[[Bangkok]] Adam: We dropped some change in her cup and shared fruit from a street vendor we had bought and we laughed as we tried to communicate. We sat down on the ground with her. Her name was Jiit. Her English was strained and our Thai non-existent. Her eyes gleamed as she smiled and laughed with us; but in those eyes was hidden so much pain. She gave us hugs, she showed us that her leg wasn’t actually lost at the knee, she told us about the parking-lot she slept behind - over there - motioning to the multi-level parking ramp next to the bustling city street filled with motorcyclists and and endless rush of cars and pedestrians; she talked about how sometimes she was attacked at night, and people had taken the little money she made begging. She was from Cambodia. And she was very alone.
People didn’t pay much attention to her as they passed her on the sidewalks and she hadn’t made much - maybe 7 Baht (the exchange rate at the time was about 30 Baht to the Dollar, but keep in mind you can buy a meal from a street vendor for 20 to 30 Baht). So, I thought I might help her hustle a little. I took her cup, and held it up to passing pedestrians: “Baht for Jiit,” I told them, and would point to her with a grin. And people obliged, maybe because of my enthusiasm, or maybe because they would actually look at her instead of just passing by oblivious to her sitting there. The street vendors nearby all cracked smiles. It was a busy intersection she was sitting next to; at red lights, motorists even would drop money into the styrofoam cup extended towards their open windows, with my “Baht for Jiit,” plea and my pointing emphatically at her on the ground. And with a little effort and joy, her money multiplied so fast in those 20 minutes; coins were tossed and bills were shoved into that styrofoam cup. And we all just laughed.
We hung out with Jiit for a little while more, laughed more, and got her some Pad Thai from one of the vendors. She was so skinny. She tucked the little container of food into her once-white grocery bag for later. She made sure to give us all kisses on our cheeks before we parted ways. And then we got up and walked away. I walked away.
She probably sat there for a few more hours on the damp sidewalk with her leg tucked under her until it was time to go back behind the parking garage, where she would hope she wouldn’t be bothered.
I spent about an hour that night with Jiit; I got a glimpse into her life, but not really. I didn’t see any of the scary or ugly parts of her life, I didn’t hear about the tragedy and the trauma that landed her on that sidewalk begging for Baht by herself in a country she wasn’t born in. I didn’t feel her hunger or her fear. Did she flee Cambodia willingly? Was she trafficked into Thailand? Did she get trapped in the sex-bars until she was discarded after hitting her 30’s? Did she ever have children? If so, where were they? Here was someone’s daughter, here was someone’s sister, here was maybe someone’s mother, sitting on that wet concrete in the bustling, buzzing heat of that city night after years of who-knows-what had happened to her. And she just sat there, for the most part ignored.
That night my friends and I spent time with her, hugged her, laughed with her, and left her with more Baht than she had started the night with. We loved her, but we didn’t change her living situation or her sense of personal security. We didn’t help her take steps away from that street corner or her “bedroom” on the edge of a parking garage. We left her where we found her when we walked away.
I don’t want to have to just walk away anymore.
I founded a company last year with a close friend of mine (who has been working to empower women for years). We called the company Shema, which means “hear” or “listen” in Hebrew. We are hearing with our hearts to develop sustainable solutions of empowerment for women at-risk like Jiit. We are establishing 25 small sewing cooperatives in Southeast Asia over the next five years, cooperatives where women like Jiit will be given not only a job, but be made part-owners of the cooperative, given a voice, given job-training, educational opportunities, and a place to heal in the context of a small community of women working together. We are partnering with organizations that rescue and rehabilitate women and children from human-trafficking to be able to offer rescued women a place where they can work and grow and heal with others.
Think about this: 15 women becoming business owners organized into one cooperative where they will learn to run their business well - and this isn’t the end of the line; we are offering the women the opportunity to begin their education or resume what was tragically interrupted. We want them to discover what was in their hearts all along. We want them to start dreaming again and go after those dreams. We want Shema to be a springboard for them into the life they actually were created for but never had the opportunity to pursue.
We are listening for a new way where social business becomes the sustainable answer for empowering women at-risk like Jiit and rescued survivors. We are developing an exclusive clothing line that will be sewn by the cooperatives and sold in US and other global markets - where some of those profits will support the organizations rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked women and children - completing the circuit. As our model of producer-owned cooperatives is refined (read: at-risk and rescued women owning the cooperatives in which they work), our cooperatives will spread and multiply over three separate countries in Southeast Asia, and more women will be empowered and more lives changed.
And finally, we are helping these women tell their stories - stories of hope, stories of healing, stories of love.
We need help telling these stories; we need help establishing these cooperatives. We are crowdfunding the operating costs of Shema and we still need 2000 people to each give $50 to hit our goal. Help us tell these stories of love. Give $50, share our story on your social media platform, invite people in your network to like us on Facebook. Help us get the word out and change more lives and tell more stories than we ever could on our own.
I now know a little more as to why I was drawn to that little woman Jiit on the street-corner that summer night in Bangkok: it’s because I was hearing with my heart. I couldn’t hear the tune yet, I couldn’t make out what the story was, but I was hearing something. And now I don’t have to just walk away.
Listen. What are you hearing?