By Naomi Telfer
There I saw her. Dressed in red, on a bench opposite the embassy. A mother of five, I would later find out. Drawn into prostitution to simply make enough money to get by after her abusive husband left her. Life in Phnom Penh is rough if you are on the poverty line, single and alone. She was the same age as me, 30 at the time. I felt embarrassed at the simplicity and selfishness of my life in contrast. We visited her home and met her family in the dark, musty streets –one small, dirty room where she worked and the kids played, and I remember feeling the hopelessness of the situation.
And as we got chatting, she told me that she loved to paint nails. Her eyes lit up as we talked about it and a beautiful, strange idea popped into my head… perhaps, just perhaps, she could come and do our nails. We were a big group, and I knew people would give generously. So we asked our hotel whether she could come, and the next evening, she did. Over those two evenings she had the dignity of doing something different, something meaningful and purposeful for her – and making money for it.
One year on, and my sources tell me that she has never returned to prostitution and had managed to find another job. I pondered how such a small thing made such a big change. Was it the act of kindness? Was it the spare cash she got from us as a group of well-meaning tourists? I concluded it was perhaps something else – hope. Hope of a better, more purposeful future. And the belief that she was worthy of it.
It’s a funny term ‘hope’. I like to think of it as ‘joyful expectation of good’. It’s contagious… seeing good, and experiencing goodness, helps you believe goodness will knock on your door come again. For me, that experience in Cambodia changed my life forever. Seeing the impact that such a small act could have on someone’s life led me to start designing what is now the Sophie Hayes Foundation ‘Day 46 Programme’, a confidence and employability programme for survivors of trafficking based on the principles of blended learning (on the job, from others, classroom). I saw from my experience overseas that I could use my corporate skills (HR, learning and development) to really shift the state of someone else’s life – forever. It led me out of my job and into a whirlwind of freelancing, uncertainty, financial risk, unchartered territory and eventually taking on the Charity Lead role at Sophie Hayes Foundation.
For the survivors of trafficking that we work with, every story of transformation we see begins with a seed of hope – and we use this hope to fulfil our purpose: to empower survivors of trafficking to build hope-filled futures. It’s the side of trafficking that Hollywood films like ‘Taken’ don’t really talk about – the long term bit, after the safehouse and when it’s back to normality. A frightening number of those who have been trafficked are believed to be re-trafficked after their experiences because they have been so vulnerable in the first place. That is where we step in at the Sophie Hayes Foundation – offering confidence workshops, employability coaching and voluntary placements to survivors to help them find a different future. A more hopeful, independent and strong future.
Before you go, let me tell you another story, from just last year; We finally get on the tube together. It’s taken an early morning trip to a safehouse the other side of town to persuade Chiara* to come on her placement day with a tailoring company as part of our Day 46 programme. Sometimes it can be hard to believe something might just work out when your life has looked like Chiara’s had – prostituted by her uncle from a young age, and then trafficked around the UK for several years. Four hours later, she’s beaming. Her tutor is astonished. ‘We’ve never seen anyone pick this up so fast’, she exclaimed as Chiara busily humms away on the sewing machine. Chiara looks up, and with a mixture of emotion – both happy and sad – she said ‘I never knew I was good at anything’. Tears prick in her eyes, and mine, and we look at each other. And I knew I saw hope, as she said ‘this day has changed my life’. It sounds dramatic, but it did. Hope struck again. Chiara then moved cities, and has started working with another tutor there, who is helping her build her natural talent for tailoring to prepare her for the future.
It’s these simple actions of believing in someone else that can unleash a change we never believed possible. If we want to change the world, we must start with the small and simple things. It might be asking a question, checking how someone is, offering a warm drink, smile, lucky break. Or it might be doing what you do best for a different cause. We never know the impact our choices might just have – from a prostitute in a Phnom Phen to a trafficking survivor in London – simple acts of kindness unlocked the hope they needed for a new life.
*Not her real name
About the author: Naomi Telfer leads the Sophie Hayes Foundation alongside her work as a free-lance leadership development facilitator and coach. The Sophie Hayes Foundation exists to empower survivors of trafficking to build hope-filled futures. With a background firmly in the corporate sector, Naomi believes that charities, government and businesses working hand in hand is what is needed to change the world. She loves travelling, cooking (and eating), pretending to surf, Michael McIntyre, 90s dance music and regular trips to green places whilst living in London.