place where I could lend a hand,” he said in a telephone interview. “I worked as a business consultant, and I wasn’t happy. It’s one of those things people do sometimes, when they hate their job and they just tough it out.” He paused, laughing a little. “I had no desire to feel as bad as I did about working there.”
And, instead of three short months, they talked about extending their trip to six months. (After they arrived in Vietnam and started their work, they started discussing the possibility of staying for more than a year, maybe even several years.)
Of the many organizations they could have worked with, OBV was especially meaningful to Do because of her experiences in her medical work.
“I’ve seen a lot of women who have been abused as children,” she said. “I see that abuse manifest in their medical care, almost on a daily basis. For example, I’ve seen how terrified some women are about certain types of exams, even though it makes no logical sense to me. I often learned these women were abused as children. I then have to change my procedure a lot and have to adjust.”
To Do, working with OBV equates to prevention. She thinks that if she could get to these girls and help them before they grow up into women with deep-seated trauma, and if she could get to these parents, nearly all of whom come from poverty, and educate them on how to better help their children break the poverty cycle, it would make a huge difference.
“From the beginning, our founder … always stressed the importance of family,” wrote John Duy-Anh Nguyen, OBV’s board president, in an e-mail. “We do not ‘own’ or ‘run’ a charity, a love house, or an orphanage — these children are our own! They have lost their home and family — OBV is their new home and family. [Our] numbers might get bigger. The houses might expand. But the basis will stay the same: love, respect, and family.”
On weekends, Robbins and Do wake up early in Ho Chi Minh City. They take a bus through multiple districts and spend the rest of the day at the OBV compound in Vietnam. The compound, run by a nun, serves as a safe house for 16 to 20 girls who have experienced the trauma of sex abuse. Their ages range from as young as 4 years old to 20 years old. (At 18, the young women may choose to leave or stay.) OBV cares for the girls, whose families willingly gave them up, and provide them food, shelter, safety, and perhaps most importantly, an education.
The schedule the girls adhere to is rigorous and strict. They’re up at 5:30 a.m. and bedtime is 9 p.m. In between are hours of study, meals, and vocational training.
Teaching girls self defense
While Do’s usefulness to OBV is immediately apparent, Robbins, who has an MBA, has had to be a little more creative in his contributions. He helps OBV with its marketing and communications efforts, though the clear bright spot of his work are the weekly krav maga martial arts and self-defense classes he holds at the compound. Robbins was previously a teacher at Krav Maga Renton.
Initially, the concern over the self-defense classes was the fact that Robbins is male. The girls’ abusers were nearly exclusively male. OBV and the nuns at the compound were wary of re-traumatizing the girls. Robbins was even cautioned by an OBV board member about the “cultural meekness of Vietnamese girls.”
In the end, the classes were given the go-ahead. Robbins has made many adjustments to his teaching to make it more appropriate for the girls, but he hasn’t gone easy on them. With the younger girls, he’s more lenient, sillier. With the older girls, there’s an underlying seriousness in his lessons.
Robbins was giddy as he described the progress of his students. “After two months, they are doing exercises they never thought they’d be able to do. They’re doing 40 push-ups a class. They are hitting hard. They are kicking hard.
“I absolutely love doing what I do,” he added. “The level of job satisfaction I get doing this is unlike no other. I cannot be more proud of them.”
Do spends these weekends examining the girls. Her day starts in the morning, treating their minor medical complaints. Beyond tending to the scuffs and scraps, Do is constantly pulling in information, making connections, and trying to find broader issues.
“The smaller kids have bonded with me, so they run to me and say, ‘Hey, I have this rash. Hey, I got hurt. Hey, what is this?’ Then from that, there might be bigger problems that I can’t diagnose or treat right away. I’m still figuring out why some of the kids wet the bed, even though they are older, for instance. Is it psychological from sex abuse?”
For Do and Robbins, these are sobering moments.
“The challenging part is every time I suspect a greater problem going on with one of the girls,” said Do. “I think about this tiny little kid having trauma in her genital region, and it draws me back to why they’re here in the first place. Each time, I think, she’s just 8 years old — and I want her checked for STDs again. It’s a lot of small things like that on a day-to-day basis, with bigger issues in the background.”
Do, often with Robbins, travels twice a month with OBV, conducting exams and educating patients in areas that need their help the most.
“We do two-day seminars in areas where a lot of sex trafficking occur,” Do said. “The seminars are about how to be better parents, the psychology of people and children, the psychology of pedophiles. I talk about preventative health care, and we talk about sex trafficking and sex abuse, how to recognize it, and how to prevent it. It’s in our hope that if we have better parents, there will be less trafficking of children, years later.”
The sale of a daughter’s virginity is common practice in these impoverished villages, Do explained. The practice is so ubiquitous that it doesn’t occur to parents to see it as abuse that will cause lasting psychological damage. They need the money, and it’s a relatively easy way to get some.
These parents do care about their children, though, and when presented with a logical argument against the practice, most parents understand.
“The thing is, when a family is so poor and the child grows up poor and is poor like them, what good is selling virginity one time?” Do said. “But we tell them, if the child is educated instead, the child will have a much better future — and the majority of parents take that opportunity.”
“This is about how many lives we can save,” said John Nguyen. OBV promises that 100 percent of donations go into the preventing, rescuing, and rehabilitation of these children. (end)
For more information, or to donate, volunteer or fundraise for One Body Village, visit onebodyvillage.org, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Jesse Robbins’ blog can be found at jessethuyinvietnam.blogspot.com.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.