Stressing about final exams, paying my bills on time, searching for a post-graduate career, and ways to support my family were a few things I used to stress heavily about prior to my trip to Malaysia. They are legitimate concerns; however, all of it became trivialized by the experience I underwent, the stories I heard, and the people I met.
Upon arriving into Penang, Malaysia, I was warmly hosted by Boat People SOS (BPSOS) and its organizational partner, Tenaganita. My primary objective was to visually document the stories of Vietnamese labour emigrants through a series of video interviews and photojournalism. Just twenty-four hours after my arrival, I dove in head first and began working immediately with these individuals unsure of what I would uncover. Little did I know the things I would be exposed to in the following weeks would come to change my life forever.
By keeping a low profile, the BPSOS team and I were able to venture into the rural areas of Malaysia to the holding blocks where thousands of human trafficking victims were forced to live in – either by force or through fiscal constraints. Groups of twelve workers (or more) are forced into two bedroom units and divided into ethnic enclaves. It made me realize all the simple privileges we take for granted in the United States. We take conveniences such as running water, food, sanitation, hot showers, sharing of resources (i.e. bathrooms, cooking space, etc.) and privacy for granted. However, despite their conditions, I was humbled by the friendly smiles, hopeful attitude, and the sense of community the workers made with one another. It was beautiful.
During my experience in Malaysia, one particular story that stood out was of two females who worked for JR Holdings, a labour import company that recruits workers for Sony Corporation. Deceived, exploited, and involuntarily imprisoned in their holding blocks, we were able to capture their stories of struggle and survival by going undercover and convincing the guards we were from Vietnam on vacation to visit our relatives. Allocated with only an hour to talk to us, they emotionally shared with us their experience. Physically drained and spiritually demoralized, both had not eaten for days. They had to sell their bodies for 30 ringgits (less than $8.50 USD) in order to get enough money to eat. Even then, the costs of food within the holding blocks are exceptionally expensive; thus, only allowing them a few bites to eat. It does not take long for one to realize that the issue of human trafficking is an unending circle of exploitation perpetuated by unregulated greed and protected by political elites at the cost of millions of lives.
Action is imperative.
There is so much more I want to share. I encourage anyone who is reading this article to broaden your global perspective by taking action through further informing yourself about the issues and spreading awareness to others. Visit the BPSOS website and/or watch our interview videos on Youtube for more information. If you still want to know more, I would be more than happy to meet-up and talk about it over a cup of coffee, a morning jog, or even a midnight pho run to any local Vietnamese plaza of your picking. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fight the good fight.
In Love and Solidarity,