Home Visited in the Northeast Thailand
Monk Visits His Daughter
Monk Examines His Amulets
Water Buffalos in a Dry and Barren Rice Field
Sharing a Meal of Somtam and Sticky Rice
It is a long journey home for most of our NightLight women. Isaan, the northeast area of Thailand, is famous for the delicious rice that is exported around the world. Isaan is also famous for “somtam” green papaya salad, a favorite throughout Thailand. The lively music and dance of the Isaan people is a playful contrast to the proper and precise classical Thai. But Isaan, home to most of our women, has also become known for sourcing 80 percent or more of the women in the sex industry.
Home visits are eye-opening and reveal the challenges that Isaan women face in leaving prostitution. In April, we headed down the long road to northeast Thaliand to visit these homes. As we pulled into a dirt yard of Lek’s home, what I saw looked more like a kid’s treehouse than an actual home. The boards stretched across the side but couldn’t stretch far enough to meet the corner boards, and there were gaping holes. The top half was left open in place of windows. The house was up on stilts, and beneath this boarded box was where the family found shade.
A flatscreen TV, positioned to entertain, gave hope of still attaining the elusive fortunes. And there nearby, I noticed a man in a saffron robe. While his eyes were on the TV, his hand held a cigarette, which he flicked periodically between puffs. There was no introduction, and I would not have known he was Lek’s father had I not asked. Since becoming a monk ten years ago, he has lived at the nearby monastery, separate from his wife and nine children. He came to visit this day because his daughter returned home, but following the monastic requirements, he sat at a distance. I asked Lek if it was hard on her mother to be separated from her husband all these years. Lek’s eyes shifted and glancing over at her father, she admitted that ten years ago, her father was an abusive alcoholic. Even she hadn’t liked her father then.
The mismatched boards and old dusty belongings hinted that there was a sacrifice for living abuse-free. Lek is one of the sacrifices. Lek has worked in prostitution for close to 10 years. An older American man brought her to NightLight about six years ago, but it hasn’t been easy. We recently suspected that Lek was still taking clients on the side, and that was confirmed when we ran into her on the street. She was in an evening dress and dining with a foreign man. Her face fell when she saw us. She cried and begged for another chance, and we agreed.
Taking in the scene, I had a deeper understanding of Lek’s desperation and secret rendezvous with clients. Lek looked around uncomfortably and said, “I am the only one of the nine children who sends money home.” Lek handed her mom a wad of money and told her to put it away. Lek has a son, but in divorcing her Muslim husband, she lost custody. She rarely sees her son, and while she still supports him, most of the money she earns is sent to her mother.
Ten years ago, Lek’s father left to detach from the suffering of his alcohol addiction and to make merit. As a monk, his family who once feared him now respects him. Lek, for the past ten years has been in and out of prostitution to support her impoverished family. As long as she sends money home, her actions are accepted but not honored. Her earnings, however, have not sufficed to fix up the home or bring the family out of poverty. It seems like an endless cycle. What merit will be required of her to break the cycle?
Lek has been praying to and worshipping Jesus, but her family obligations hold her back. Lek has yet to understand how God, through Jesus attached himself to the broken-hearted; how Christ sympathized with her weakness and embraced suffering for her sake. Lek has yet to comprehend Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3)
We sit down to a meal of sticky rice and somtam. I look back for her father, but the monk has left, his saffron robe, a bright orange against the brown backdrop of poverty, growing smaller with each step he takes toward detachment. We say a quick prayer to bless the food and the family. Lek’s humble “amen” is caught by the breeze, and carried into the kingdom of heaven.
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