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A Transformative Vision: Caring for Trafficking Survivors in Southeast Asia

The stories Eugene tells from the medical clinic in Southeast Asia are often heartbreaking: little girls trafficked into brothels, then kicked to the curb by pimps when they get too sick to work, only to die when they reach the clinic too late; others paralyzed by fear and trauma, bearing wounds both inside and out. One girl, Binh,* trafficked when she was only 4, was rescued when she was 10.

These are the stories that drive MTW missionaries Eugene and Cora Armier.* These are the girls they work to heal, and with whom they share the love of Christ.

The Armiers became MTW missionaries to Southeast Asia in their mid-40s, a bit later in life than most, but equipped with life experience and skills that made them extremely valuable on the mission field. Eugene is a medical doctor by training and before joining MTW, he cut his teeth helping start a Christian health clinic in inner-city Chicago.

“We took care of people nobody else wanted to take care of,” said Eugene. “I’ve always had a heart for the marginalized.”

When the Armiers moved to Southeast Asia 20 years later, they joined a team dedicated to doing works of mercy and justice, hand in hand with proclaiming the gospel and planting churches. For Eugene, starting a clinic just seemed like a natural thing to do. To that end, Eugene partnered with a local pediatrician named Dr. Lanh Nguyen.

“She’s a powerhouse,” Eugene added. “We are 100% partners, and she is phenomenal.”

Eugene and Lanh had a grand vision: They would start a medical clinic to serve the most vulnerable: human trafficking survivors, rescued out of Southeast Asia’s notorious red-light districts. But first, they needed a building.

A place that gives life
In the days before it became a house of refuge and healing, the clinic in Southeast Asia was a death factory.

“They were performing about 40 to 60 abortions per day,” said Eugene.

Day after day, the abortion mill took the lives of innocents. Then, quite suddenly, the house of cards came crashing down. In a single day, a 16-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl hemorrhaged to death in botched abortion procedures. The government shut the abortion clinic down.

“I want that building,” said Lanh. “That building has taken the lives of my people. I want to take it away and create a place that gives life.”

It seemed impossible at first—the building owners were asking an exorbitant amount of money for rent, and Eugene and Lanh simply couldn’t afford it. But God was at work.

“Through a strange turn of events they came down to a quarter of their original asking price, and that’s all we had,” Eugene laughed. “So now we’re in this building.”

Making transformation possible
Soon after Eugene and Lanh’s clinic opened, several large anti-trafficking agencies asked if they would be willing to provide medical care for the girls they rescued. It was exactly what Eugene and Lanh had hoped for, and they readily agreed. Since then, the clinic has cared for hundreds of trafficking survivors. Some are newly rescued from the city’s brutal brothels. Others are months or years into rehabilitation, often battling chronic medical problems like hepatitis, HIV, or other diseases and injuries sustained while they were trafficked.

“We care for these girls in many different, unique ways,” Eugene explained. “Usually for [between] six months and three years, depending on how long they’re in the program, how young they are, how well they’re responding, how much trauma has happened, how mature they are.”

The heartbreaking stories Eugene tells can seem endless: There’s Hira,* who was sold to a factory by her parents at the age of 9. The factory owners put her on an assembly line, and a machine ripped her arm off on the very first day. She was completely shell shocked for the whole first week she was in the clinic’s care. Sujita,* beaten over the head with a piece of metal by one of her clients, is now recovering and ministered to by a local Christian woman from an MTW church plant.

Many stories, though still harrowing, are hopeful. Binh,* who was trafficked when she was 4 and rescued when she was 10, made a profession of faith about a year ago and was baptized.

“Her Bible knowledge makes us look bad,” Eugene laughed. “She’s already read the New Testament twice, and she just got done with the Old Testament—in English. …
She now speaks fluent English and reads and writes in both English and the local language. She’s just voracious.

“Now she’s in charge of two 8-year-olds who live in the dorm with her and who were trafficked. She comes and shadows me at the clinic because she wants to be a doctor. This is the next generation of Christian women in [Southeast Asia]!

“These are the things that God puts in our life,” Eugene added. “Success stories like hers just brighten our day so much.”

Even as Eugene and his colleagues address the girls’ medical needs, they also minister to their souls, praying with and for them, and giving them Bibles and other Christian reading materials. Local MTW church plants are heavily involved. A local Christian leader leads pastoral care at the clinic, and the MTW team has set up a scholarship for their churches’ female college students who are interested in ministry to trafficking survivors. These students receive a stipend and, in exchange, do discipleship and relationship building with the girls at the clinic. According to Eugene, the results have been so outstanding that several partner anti-trafficking agencies are asking these remarkable young women to come to their organizations to do even more discipleship, Bible teaching, and practical life skills instruction with trafficking survivors.

Together, these doctors, pastors, and modern day abolitionists are providing a place of refuge, support, and healing care for little girls and young women who have been used and abused by our dark world. It’s marvelous work, but not without its challenges.

Silence
“We serve trafficking victims as young as 4 years old,” Eugene explained. “The little ones respond really well to me and to our staff. They’re still very trusting, even though they’ve been through so much. But once girls get to be teenagers, they don’t want to have anything to do with me. So I’m very cautious.”

Southeast Asia is a sex tourism destination, and many of the customers who frequent the city’s brothels are white men. Many girls are trafficked at a very young age, and by the time they are 15 or 16, they have simply been abused too much for too long. To them, Eugene looks like just another John, just another oppressor. “They have a hard time accepting me, accepting the care that we want to give,” Eugene said. “There’s just no trust there—that has to be built over time.”

In a recent newsletter, Eugene wrote about a girl named Aung.* Though she is only 13 years old, Aung has already survived human trafficking and years of sex slavery. After an anti-trafficking organization rescued her from a brothel, they brought Aung to Eugene’s medical clinic to receive care.

“It was the same every time,” Eugene wrote. “I attempted to engage Aung like I do with all of the girls at the clinic—trying to make them laugh, asking about their brothers and sisters, their favorite music, trying to create a non-threatening environment. My attempts with her were always met with silence—Not a shy silence, but a 'no one's going to hurt me again' silence.”

Eugene respected Aung’s boundaries, and cared for her as he would his own daughter. Over the course of a year, Eugene cared for Aung often, addressing the medical issues acquired over years of abuse. He tried his best to show that he cares about her as a human being, that he’s interested in her world, not just her medical issues. But still, she remained silent, hardly acknowledging his presence.

In his newsletter, Eugene picks up the story:

Then, one day, as I gently bandaged her new surgical wound, Aung broke the silence.

“Why did you come to [my country]?” she asked.

I'm sure the question contained a million more as this wounded and broken 13-year-old tried to make sense of the tenderness and honor that she had received from me over the last year. Me, a foreign male doctor.

“Jesus sent me here.” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“To take care of you.”

The hard shell cracked open and Aung started to cry. She began sharing about her family and how she misses them so much.

She started to trust.

Just last month, Aung came back to the clinic one last time. She had completed her rehabilitation program, but wanted to say goodbye. And she wanted to tell him something else too.

In their most recent newsletter, Cora wrote:

She came to tell [Eugene] that she now knew why he was “pursuing her.” She realized it was because Christ was pursuing her.

[Aung] was so excited to share that she had given her life to Christ. She had become a Christ-follower and was now a new creation with a new life. Her whole life has been changed and she wanted to share this with Eugene before she went to live with extended family in another province where she will be able to attend church and, we pray, will grow in her newfound faith.

Eugene, Cora, and Lanh are praising God for the healing and hope He has given to Aung. And her story is just one of many. For girls like Aung, the darkness and evil of the world are clear and present. The trauma and wounds of their pasts are hard to shake, and trust or hope are more difficult than we could ever imagine. But when believers like Eugene, Cora, and Lanh show them the love of Christ over and over again, patiently and on their terms, their armor begins to crack. Even amidst the darkness, especially amidst the darkness, the light of the gospel shines through.

To learn more about this life-changing ministry, contact medical@mtw.org.

*Names changed for security and privacy

Andrew Shaughnessy, Mercy Nov 26, 2019
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