A Light Shines in Unimaginable Darkness

Written by Ashlee Heiligman, Global Director of Global Child Advocates, Photography by The Archibald Project and Global Child Advocates

Written by Ashlee Heiligman, Global Director of Global Child Advocates, Photography by The Archibald Project and Global Child Advocates

10 years ago I met a little girl begging on the streets of Mae Sot, Thailand. I didn’t know it then, but this little girl would change my life forever.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! What made you want to get involved with this work? What lead you here? 

Seeing images and hearing stories of human suffering and injustice has always had a huge impact on me, even as a child. I remember seeing images on the news in the 90’s of emaciated kids trapped in Romanian orphanages, and I couldn’t get them out of my head. I didn’t know how, but I knew I wanted my life to somehow be part of the solution for kids like that.

After earning my Bachelors in Social Work, I worked with C.A.S.A. and a Residential Treatment Center for teens in the juvenile system. At 25, I was invited into a discipleship program with 3-months abroad, and saying yes, changed my life. In Thailand, my heart came alive despite the dark realities we were exposed to. Meeting one little girl in Mae Sot led me to sell all of my stuff and move there a year later… That was 10 years ago!

Tell us about Global Child Advocates and the work you are doing there!

I now work for Global Child Advocates, which is a team of Jesus followers, who seek to ensure that every child has someone safe that they belong to long-term. What began as a small rescue mission, taking in children who had been abused or trafficked, has matured over the last 10 years towards family-based care. We recognized through experience that children, especially those affected by trauma, need much more than shelter and a family-like environment. They need a loving family of their own. 

We work in extremely marginalized communities where many children are at high risk of trafficking and abandonment. We come around families who are struggling the most and become their advocates and allies, training them in child protection and providing resources to help them stay together.

When prevention is not possible, we call on local government to respond in communities that are otherwise unheard. We provide safe refuge for victims in our short-term Emergency Shelter during the assessment and investigation phase. Our goal for every survivor is to be reunified with safe family members or placed into a long-term foster family.

I can’t even begin to imagine how hard these stories are. What in a child’s life has led them to being trafficked? 

While there are definitely evil people everywhere and there are parents who abuse and outright sell their children for money, this is not the norm. Most parents instinctively love their children. It is how we are wired.

What we’ve encountered most often is that parents are tricked by traffickers posing as an orphanage or boarding house director, aid workers, or they come offering a better life and opportunities for education and work in Bangkok. Some desperate parents even know that if they tell a good-intentioned NGO that they’re going to sell their child, that NGO will do anything to prevent trafficking. They’ll take that child and raise them in a ‘much better’ environment than the parent could ever provide.

Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, those with low self-esteem, no family support, and lacking attachment. Minors living in orphanages or those who’ve been removed from their families are much more likely to be voluntarily trafficked because of their unmet emotional needs. Romeo pimps woo impressionable, insecure teens into loving relationships they can’t resist, only to use that psychological control against them later.

That is so heart breaking… Is there ever the chance for reunifying kids and survivors with family members and parents?

Yes! When a child comes into emergency care, we gather all essential information possible from other agencies involved and from the child.  For older children and teens, activities like mobility mapping can help them process their life story and identify places children have lived and places they’ve been harmed. Children can participate too. Our team recently took our Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) and Emergency Shelter kids to a local waterfall and a little boy in our care said, “I used to live over there!”. From that small statement, our team later took his picture around and they were able to find relatives and unravel his story! He was also able to tell us who he did and did not feel safe with.

When kids cannot go home to family members, how does GCA get involved?

When being reunified with family is not an option, we have an MOU with the government, which allows us to recruit and screen long-term foster families through the local church because there is not a foster care system in Thailand. We equip and prepare families and ensure the placement is a good fit for a child through bonding sessions. We monitor placements as often as needed and provide resources as necessary.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when working with survivors?

Childhood trauma changes the way a child’s brain develops and affects how they interpret the world around them. They push back and struggle to receive the love that will ultimately heal them. It just takes time and patience to help them see we are for them in every way.
It’s also extremely difficult when we are unable to control the outcomes for survivors. Because we work with the government, sometimes victims in our care are moved too quickly or without our input on where they should go.

Daniel recently visited two girls in Yangon who had been in our care for a couple years. They are from Myanmar but the Thai government referred them to us. Their trauma was intense. They witnessed their father murder their mother and once he was arrested, their aunt shipped them off to the nearest orphanage. When dad got out of jail, he came for them and the orphanage didn’t ask questions. Both were sexually abused for years until they couldn’t take it anymore. They ran away together, and with no legal identity they ended up in government custody, and were brought to us.

While in our care, they were loved unconditionally within relationships of trust. They began to understand their incredible value in the eyes of God and they were both thriving in that. The older sister was one of our first artisans in Sojourn Studio and had recently taken up sewing too. Her heart was transformed and she was in such a healthy place, that she stood up one day in our team meeting to share about how she had changed. She shared that she actually did want to see her dad again someday, just to tell him that she had forgiven him for all that he had done.

Several months later, their cases were reviewed by Myanmar’s child welfare department and it was determined that both should return to Myanmar to receive proper legal papers. They are now kept in a large government shelter and they feel like it is a prison.  They said it is a mess of chaos, trauma, and instability. This was Daniel and his team’s 2nd visit to check-in on their care to make sure they are safe and to see if they could return to Mae Sot. However, the directors were not receptive to working with us on a family-based solution. Daniel said that GCA won’t give up and will keep advocating for these girls’ safety and their futures.

With how complex human trafficking is and the work you are doing, what motivates you to keep going when the work you are doing is filled with heart break? 

The stories of healing and restoration are my main drive. The only way I cope with the realities of human suffering that we’re all exposed to every day, is by taking action. Even if it’s incredibly small compared to the scope of need, I just feel compelled to do something.

Whether it’s finding an ethical organization in Syria and Yemen to support, praying for cyclone victims, or empowering our team in Thailand, I can’t just feel the pain of others and move on to the next post. It weighs too heavy on me.

Jesus gets all the credit for that though. His love makes my heart feel their pain.

Are there ways that people can get involved in supporting GCA?

Yes! Anyone can advocate with us.  Go to https://globalchildadvocates.org/advocate to find out how.

  • Follow us on Instagram for ongoing opportunities!
  • Empower survivors and moms by purchasing ceramic jewelry from our social enterprise, Sojourn Studio!
  • Support our work.

“They need a loving family of their own.” -

“They need a loving family of their own.”



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