Cambodia: Reintegration of "Srey Bo"

January 28th, 2008

Since she was trafficked her family had moved from Phnom Penh to a coastal town. She was rescued during a brothel raid, then cycled through the ‘standard’ process of assessment and placement in an aftercare center. Along with others, she provided testimony in the trial of the brothel mama-san, a notoriously exploitive woman who was sent to prison. (at right: “srey bo”)

About two years later, nearly half spent with Transitions Cambodia, the young woman I will call “Srey Bo” left her closest friends–girls who had similarly traumatic experiences–and headed home. These teens, together, have been finding their voice again. They are learning to dream, to believe in themselves, to begin to think of a future–like any other teen–except they came of age through utterly brutal and psychologically incapacitating experience.

Her first family visit, in preparation for a possible reintegration, was pivotal. Trafficking victims are often shunned by their community. It is suspected that through inaction her mother may have been partially complicit in her trafficking. Her father had no idea. (at left: shopping with TCI center director Jhaya)

And so the two stood, merely feet apart, her father solemn, head bowed. Srey Bo was hesitant, eyes downcast. The NGO staff and Ministry of Social Affairs social workers watched, for this moment could go two ways. But then her father reached out, quickly pulling her close, and wept.


While with Transitions Cambodia, Srey Bo studied English and apparel design. Transitions encourages its girls to reach beyond traditional aftercare ‘retraining’ programs like apparel design and try careers such as computer IT, translation, and social work. Still, Srey Bo wanted to design garments and return to her family. (at right: a tearful moment at the TCI center)

While she lived at the center she was treated like most teens: free to come and go as long as it was within curfew, watch movies, sing karaoke, do the necessary chores of group living, attend school or work, and to continue working with the center’s four social workers.

It is not uncommon for trafficking victims, or those subjected to rape, domestic violence, or incest–all of which are very prevalent here–to stay “stuck” in a state of trauma and victimization. With destroyed self esteem and the burden of their recent past, many become re-victimized and return to sex work. (at left: tears with James Pond, her “second father,” on the way home)

However, if Srey Bo were to regain her sense of self, the risk must be taken and her voice must be heard. So the ponderous wheels of bureaucracy were set in motion; during her nearly year-long residency with Transitions, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior worked on her case, assigning the multiple tiers of support to ensure Srey Bo had every opportunity to succeed.


With two younger siblings, Srey Bo’s return means five people will cram into a one-room apartment. For $20 USD per month this gives the family a tile floor, locking doors, communal cooking space and shared bathroom, likely a squat toilet with a bucket of water and hose beside it. Her father is an independent businessman; he sells a neuget-like candy with peanuts from the back of a bicycle. It’s kind of like a Baby-Ruth candy bar without the chocolate. For this he earns maybe $100 per month. Her mother, in poor health, doesn’t work. (at right: her sewing machine and the one-room apartment she’ll share with her family)

Srey Bo brings an extra mouth to feed, but she also brings her skills and a pedal-operated sewing machine provided by Transitions. They will also give limited financial support and, at James’ insistence, will provide school uniforms, books, and supplies for her younger siblings. They are not currently enrolled in school, which increases their vulnerability. With her own hard work, help from the government, Transitions, and luck (or faith, in Srey Bo’s case) she should do well. (at left: the street out front her home)


After picking up her father and younger brother, and having her mother sign papers with a thumb print, we went back to the Ministry of Social Affairs where more papers were signed, thank you’s professed, and then some down time at the guest house. (at right: stacks of files at the regional Ministry of Social Affairs)

Unable to communicate, her father and I strolled the beach together while her younger brother played in the surf. Later we all went to dinner at a Khmer place where bountiful seafood was had. Early in the meal James leaned over and told me to spoon extra shrimp into the boy’s bowl. Doing so, he later said, would let his Srey Bo’s father relax and enjoy himself. In short order he ordered some beers and began packing it away, including the fish head. The boy and I, stuffed, played footsie and did tricks with our hands. (at left: Jhaya helps Srey Bo’s father sign with a thumbprint)

For me the entire day had been a fairly expected process but it wasn’t until we drove the father and brother home that I realized just what Srey Bo was going home to. The trash-filled dirt road was lined with wood and tin shacks which, in the daytime, looked like many rural Cambodian homes or storefronts. But by night the red lights came on and the girls came out. Srey Bo’s home can’t be more than 100 feet from a brothel. (at right: in the evening surf)

I asked her if she was concerned; she was. It scared her. Just as being away from her friends, out of the center, on her own trying and something new scared her. Like the brothels weren’t a greater concern than any other. James shrugged; it’s Asia. It’s Cambodia. It’s the way it is. You do what you can and work with the rest. (at left: brothels from a passing car)

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