Why we listen.

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.” 

-Tich Nhat Hanh

Beginning in 2010, Chab Dai’s Butterfly Longitudinal Re/integration Research (BLR) team has been journeying with 128 survivors of human trafficking, exploitation, and/or abuse. They’re in year 9 and I’m in year 3; sitting at a desk as a toddler among a team who have dedicated this decade to engage with people and share their stories. As I look up from my computer screen, I see: Phallen & Chimey with headphones on, transcribing dozens of hours of interviews from the last round of data collection; Theary & Channtha swimming through the thousands of files collected over the years, analyzing its themes for our upcoming papers; and Phaly & Pheara on the phone with a respondent in crisis, referring him to services around the country. It’s a humbling room to be in. All of this reading, typing, and engaging has one thing in common, however: Listening—the charge of the Butterfly team. A crew established to be a conduit for Cambodian survivors of human trafficking to produce a narrative so that they may see their words heal others. 

“There are many children who like this [participating in the BLR interviews] besides even me. Personally, I like it very much because we have a lot of chances to say/share what we never tell others. But when I meet with you, I can tell you and you not only listen to me, but you also bring my idea to practice. That is what I think and I am really thankful for this.”

(Dary*, female, 2016) 

Dary is supporting Tich Nhat Hanh’s words at the top of the page, “You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.” It’s a theme heard time-and-time again throughout the pages of the interviews, one that has allowed a deepening authenticity between the participants and the team. Touched on by the authors of The Forgotten Cohort a report about the lives of the male participants of the study, this profound commitment and calling to active listening to the survivors of human trafficking and exploitation of Cambodia also reflects a larger global conversation about gender, security, and healthy emotional release: 

“During regular interviews, the BLR team conducts individualized and confidential meeting, with active and attentive listening as the primary goal. The research team strives to provide a safe space, in which the boy’s thoughts and emotions can be validated as real and important. This kind of space seems to be starkly contrasted to the king of environment that many of the male cohort live in from day-to-day. For a number of respondents, their interviews seem to be a much-needed space where they are able to express pent-up emotions—something that seems to be especially true as time progresses through the re/integration process [and beyond].”

The Forgotten Cohort. 2016. p25.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed:

“I just want to say thank to your team for sharing and visiting me, as well as the other children. To be honest, since we left from shelter, staff rarely visit us.”

(Phary, female, 2015) 

“I am happy to see and talk to you because even [NGO] who works based in my community, they had never come to visit and ask me like you do."

(Chivy, female, 2016) 

Thus, I am honored to sing the praises of this team of Illuminators day-after-day. However, the courage and strength within the Butterfly project is actually a shared spirit.

Anti-trafficking research focuses much on the victims of this modern atrocity, rather than the survivors— where troubling information is shared and resilience, an afterthought. It’s a paradigm in need of a change. Give the practitioner, the politician, the law enforcer the rally cries of the survivors from their own voice because it is they who have gone through the tunnels and come out the other side. 
On top of the qualitative reporting of the cohort’s experiences, into, through & out of, shelter-based aftercare in Butterfly’s newest paper, “Experiences in Shelter Care”, authors Dr. Laura Cordisco Tsai, Lim Vanntheary, and Nhanh Channtha, were able to identify and compile 20 specific recommendations directly from the participants. These are some of the most important findings and action items from the BLR so far because of their direct survivor-to-service nature, victim-to-intervener; the sheep to the shepherd.

“I still feel that sometimes I am lacking warmth. I still need your encouragement/warm heart from the NGO. Although I have my husband now, it does not mean I am completely strong because of him. I used to see the other children. I think that I should not cut my relationship with the NGO/shelter.”

(Dara, female, 2016) 

Dara spent over a third of her young life (6+ years) in 3 different shelters for abused girls. A profound amount of time for anyone let alone a (now) 20 years-old woman that seemingly has been cut-off since she left the organization. 

Moreover, this paper has disclosed that Dara’s abuse and exploitation history may have been falsified by service-providers working her case (please refer to pg. 66 of the Shelter Report). Shocking to say the least, it may be indicative that not all services have a client’s family’s best interest at heart due to the stigma placed onto a raped individual and their families here. Either way, though it appears that this discrepancy about her history was later corrected, her mother still ended-up begging another shelter to take Dara and her sister (“Archariya”) because of the family’s poverty (for more info about this theme, please see finding #8 of Butterfly’s, “Top 10 Findings…So Far…”). Archariya described to the researchers how she wished NGOs would just support her family as well:

“I used to ask for money when my mother was sick, but they said they cannot give unless I am sick.”

(Achariya, female, 2014)

Repetitive throughout the cohort’s words, it appears that they are calling on aftercare centers to, ‘take more responsibility’ throughout a survivor’s life, if the shelters’ goals truly are to intervene, heal, and sustain protection. So much so that the Butterfly team created a thematic group of the recommendations within the shelter paper entitled, “Strengthen re/integration support and community-based services.” This group begins with, “Recommendation #16: Provide support and services to family members” (pg. 178). All of these recommendations are not to say that the services shelters have been providing are bad or even sub-par. Rather, it is survivors recognizing the capacity for all involved in the anti-trafficking movement to grow. Below, Chuoma articulated what the aftercare shelter was trying to accomplish with their clientele— giving appreciation for what has been done for survivors, coupled with a call for programmatic alteration. 

“Some children requested not only to help them, but to help their families as well, but the organization can’t help their family. The organization can help girls who were victims. The organization helps victims to get skills training, for example sewing, so that victims can help their families later when they have. However, the girls need equal support from them and their families.”

(Chouma, female, 2016)

Research has a reputation of being pages of black and white words, charts, and tables— which isn’t far from the truth in many ways. It is forgotten however, that research is actually storytelling—only with epics & characters a little closer to home than J.R.R. Tolkein’s. Just as Butterfly is here for our participants, it is also here to give you, our readers, what has been given freely to us— multi-dimensional ethical stories that are organic, organized, and investigated. Serving one party as a sustained access point to social services, listening ears, and trusted fingers to type; and the other as a persistent source of a survivor’s insight. So as always, we continue to invite you to listen with us because our survivors’ minds & mouths aren’t stopping, and neither are we.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Bilbo Baggins,
The Fellowship of the Ring

James Havey
Butterfly Research Project Advisor

*All names of participants have been changed in line with the Butterfly Project’s code of ethics

The Butterfly Longitudinal Re/integration Research Project: Ethically & Actively Listening, Documenting, and Sharing the lives of 128 survivors of human trafficking, exploitation, and/or abuse over a 10-year period. All reports and more can be found HERE