All children have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness, to be protected, to develop to their full potential and to be able to participate.
– United Nations Convention Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
What sounds obvious, and we all can agree on, is not a reality for many children around the world. When traveling to Cambodia and Vietnam with Hope for Justice in November 2018 I saw the challenges of modern slavery first hand.
This is the story of Extreme Challenge.
It felt like walking into a sauna when the six of us Norwegians came out of the Phnom Penh International Airport. 33℃ with high humidity.
We were a total of 11 riders from Great Britain, one American, next to us Norwegians. A total of 18 riders were taking on the challenge to ride from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, over to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
A bike ride for freedom.
The first I did when arriving was changing my jeans to shorts, get a bottle of water and ice coffee. The coffee was not like Starbucks Frappuccino, it was just regular coffee cooled down with ice cubes.
Minutes later I was on a Tuk-tuk on my way to a local house church with Ketil and Sondre.
Normisjon, a Norwegian missionary organization, supports a local ministry where students get the opportunity to stay cheap and stay in a healthy environment. Without this place, the students would not be able to afford to live and study in the capital.
Soon, more young adults from Scandinavia were coming to work voluntarily for the upcoming months. We met many grateful students, next to three Danes helping out as kindergarten teachers.
The Cambodian pastor offered us a lunch, Norwegian chocolate, and coffee. Thrus quite simple living standard, it was only smiles to find.
A few hours later we returned to the hotel and moved our heads towards Hope for Justice and Extreme Challenge.
During the next days the 18 riders of us were going to cycle the 380 km to Ho Chi Minh City, and on the road meet children exposed to exploitation and forced labor. It was this it was all about, raise awareness on modern slavery.
We were also fundraising $250.000 to open a brand new office for Hope for Justice in Vietnam to strengthen the fight on modern slavery more places in the region.
It was a powerful journey we were heading into, both physically and emotionally.
Before started pedaling, we had one day in Phnom Penh. Hope for Justice has opened The Lighthouse, a short-term assessment and transition facility for young victims. We met girls down to the age of 12-years old, victims who were recently rescued of sex trafficking, forced labour or forced marriage.
When they had stayed here for 8 weeks, and was over the worst of trauma, they could continue in Hope for Justice own school, called the Dream Home. Here would the former victims will get education and be prepared to be re-integrated into society.
During the day, strong stories had been told, but it all became even more real when we went out to the riverside to the popular nightlife street of Phnom Penh. We saw young women, some not even teenagers, selling themself. We saw older western men asking the girls to come with them.
It is known, many of these young ones have dangerous criminal gangs or mafia forcing them to work as prostitutes, with no way out of it.
A sick world we shall not accept.
It was Tuesday October 30th 2018.
We dressed up and got the bikes. Trek Caliber Mountainbikes. The tour was led by Global Adventure Challenges.
30°C, but closer to 40°C in the sun. It got even warmer when I put on my backpack of rice. Yes - rice. 25 kilos of it. Why?
As the most experienced rider in the group I wanted to challenge myself a little further. The bike ride of 380 km was not too difficult for me, so I decided to carry 1 kilo of rice for each million child, women and man caught in slavery.
It was a struggle even to get the backpack on my back. But it felt right. I wanted to feel the pain of all those victims during this Extreme Challenge.
Before getting on the bikes we visited the Choeung Ek, a memorial erected to remember those who were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
It offered a brutal story, the memory from when the regime of Khmer Rouge murdered up to 3 million Cambodian in the late 70s. It is one of the worst political genocide in later history.
The Killing Fields tells us about a country which has been through lots of injustice and a reminder that enough is enough. Now it is time to make a just and fair future for the Cambodian people.
We started all days as early as 5.45 AM followed by a breakfast at 6. By 7 we started the bike ride.
We had some long days out, often we did not return to the hotel before 5 pm.
On the second day we followed the rice fields towards Vietnam. Not far from the border we stopped for a drink next to a children's primary school. We were met by many curious and shy kids. I decided to offer them biscuits, but they were really careful. Seldom I have seen such a respectful approach from kids. I saw they wanted biscuits, but nobody wanted to stand out and say "Yes, please." Normally kids ask: "Can I have one?" or "I also want when he got one." It was not like that here. I wonder why.
Maybe they had been disciplined not to be pushy. Or maybe the need for equality and fairness was not as strong here. Maybe they are used to not everyone having the same rights as others, or the need to think "Me first?" I do not know, but it was interesting to see the cute kids.
Soon they felt more confident with me and reached out to receive the biscuits, before we again were on the roads heading to Vietnam.
On the border we changed guides from our two Cambodian riders to two Vietnamese. After the passport check we went into new fields.
On the last part of the day's route we soon found roads of better quality, less road litter, and better air quality in the urban areas. Vietnam seemed to be a more developed country.
For the first time of the tour we rode in traffic. East Asian traffic may feels chaotic, but I really love the controlled chaos on the road in this part of the world. Like in China, which I know well.
Day three offered emotional highs and lows. We rode on beautiful roads alongside the river of Chau Doc. Small bridges took us over minor river streams, passing farms and fishermen. We shared the road with children, pedestrians on bikes, and motorcycles.
During the lunch we received a letter from our family home. It was a powerful moment reading it through. We had only been out of the country five days, but had already experienced heavy things. It was a strong reminder of how grateful we should be about everything we have home, and the people who cares and support us.
We shall not take that for granted. Not all are as lucky. Imagine the kids robbed their freedom with no connection with their families and friends. They have not only lost their freedom, joy, and future, but also safety and love.
Everyone should be loved and that is worth fighting for.
My shoulders started aching and my patience was suffering. For me cycling is all about freedom. With 25 kilos in my backpack, and a demand to always keep the pace of the group, I felt held back. Like riding with my brakes on. Or walking with a fetter. We were on some awesome single tracks, but I was not allowed to find my rhythm. I got impatience and unmotivated.
I told Ben Cooley, the CEO of Hope for Justice. He understood. He said he knew how it is to be held back. He feels that way every single day in his fight on modern slavery. Each day he has the thought:
"I could have done more. I am being limited on so many levels. Either it is corruption, unfair authorities, financial difficulties, or in other areas. But we cannot give in. We need to keep pushing and we'll reach the finish line."
His words spoke to me. This was a test of patience for me. Quite a stupid reason to feel depressed, I was after all on a bike tour. The feeling for freedom was taken away from me right now, but I was out riding with a great group of people in an amazing scenery.
My thoughts went to all those robbed their freedom daily. Those living a life in captivity with terrible living conditions, in bad air, limited food and clean water, and exploited in the worst manner. I have nothing to complain about.
After arriving Tran Vinh I went on a walk with Sondre. We went into the centre and found a local market. They had it all, from local coffee beans to fresh fish, socks and electronics. They even sold gold.
«Gold is the reason we are here,» said Sondre. «To put pressure to change the the dirty gold industry, where some miner companies are sending the younger kids in to the smaller passages where the machines can't get to. But in there, the air is so bad many get sick. It is illegal for companies to do this, and it has also been examples when the miner companies has quickly closed down the entrance of the mine passage when an inspector from the government is coming, so he would not see they are breaking the working regulations. That could easily lead to hypoxemia or lack of oxygen, and then the death of the kids who are caught inside. But it's cheaper for the company to find new kid workers than pay the penalty from the inspector.
After a Vietnamese coffee, which had a hint of cinnamon, we started walking back to the hotel. We knew we were walking on another street, but expected to find a shortcut in a backroad to the hotel. After walking a while, we realized we went too far. Soon we understood we were lost.
We did not remember the hotel, actually we did not even know the name of the city. We only knew we were somewhere in Vietnam with no mobile service. But in Southeast Asia, help is always near.
I saw an internet café, and asked if anyone could help. Everyone but one were busy playing CounterStrike. The one answered quietly: "I know a little English." I explained the situation and we looked up Google Maps. By searching all hotels and looking them up on photos we saw a building which seemed familiar. We wrote down the name of the hotel and went out for a cab.
No taxis were seen, so I rather went into the road to stop a girl on a scooter standing on a traffic light. I asked if she heard about our hotel and she nodded. I asked it she could take us. She said yes, but could only take one of us. Soon another scooter passed us. I waived him over and we asked him if he could take Sondre. Soon we both had our own private driver the 2-3 km back to the hotel. A service hard to find in the western world.
The driver of Sondre was named Jackie and spoke English well. In the evening the whole Extreme Challenge group went for a walk and the local helpers joined us too. Jackie loved talking and learned us a lot about Vietnam and how it is to be a young adult here. It seems to be a more difficult life, but he was going to University and will probably get a better life than the average Vietnamese.
Last day was just a celebration ride through the jungle. Local ferries took us across rivers, and out route followed forest trails and rural roads. They said we were on "traffickers paths," those minor roads leading into the villages where it is easier to find and "hire" the children. Probably the parents does not know what work the children are put to. In many cases the parents think the kids will work as waitresses or in factories, and there get a chance to earn their own wages.
They are probably not aware that many are being abused in forced labor or prostitution.
When we ride in these areas, we are seeing smiling kids and parents cheering and greeting to us. They say "Heeelllooo" and wave and laugh. It is depressing to think about some of these people will be tricked into modern slavery.
Organizations like Hope for Justice are sharing knowledge to the the communities about the risk of sending the children away to work. They are also working to help those captured in slavery out of the abuse. They want to give them an option and re-integrate them into society. The criminal traffickers need to be stopped and arrested. And all children should be able to grow up in a safe environment with open opportunities and no risk of becoming victims of modern slavery.
I did finish my bike ride with 25 kilos of rice in my backpack. It was uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the daily pain experienced by the 25 millions of slaves.
Modern slavery is a global issue. Slavery happens in Vietnam, it happens in Cambodia. But is also happens in our own cities. We need to get engaged and speak up.
We want to live in a world free of slavery.
Thanks to all your generous donations we did reach the target of $250.000. That is amazing and will help thousands of children in Vietnam.
Hope for Justice is doing a priceworthy work all around the globe, and you should check them out on their own website.
GET TO KNOW: Hope for Justice