Celebrating Two Survivors’ First Steps

Learning to Trust After Unimaginable Torment

A few months before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I stood from an upper floor and watched as one of our vans drove into Ratanak’s centre in Cambodia. As the Founding Director, I’d seen this before, but something was different. This van carried extremely precious cargo… two young women, recently escaped from slavery in China. They were bedraggled, wearing ill-fitting clothes. Both were skinny and their body language communicated defeat. 

As a male foreigner, I understood my presence might trigger newly arrived survivors. It’s for this reason I’ve never been present for a homecoming. 

Later that evening, dinner was planned with our Cambodian staff and some of the young women in residence. This doesn’t happen often, and I was excited to participate. 

It’s key that new survivors feel safe. Visits are carefully managed. They only happen when survivors are ready and when introducing trusted visitors would be positive. On this occasion, it was a young woman’s birthday, and I was the trusted visitor. 

The new arrivals would be one floor up in their rooms, away from the festivities, which could be overwhelming. This evening was time for them to adjust to their new environment, while staff worked to gain their trust in these sensitive initial hours of freedom.  

Walking into the room for dinner, I was greeted by smiles and laughter. And then something surprising happened… The women who’d arrived only hours before wanted to come down for dinner and have birthday cake with the larger group!

It all happened very quickly.

There they stood, smiling. I tried to make myself as small as possible, not wanting them to be threatened. Shooting glances to staff, I was reassured that it was okay. Even though I was there, they still wanted to be with the group. 

It’s important—right from the start—to demonstrate that newly arrived survivors have freedom. If they want to join the group, instead of getting used to their new surroundings, then they’re free to join. 

This was my first opportunity to see new arrivals and watch our staff work with their trauma. Their skill was obvious, but I was especially moved by their expressions of love and tenderness. I was careful to speak softly, making every movement gentle, smiling constantly. 

It was a birthday celebration, but I’ve never seen such trauma. 

The new young women looked like teenagers, really, and one appeared absolutely wild. Her eyes darted from side to side. It looked like she was trying to figure out how she could escape. Despite assurances from staff, she looked scared she was being re-trafficked. 

Considering everyone had lied to her in the past, why would she believe us? 

Previously rescued young women held her hands and comforted her. It might sound strange, but her face was in constant motion, twisting and contorting involuntarily. As I watched, it seemed she was rapidly cycling through emotions in a continuous loop. 

Hope, terror, joy, panic, relief, shock, repeat. 

To be honest, I’m crying as I type to you—it’s completely overwhelming to me. I’ve never seen a person act in this manner.

She would momentarily dare to hope she was safe, laugh and embrace whoever was close. Then, she’d recoil, appearing to check windows and doors for escape routes. The profound torment this young woman had endured was written all over her face. Throughout, Ratanak staff treated her with the utmost kindness and tenderness. 

In contrast, the other new arrival was happy, smiling, laughing, and embracing those around her. She was free! She was rarely still for long, serving others food, engaging in animated conversation and grinning from ear to ear. 

After our meal, she cleared plates, helped with dishes, and energetically swept the floor. I was struck by how well she was doing. Remember, she’s only been here for three hours, having just escaped slavery in China. If nothing else, I thought, she should be exhausted.

What’s going on?  

As I watched, her happy, frenzied, helpful energy broke my heart. Was she still in slavery mode, desperately trying to please us? Attempting to prevent punishment by being the perfect resident so she’d be safe? 

I found this even more overwhelming than the obvious trauma of the other young woman. It appeared that I was watching someone who was conditioned to be a slave. No matter how exhausted and overwhelmed she was, she was trained to serve with a smile. 

I was watching a survivor surviving. 

For both these young women, balance and dignity are still far off. 

And yet, I’d recently had dinner with several Ratanak Achievement Program (RAP) alumni and other Ratanak staff. With time and support, these self-assured young women had come to know dignity and confidence. They’d become university grads who are now working to restore others. 

They used to call me “dad”, which was lovely, but submissive. Now, I’m “Brian” to them…a colleague in the fight against slavery and a partner in our restoration work. Most importantly, they see me as their equal. What a joyous outcome! 

I am more grateful than I can express for your partnership with Ratanak over the past 30 years. You have and continue to make transformations like these possible by passionately pursuing hope, freedom and dignity for Cambodia’s marginalized, exploited and vulnerable. 

The journey has begun. Hand-in-hand with our staff, these two women are on the long road to wholeness, held up by the Great Physician. By the time you read this, I hope they both find that their hearts are beating slower. That they’re no longer looking for escape routes or feverishly serving. I hope they’re beginning to realize that, yes, they are loved and that they are finally safe.  

Thank you for making this possible; I am deeply grateful for your support in these challenging times!


Brian McConaghy

Founding Director


A New Project with the Future in Mind

Ratanak’s heartbeat doesn’t stop with preventing exploitation and caring for survivors. It extends to investing in improved national systems in Cambodia to accomplish long-term changes that protect the vulnerable. 

With our 30 year history of service in Cambodia and the success of our RAP and MAP services, Ratanak has built strong relationships with the Anti-Human Trafficking Department within the Ministry of Social Affairs. 

This department connects survivors with services to help them recover and monitors those services for quality. Ratanak works closely with this governmental department to ensure trafficking survivors in our RAP and MAP programs are well supported so they can begin rebuilding their lives. 

Based on this relationship of trust, we were invited to create a National Technical Advisor position to collaborate between Ratanak and the Anti-Human Trafficking Department. What a privilege!  

We’re excited to have a skilled Ratanak staff member filling this new position, advising on strategy and capacity building efforts within the Anti-Human Trafficking Department. Through this role, Ratanak is thrilled to invest in national anti-human trafficking systems, contributing towards the long-term protection of vulnerable Cambodians. 

Amidst this public health crisis, please pray with us for good collaboration, connection and a continued strong relationship as this initiative launches!


Serving Together in 2020

I’m always challenged by the response Jesus gives in Matthew 11 to John’s disciples when they directly ask him if he is the long-expected Messiah. Jesus’ answer is significant.

“Go and report back to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

These words from Jesus are a reminder to us that meeting the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized in society are direct evidence of the presence of Jesus in our world. Though we are facing new challenges with COVID 19 affecting people across our planet, we are still called to serve those who are most vulnerable.  

2020 marks Ratanak’s 30th anniversary of serving Cambodians in this way. 

Thank you for your partnership with our team in Canada and Cambodia as we seek to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus to so many in Cambodia.


Graeme Illman

Executive Director

*Images and/or some details have been altered as appropriate to protect the identity of those in our care.