Monday, March 7, 2011

Faith In Action: Bloom

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world, with a net worth second only to the drugs trade. Estimates vary but there are up to 27 million people enslaved in the world today. In Cambodia 80,000 – 100,000 girls are trafficked every year. 
The rehabilitation process is long and there is a high risk of survivors being re-trafficked when they return to their home communities, especially if they don’t have an alternative way of earning an income.

Created out of a desire to empower women who are at risk of, or have been victims of human trafficking, Bloom provides quality vocational training and employment to survivors of trafficking and vulnerable women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

An initiative of Gateway Baptist Church in Brisbane, Bloom is a Christ-centred ministry whose doors are open to anyone in need of help. Women at risk and victims of trafficking from any religion and all backgrounds are welcomed without prejudice.

Ruth Larwill, an ‘ordinary’ mum from Brisbane, shares the journey of how she came to be Director of Bloom Training & Cafe.

“Basically I was a yuppie Westerner. I'd gone to university, got a degree, worked at a travel company as a trainer and consultant, got married, travelled the world with my husband and had 2 beautiful boys.”

Ruth’s hobby was decorating wedding cakes and one day in 2006 the following thought popped into her head “travel to Cambodia and teach the art of cake decoration to girls who were rescued from brothels. It was so bizarre, I immediately wondered where it came from and put it aside.”

Unbeknown to Ruth, cakes are a big part of the culture in Cambodia. Colonised by the French in the mid 1800s, there’s still a huge market even among the poorest people for birthday cakes and elaborate wedding cakes.

This thought kept recurring so she shared it with her husband who said, “‘Well, if it’s God, you’d better do it. What have you got to lose?' He also added that if it was God, He'd have to come up with the money as well.”

The very next day, Ruth walked into work and was informed by her boss that they’d been going through the end of year finances, and realised she had been underpaid that year. “The amount happened to be exactly $2 above the price of an airfare to Cambodia.” Needless to say she bought a ticket to Phnom Penh.

Before leaving for Cambodia, Ruth was introduced to a lady who lived there working as a trauma counsellor for girls rescued from brothels. With a heart hammering she got up the courage to say, “I’ve been thinking that I should go to Cambodia and train girls in the art of cake decoration.” Expecting a less than encouraging response Ruth was surprised when the lady replied that she’d been praying for somebody to come and train the girls they were rescuing.

Two years later in October 2008, Ruth found herself in the office of Gateway Baptist Church’s Senior Pastor Jason Elsmore, sharing her desire to set up a training school for survivors of human trafficking.I said to Jason, ‘maybe it’s too much trouble, too much money to do all this, [but] God won’t let these girls suffer – if we don’t do it, He’ll find another way to help them!’  I’ll never forget Jason’s reply. With vehement passion he said, ‘God is talking to a hundred churches right now – He’s saying, ‘Please go rescue my girls!  I’m so angry at what’s happening to them – go and let them know I love them and have not forgotten them.’ God’s plan to bring justice to these girls is through us!  When we don’t listen to His call there are massive consequences!  Other’s may turn away and say it’s too hard – but we won’t!’”

The next day Ruth attended the Global Leadership Summit and couldn’t believe it when Gary Haugen, CEO of the International Justice Mission (IJM) started talking about human trafficking. IJM is a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression; Ruth says “you have to understand that a few years ago people weren’t really talking about the subject – so we were just amazed!” 

“Gary ended his talk saying ‘God has a plan to bring justice to the world, and His plan is us! There is no other plan!’ Pastor Jason came up to my husband Murray and I and we just looked in awe at each other!  It was the most encouraging confirmation – we knew that God was speaking to our church family and was behind us saying, ‘Trust me – I’ve got your back – I love these girls – you are my plan…’”

Linked to this moment was the fact that in Ruth’s first week in Cambodia she had been introduced to a girl named Tia who had been rescued in a raid by IJM. This is her story:

 “Tia was 11 years old when her father died. She was the eldest of 7 siblings and there was no social welfare, no one to help them. In Cambodia, the culture is that the children help support the family, so when Tia was offered a job in a laundry in Phnom Penh, she gratefully accepted. Unfortunately, she was tricked and sold to a brothel, and suffered unimaginable horrors.”

After her rescue by IJM “she was taken to a shelter in Phnom Penh where she received medical care, counselling, and was told that God loved her, and that there was special purpose and plan for her life.”

“After a year, Tia was sent home to her village. But unfortunately the whole village knew what had happened to her, and she was considered to be ineligible to be married, as there is a huge stigma on girls from the sex industry. Soon enough, she was re-trafficked to another brothel to provide for her family.”

Her counsellor from the shelter came by and was desperate to find alternative means of income for her. Ruth shares “I will never forget the day I was taken to meet Tia. We sat down together and I showed her wedding cake magazines and asked if she'd like to train to become a professional cake decorator. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said every night she used to pray to God and say, 'If you love me so much, if you’re so big, then please rescue me.'”

That was 4 years ago and today Tia is a master cake decorator and trainer at Bloom.

In January 2009 Ruth and her family relocated to Phnom Penh and together with a great team of people established the Bloom Training Centre.

Bloom is now the number one Cake Emporium in Phnom Penh. The skill level of the girls is extraordinary and they are highly sought after, “selling cakes to the ‘who’s who’ of Cambodia – Kings, Princesses, Prime Ministers, Pop Stars, Socialites and government officials.”

One of their most exciting days was when Gary Haugen (IJM) came to visit Bloom.  “This was such an honour!  One of the girls that had been rescued by IJM presented Gary with a sugar figurine of himself, complete with glasses & spikey hair!”

“Gary also brought along some of the guys who work in the field doing the undercover/rescue work in Cambodia. We told the girls this group was from IJM and the girls knew better than anyone the risks and dangers that these men had faced. We showed the guys through our photo gallery and there were happy tears as the guys recognised girls they had rescued who were now standing next to 5 tier cakes with beaming smiles.”

Most recently, 7 new students started the 5th Hospitality Class at Bloom.  Ruth explained to them what Bloom was about and told them, “God was angry at what had happened to them, and that He would make sure they had a chance to heal and get to know the deep and true love of Jesus.  One girl in particular whose story of torture, rape and abuse is horrific just started to softly weep.”  

Ruth shares “It’s moments like these that make me want to cry with how big and awesome and beautiful it is to know the author and creator of life.”

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