Happiness Through Helping Others – A Journey (Article)

Hey mate,

I hope this finds you better than ever and loving the summer weather!

In the not too distant future, Athletic Greens and team will be opening a charitable fund related to helping other people.

It has been in the pipeline for a long time. It is something that will make me very happy.

When I spoke to my big sister, Liana, about my ideas for this, she wanted in.

As part of our research on what makes people happy (and I mean, really really happy), as well as our research on what constitutes a GREAT social organization, and to grow our understanding of the non-profit space, we decided that Liana should go and invest some time with various charitable organizations, working in very different spheres, as a volunteer.

We started by sending Liana off to Thailand, to meet with a friend of mine, Alezandra Russell.

You will read all about the cool stuff that Alez has been up to in the article below.

Now, I first met Alez at Summit Series, an invitational event for people doing very cool things.

Alez was my first choice for a visit from Liana for three reasons.

1: Alez is an absolutely amazing person, it is impossible NOT to like Alez, a LOT, within SECONDS of meeting her.

2: Alez runs an awesome organization doing very cool things (you will read about that later) and

3. Alez is one of, if not THE happiest person I know.

Liana went to visit Alez in Thailand, to watch, to learn.

This is not our usual type of post and health and fitness. Liana is a brilliant writer, I think you will enjoy her story about Alez and that journey – it would easily make for a feature article in a magazine like The New Yorker.

You will also be outraged.

Enter Liana……

 

On the power of love, and happiness through helping exploited

children—Urban Light, Thailand


At the beginning of 2013 I spent a week at a charity in Thailand. Urban Light is dedicated to helping young teenage boys exploited by so called ‘sex tourists’ from the countries that you and I call home. Every year thousands of men visit Thailand to have sex with minors, creating untold harm to young minds and bodies.

I didn’t know much about the prostitution of minors or human trafficking before I went, and I’m guessing you might not either. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable, confrontational subject, and even when it is discussed, boys are often forgotten. It’s time to change that and speak out. It’s time to help.

Come with me on my journey, and share some of my experiences with the amazing staff and boys of Urban Light.

To find out more about Urban Light and to support their cause, visit http://www.urban-light.org/ or the Urban Light Facebook page.

© Urban Light

January 2013

The tiny red tuk-tuk puttered to a stop and a young American woman got out, coming towards us with the hugest smile I’ve ever seen.

It doesn’t take long to love Alezandra Russell (about five minutes), or to realise that she is one of those rare and special people who really do make the world a better place. She fills a room with energy and laughter, and gives so much light and love away to others that simply being around her is life affirming. She is also stubborn and determined. With Alez, outrage turns into action.

These are valuable qualities in her line of work. As founder and centre mom at Urban Light, a charity dedicated to restoring, rebuilding and empowering the lives of sexually trafficked and exploited boys in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Alez is fighting a dark and disturbing war.

The commercial sexual exploitation of minors isn’t an easy subject, and this is made worse by the tendency for teenage boys to be overlooked in debates on child exploitation and trafficking. But Alez cares, and she and her team have helped many of the boys to change their lives.

Alez, Urban Light founder and centre mom. © Urban Light.

I spent a week volunteering at Urban Light earlier this year and I can tell you that the boys are remarkable.

The writer at Urban Light, with the boys’ artwork on the wall. © Liana Ashenden.

 

First impressions

The ‘boy bars’ where men from Western and Eastern countries come to indulge their paedophilic fantasies tend to be in the Night Bazaar area, and as the boys are here, the centre is located nearby.

When I pad barefoot across the centre’s cool, clean floor for the first time, my senses are overwhelmed. The air is thick with chilli smoke, stinging my eyes and throat, and woks sizzle as the cook makes everyone lunch. Youtube music blares from several of the centre’s laptops, different songs and artists playing at full volume all at the same time. (Like teenage boys everywhere, the Urban Light boys love their music and Facebook.) The showers have wet the toilet floor and there are boxes of condoms by the hand basin. In a room upstairs there is a couch, a TV, lots of cushions on the floor, and a table covered with crayons and paper.

Alez says enthusiastic hellos in her beautiful, big voice. A chubby boy practically bowls her over with a hug. She laughs and talks to him in Thai. The boy is curious about us farang (foreigners). He gives a tentative, lopsided smile showing the gap between his front teeth. Although ‘B’ hasn’t been coming to the centre for long, it is clear that he and Alez already have a bond, teasing each other like brother and sister. He has very dirty feet, clothes and hair. As B hangs off one of her arms, Alez tells us that he sleeps under a bridge and makes a meagre living by catching turtles in Chiang Mai’s river, which he sells to temple monks for a few baht (Thai currency).

‘B’ caught these baby turtles as a gift for an Urban Light youth worker.

After a while B decides we can be buddies and insists that I sit with him. I am treated to that huge smile, the gap showing in his teeth, and several smelly hugs. The Thailand Director at Urban Light keeps a close watch. All volunteers are told not to initiate any touch with the boys, and also not to accept massages or other inappropriate contact. One of the challenges the boys face is how to re-learn normal physical interaction after boundaries have been broken.

Although the sex tourists (also known as punters or ‘Johns’) are men, almost all of the boys identify as straight. However B is more like an oversized puppy with me than a confused adolescent. Alez and I worry about his mental health. He comes across as a very young child in a teen body and may have learning difficulties. Unfortunately, I don’t see him again during my time at the centre, but I know that Alez and her team will gradually learn more about B and help him if they can.

The boys usually hear about Urban Light from other boys or from Urban Light staff talking to them on outreach in the red light district. A free hot lunch every day is what gets them through the door. Many are homeless, like B, and the chance to lie down and sleep for a few hours on soft cushions is as appealing as the food. It makes a change from the hard surfaces of the streets and market in the Night Bazaar.


The free hot lunch is delicious and healthy, as my mother and I can vouch for. Yum. (© Liana Ashenden)

The boys take a chance to rest and to check Facebook

Many of the boys escape from the pain and humiliation through drugs and alcohol. They may suffer from physical and mental health issues, and feel shame, guilt and abandonment. The damage to their wellbeing is incalculable, so it is not surprising that they are distrustful and wary when they start coming to Urban Light. I meet several such boys in my first few days.

‘Y’ paces endlessly from room to room, up and down the stairs. He moves like a caged monkey, except that at Urban Light he is free to come and go. He swaggers and blusters, making big swinging motions with his arms, eyes restless, mouth open slightly, unable to concentrate or sit still for more than a few minutes. He is 15 or 16.

‘P’ has a small, fragile body lost in an oversized t-shirt. His beautiful child’s face is sullen. He is aloof, not talking to the other boys. My father comments to Alez about P’s difficulty walking and sitting. I feel sick thinking of the cause and try hard not to cry. Yet P, like Y, has cultivated a tough, defensive, street-smart attitude. When the activities get too much, he goes outside, leans against a scooter parked on the street and smokes. He won’t tell us his age, but looks about 12 or 13.

Like B, these boys are homeless and have only one set of clothes and one set of shoes (or none). They hang back during class time, watching the more relaxed boys who have been coming for a while. They won’t use the centre’s showers, not yet. Alez explains that the newcomers are in survival mode, and she wants to give them space to learn to trust others and feel safe again. Much of my time is spent doing just that, playing games like UNO and darts and talking to the boys in English, because that is one thing all of them want to learn.

I see scars and signs of injury, and ask Alez about it. The smiles and light vanish from her face, her dark eyes inscrutable. ‘The men are not nice people,’ she says at last. Medical care is one of the core services that the charity provides and a paediatrician is on call for emergencies. Many of the boys have never seen a GP or dentist before their first check up at an Urban Light clinic day. Staff also run workshops on health topics, such as HIV/AIDs.

 

Visible change

Even during my short week at Urban Light, I see the new boys start to open up. The speed of change takes me by surprise.

One day Y asks Alez to buy him some shoes. When the centre closes they go to the market and Alez buys him not only shoes but also a cool new haircut, which he is very proud of. It makes an amazing difference. Y becomes the prankster during group activities and chats and laughs, playing jokes on Urban Light’s youth developer. He manages to sit still for long enough to take part in an English class (a major achievement). In quieter moments he opens up to Alez about his life and dreams for the future. Y’s intelligences become apparent. Somehow he has managed to memorize the world map and can point to any country or city you name. It’s been months now since I was there and I am amazed and delighted to see him relaxed in recent Urban Light photos on Facebook, with book in hand, reading.

‘Y’ is very smart and has learned the world map inside out

English classes at Urban Light

Baking is one of the regular activities that Urban Light provides for the boys. During an afternoon class we get covered in flour making banana muffins. There must be something therapeutic about a task like baking, because while we wait for the sweet-smelling muffins to come out of the oven, P starts to smile and giggle, and his squeaky voice (loud for such a small boy) can be heard teasing the others.

The biggest sign of change comes from long-term Urban Light boys. The ‘graduates’ who no longer work in the sex trade are now young men with self respect. Immaculate, polite, independent, they have jobs in market stalls, shops, restaurants and at Urban Light itself. They love Alez and the Urban Light crowd and drop by to say hello from time to time, so I get to meet some of them. One young man in his mid-twenties pauses on his scooter to show Alez a picture of his newborn baby daughter. He is proud and excited to be a dad.

Another boy gets a job working at 7/11 while I am there. As everyone congratulates him, he blushes and gives a proud, shy smile. It has taken a lot of determination to get to this point, supported by Urban Light: learning English along with budgeting and basic life skills, completing medical checks, obtaining a letter of guarantee from the village elder, opening a bank account, transitioning to sheltered housing, and applying and interviewing for the job. And of course the biggest, most courageous step of all, daring to leave the sex trade. Each of these obstacles can seem insurmountable to the boys, who have left home and community behind at an age when they should still be at school. Urban Light steps in to fill the gap and help them climb the barriers.

 

Origins—the village

The commercial sexual exploitation of children, or the prostitution of minors, almost always involves vulnerable youngsters. Risk factors include poverty, lack of education, homelessness and/or marginalisation, and all of these play out in the boys’ stories.

When Alez first came to Chiang Mai years ago, the boys she met in the bars had come from a small village of the Akha tribe in rural, northern Thailand. The Akha are a semi-nomadic hill people who immigrated from China and Burma a century ago. Their culture and language are distinct from Thai, and the Akha people are often treated as second-class citizens. The Akha villagers are also very poor. They rarely educate their children beyond state-subsidised primary school due to the cost of transport, books and uniforms. As there is no work in the villages, teenage boys and girls make the long journey to a city like Chiang Mai in hopes of a job, cash to send home to their parents and a better life for their families.

Marginalisation. Poverty. Lack of education. It’s a heady brew to begin with and homelessness is often soon added to the mix.

When the boys arrive in the city, they are woefully unprepared, and soon discover that they cannot even find basic work without Thai or English fluency, vocational skills or a minimum educational certificate. They might sell flowers to the tourists flooding the Night Bazaar. Many children who end up in the sex trade start this way; it makes them easy prey for traffickers and paedophiles. Once one boy gains a fistful of baht from selling his body, his friends may follow. Their families receive the cash through an informal Akah postal system (from hand to hand), never knowing how it was earned.

This is from the US Government’s 2012 Report on Trafficking in Persons:

‘People fall victim to trafficking for many reasons. Some may simply be seeking a better life, a promising job, or even an adventure. Others may be poverty stricken and forced to migrate for work, or they may be marginalized by their society. These vulnerabilities do not mean that those who are victimized are dependent on someone else to empower them. It often means that they had the courage to pursue an opportunity that they believed would change their lives and support their families. Traffickers see and understand this reality, and through imbalances in power and information—and a willingness to use coercion and violence—they take advantage of their victims’ hope for a better future.’

Alez continues to perform regular outreach in the village of her original Urban Light boys, trying to change that imbalance. We go on a three hour bus journey with her and arrive at a beautiful valley with green hills receding into the distance. The village is a cluster of thatched bamboo houses raised on stilts on the steep slopes. Chickens, dogs and cats roam about freely. It is quiet as we make our way through the narrow streets, a group of out-of-place farang standing back as Alez and an Urban Light staff member speak to the villagers.

The village  (© Liana Ashenden)

Women squat amidst grass flower heads drying in the sun. They will roll them into traditional brooms and sell them for a pittance. Later, back in Chiang Mai, I see housewives sweeping their floors with the brooms and think of the Akha women at their backbreaking work. One of the Urban Light boy’s father returns from the forest with a huge bale of thatch on his back, adding it to a growing pile by the side of the road. It’s a hard life, and the parents have aged decades to look more like grandparents. Many of the old ways are no longer possible. Akha men used to roam the forests to hunt squirrels for food and tap rubber trees to sell, but forest rangers now patrol and severely beat any trespassers. And there are the dangers from organized crime gangs running opium through the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’.

Making brooms (© Liana Ashenden)

 


Back-breaking labor (© Liana Ashenden)

Alez and the Urban Light youth worker who has accompanied us squat down beside the women and talk. Alez tells one mother how well her son is doing in his new job at a restaurant (which Urban Light has helped him to get), and asks if she has a message for Alez to take back. ‘Work harder every day,’ the mother says, hands shielding her eyes. I begin to understand, in a new and visceral way, something of the powerful pressure the boys feel from the people they love, in their desperation and poverty.

The other side of the problem is that when parents receive money from a working child, they gain status in the village, which only serves to add to the pressure on the boys back in Chiang Mai. There are signs of this recent, hard-earned wealth, with satellites perched on some of the thatched roofs. The dirt streets were paved with concrete for the first time only a year ago.

Alez is trying to get the villagers to value work that might pay less but that makes their children happier. Do the parents comprehend what has really happened to their boys? I don’t know, for sure.

Urban Light pays ‘A’ to weave bracelets as a way to keep him out of the bars and out of the reach of the men. A is one of the sweetest boys I’ve met, with a lovely, gentle face and smile. He is very shy. He hasn’t come to the village with us—it’s too painful for the boys to come back, for a whole host of reasons that I’m sure you can understand. I get to meet ‘A’s mother, and am humbled when I learn that the money from his bracelets has paid for electricity to her house. To build a new house from scratch in the village costs only 7000 baht ($240).

‘A’s bracelet job in Chiang Mai has given his family electricity. A’s proud mom shares photos with Urban Light staff.

When the children finish school the village is transformed into a joyful, noisy playground. We hand out jellies and candy and they run around laughing and talking and chasing each other at a million miles an hour, in great excitement about the visiting farang. They are cute and happy and it breaks my heart to watch them play. I thank goodness for Alez and Urban Light’s outreach work, in the hope that they won’t become victims like their older brothers and sisters.

Innocent laughing children at play—life before leaving the village for the city. (© Liana Ashenden)

Breaking the cycle is crucial. ‘F’ is an inspiration to the boys (and to me, and to everyone he meets). Now in his twenties, he has turned his life around and become a youth worker for Urban Light. He loves playing the guitar, singing, reading, and games. His personal example is as important as the energy and compassion that he brings to work. I ask F if the boys look up to him. He says, with simple candour, that they admire his English and that he came off drugs.

F is determined that his two younger sisters won’t meet the same fate as other children from the village, so he is paying for them to stay in education—one is now at university, the other is at school. I meet the 16 year old sister when she leaps off the truck from high school, excited to see Alez and her brother in the village. She is very beautiful, and would be a trafficker’s target in an instant. ‘I am watching her like a hawk,’ Alez says fiercely.

Raising awareness internationally is also crucial, and Alez spends part of each year fundraising and speaking across the US. A volunteer film crew has come with us to the village and they shoot some footage interviewing Alez and F.


It has been the most incredible day, and I will never forget it or the Akha people I met there.

Outrage

Visiting the village and seeing the strong community with its unique culture, along with its poverty, has helped me to understand a little of where the boys come from and why they are so vulnerable to exploitation.

What I don’t understand is the demand side. The men, the paedophile sex tourists. Alez agrees to take me to the area known as ‘sleaze alley’ near the Night Bazaar. At one time there were boy bars all along this stretch of dark road, she tells me. Many have closed due to scrutiny and a few publicized police arrests, despite the rampant corruption. Alez explains that the closures have driven the problem underground, into private homes and online, making it much more difficult for her and her team to find and help the boys.

We sit in a bar that has a partial view of sleaze alley and slowly sip our Chang beers. F has come with Alez and is silent. I can’t begin to imagine what is going through his head and in a way I’m grateful that I don’t know. Through the foliage 100 yards away I glimpse a fat, balding, sweating foreigner in a white shirt sitting at a table. There are three or four Thai boys at the table with him, playing cards. I can’t see their faces.

Two foreign men pass close by us. They are nervous and peer towards the boy bars and up and down the street before moving in that direction. ‘They always come in pairs,’ Alez says. I feel sick to my stomach. They look like granddads from back home. Clean white hair, glasses, short-sleeved shirts and khaki shorts, sandals. I would never have picked them as paedophiles in a million years. Their familiarity has really shocked me.

One of the original Urban Light boys, Oi, wrote a letter about his life during a workshop. He wrote ‘I don’t understand why these men even like us young boys—I feel bad for their wives, some even carry pictures of their children in their wallets. I don’t understand how they can treat us like trash and then go home and hug their own children. We, too, are somebody’s child.’[1]

The hypocrisy makes me want to howl. My anger has smouldered every night and day since I left Urban Light. I barely sleep some nights. I cannot understand why anyone would want to have sex with a child. I am so profoundly ashamed that men from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan—my countries—go to Thailand to have sex with underage boys and girls.

Why don’t the police DO something? I can hear you ask it. I’ve asked it too. Corruption is definitely alive and well, but there is also ignorance and indifference to boys as sexual victims, which Alez has to battle and negotiate every day in her work for Urban Light. In fact, the boys tend to be arrested and put in jail rather than recognised as needing help!

This attitude is not restricted to Thailand. A study of commercial sexual exploitation in California notes the following:

‘Exploited boys are less likely than girls to have a pimp or other adult exploiter. Instead, peer introduction is a more common gateway into commercial sexual exploitation. … Reflecting this gender distinction, exploited boys often view themselves as “hustlers” rather than prostitutes, and consequently may be criminalized because they do not fit the “victim” mold.’[2]

When an Urban Light boy is put in jail (the paedophile men hardly ever are), Alez and her team continue their work, visiting, taking care packages and ensuring he is not forgotten.

 

Please help

The issues are extremely complex, but at the heart of it all are real, living, breathing, suffering boys. Teenagers with dreams of the future and hopes of bettering the lives of their families.It may seem like a problem that’s far away, but think about this—where do the sex tourists come from? Who are these men? Perhaps you’ve queued behind a sex tourist in the supermarket checkout today, or in the airport, on his way to destroy a child’s life. We need to speak out and take action, because silence helps only the ‘Johns’ and traffickers, and this is a GLOBAL issue.

If you would like to hear more about how YOU can help boys like chubby ‘B’, shy ‘A’ and small defiant ‘P’ recover their lives and become healthy young men who can break the cycle, then please tell your friends, go to and then share the link at http://www.urban-light.org/, “like” UrbanLight on Facebook, and please, please donate.

Having seen the boys and the work of the charity firsthand, I can assure you that Urban Light is a worthy cause to support.

Thank you for listening, and for your open heart and mind,

Liana

 

Further information on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation

Some of you might not have heard of human trafficking. If you have, you might associate it with kidnapping or moving people across borders, but this is not necessarily the case. The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child under 18 years of age for the purpose of exploitation is considered ‘trafficking in persons’ even if it does not involve coercion or deception.

Trafficking in people = modern day slavery.

Slavery never ended. More than 20 million women, men and children around the world are being exploited right now for compelled commercial sexual exploitation, prostitution of minors, forced labor, debt bondage, or other practices similar to slavery. Including people in countries like the US and UK.[3]

Despite growing awareness, the problem is only getting worse, because human trafficking pays. Forced labor generates about USD $32 billion in profits per year for criminals, from the lowest level trafficker to the largest, international, organized crime networks, and only a small percentage of criminals are ever prosecuted.[4]

How does this relate to the commercial exploitation of children? Any minor under the age of 18 who is commercially sexually exploited is considered a trafficking victim.

In 2000, the United Nations met in Italy and agreed a convention to combat organized crime, the Palermo Protocol. The convention includes a protocol to ‘prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children’.[5]

In addition to anti-trafficking laws, a convention agreed by country members of the International Labor Organization prohibits the following ‘worst forms of child labor’ for all minors under 18 years:

a)     all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced of compulsory labour;

b)    the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution or pornographic performances;

c)     the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs;

d)    work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.[6]

Urban Light boys have experienced these worst forms of child labor banned by international law.

Their abusers are not likely to be punished.

 

References:


[2] Kate Walker, California Child Welfare Council, Ending The Commercial Sexual

Exploitation Of Children: A Call For Multi-System Collaboration In California (2013)

Available at: http://www.youthlaw.org/fileadmin/ncyl/youthlaw/publications/Ending-CSEC-A-Call-for-Multi-System_Collaboration-in-CA.pdf, http://www.courts.state.ny.us/ip/womeninthecourts/LMHT.pdf

 

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About the author
Chris 'The Kiwi'
So named because he comes from a little country in the Pacific called New Zealand where a small, fat, quasi-blind, and largely defenseless bird by the name of “Kiwi” is the national animal, and what we are called when we land in other countries. He is focused on using what he can remember from his studies for a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science and his cumulative years as a nutritionist and strength coach to help other people enjoy amazing levels of health and energy. He enjoys ticking through his list of life goals and meeting new people.
  • KendrickS

    Anyone have a link to the atricle about about streching after ~45 minutes of sitting and such? Searched for a few hours to no avail.

  • Amy Locke

    Thanks, Chris, for enlightening me on this uplifting (and horrific) story. Love your product…love your passion. Saving the world, one child at a time…

    • Anonymous

      Thank you so much Amy. Really means a lot. Alez is amazing. C

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