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Welcome to Pattaya

On a humid Friday night, we are walking into the heart of Pattaya’s red light district. The air pulses with sound and heat. Bass thumps from deep within each bar and neon signs announce cheap beer, massages, and friendly girls. Caucasian men stroll hand-in-hand with Thai women half their age. Bar employees line the sidewalk, some waving to customers, some labeled with numbers, all of them wearing platform heels and little else. One club promises “Crazy Russian Girls” inside. Another displays a large marquee sign: “Good guys go to heaven. Bad guys go to Pattaya.”

This strip of clubs and brothels is called Walking Street. It is the prostitution hub of a city infamous for sex trafficking and exploitation. Pattaya, Thailand is known informally as the sex tourism capital of the world. It’s a place designed to fulfill anyone’s darkest fantasy. Here on Walking Street, everything is for sale: drugs, women, men, and kids. A forced festivity hangs over the scene like a veil. In the shadows, young women eat dinner from Styrofoam containers or check their phones before turning to face the street. A girl no older than twelve performs contortions for money, bending slowly backward until her face looks through her legs with vacant eyes. Underneath the lights and music, the smell of sewage lingers.

Tangled Roots

Thailand evokes images of ornate temples and elephant sanctuaries and of beaches with warm water the color of sky. People who visit talk about the food and the kindness of locals and the country’s sense of enchantment. No one talks about Pattaya. It’s seen as a dark place, the sordid side of Thailand’s tourist industry. Yet the city is a magnet. Girls—many in their early teens—move to Pattaya from across Thailand to find work, and men travel from across the world for their services.

Sex tourism in Thailand has such entrenched and tangled roots that it is hard to know where to begin unknotting them. The rise of prostitution can be traced to the Vietnam War, though it existed long before then. Today, girls turn to bars and brothels out of financial desperation or after being sold—often by their own family members. The overwhelming majority of girls who work in these bar-and-brothels come from poor, rural villages. Because Thai culture places the burden of caring for parents on females, girls as young as fourteen are forced to seek work. With no opportunity in their communities and little education, they travel to Pattaya to work in bars.

The story is equally complicated on the other end. Men who pay for sex with women and children have often endured their own sexual abuse or trauma, and there is no neat line to draw between victim and perpetrator. Pornography presents another root problem as its supply increases the demand for prostitution. And while prostitution is constitutionally illegal in Thailand, it’s estimated to generate $6.4 billion USD in revenue. For a developing country, there’s little incentive to crack down on such a lucrative business.

In the face of this deeply complex and disturbing issue, a small team of reformers has moved closer to Pattaya’s pain. Thrive Rescue has plunged into the city’s darkness knowing that light also lingers, and that restoration is not just a possibility but a promise.

Photo by: Gregory Woodman

A Place to Thrive

Four years ago, Jeremy and Jenifer Kraus moved to Thailand on faith and little else. Their life in Orange County, California, had taken a few devastating turns and they believed God was calling them to begin something new. They felt an inexplicable tug toward Thailand and decided to travel the country for several months. Of all the places they visited, Jen and Jeremy decided to settle in Pattaya.

“Pastors would look at us like, ‘Why would you ever want to do anything here? This is the Sodom and Gomorrah of Thailand,’” Jeremy remembers. “They’d say, ‘Go up north where all the missionaries go. It’s easier up there.’”

Photo by: Haley Withers

The organization partners with Thai detectives, police, and social workers to rescue kids and rehabilitate them in a loving home environment. “We weren’t coming here to be lone rangers,” Jeremy says. “We felt that if we were coming here to create a standard and take care of our children, we wanted to work with the government. If you’re going to a country to enhance the social system, you have to be an example.”

In Thailand, children rescued from brothels or other forms of abuse are often put in government shelters. These shelters are overcrowded and understaffed, and kids don’t receive the rehabilitation they need. Thrive seeks to move beyond rescue and into restoration. “We came here to rescue kids, but we also came here to create a standard for aftercare,” says Jeremy. Each Thrive safe home is small enough for staff to give the girls and boys individualized attention.  

“We only allow 7-10 kids per home because we want them to have a family,” Jeremy says. “We’re raising up leaders, just like we would our own children, because we consider them our own children.”

Dignified Futures

In 2015, Thrive launched an initiative called Shear Love International, a vocational program for women who have left the sex industry. While Thrive Rescue Homes provide aftercare for children, Shear Love teaches employable skills to adult survivors. Students in the program receive intensive training in hairstyling and graduate with new opportunities for dignified work.

“The girls in the program are the ones who were never rescued,” says Dianna Bautista. We are in the Shear Love classroom waiting for her students to arrive. Eventually they pull up on motorbikes, smiling and talking over each other, eager to begin the day’s lesson. Inside they begin curling and styling the hair of mannequins. Dianna instructs as they work, correcting and complimenting their techniques. She leans over one student’s shoulder and demonstrates a new style. “I know you’re going to be so good at this,” she tells her.

Photo by: Haley WIthers

Dianna is a hairstylist from Southern California. For years she split her time between a salon in the states and traveling abroad to teach vulnerable women how to cut hair. She realized that learning an employable skill was the quickest and most sustainable way for women to leave prostitution behind. In the spring of 2015, she sold everything she owned and moved permanently to Pattaya to work with Thrive Rescue. She now directs Shear Love and spends her days teaching and caring for women who were exploited and equipping them to build a more hopeful future.

Ultimately, Shear Love is not about learning to cut hair. Dianna wants to teach former prostitutes that they are worthy, loved, and redeemed. The program offers women the support they need to move toward healing. “Teaching hair is very secondary to what we’re actually doing, which is teaching them foundational, spiritual values; creating an environment where they feel safe; and giving them a moral compass,” Dianna says.

Photo by: Haley Withers

The students we meet in class brim with excitement over their work. They are vibrant, warm, and eager to learn. For the first time in their lives, they’ve started to dream of a future for themselves. “I see a light in them that starts to develop, and this light has gotten brighter and brighter as the program goes on,” says Dianna. “They walk in as empty shells and as the program continues they start to fill up.”

Building a Family

Together, Thrive Rescue and Shear Love International provide holistic restoration for Pattaya’s victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. In a city few choose to go, the team has built their lives alongside the very people they are working to set free.

It’s easy to romanticize the idea of moving abroad to serve others. It’s another thing entirely to go into a difficult place and remain there, creating a life with the people you came to help. This kind of radical move requires humility and solidarity. Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle writes, “We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand.”

Thrive lives out this truth intimately. A core part of their aftercare strategy is to create a family. “We all ask ourselves, ‘Would a normal family do this?’ and, ‘What’s best for our kids?’” says Jeremy. “We take care of the challenges they face as victims but we don’t treat them as victims. We challenge them and we love them and we treat them like leaders. That’s what ultimately is going to make a difference in the community.”

The kids in Thrive’s long-term restoration homes live alongside house parents and other kids their age. They heal in a loving home and receive therapy, education, and medical care. Staff members share their lives with the kids, driving them to school, eating dinner with them, and taking them to doctor appointments. Shear Love functions the same way. Although the women in the program live independently, their friendships with each other and with Dianna touch the depths of sisterhood. Together the girls are learning to dream of a beautiful life for themselves.

One night we are out to dinner with Dianna and a few Shear Love students. When she mentions her hometown in California, a student asks when she plans on going back. Dianna tells her, “I’m not leaving. This is my home now.”

Photo by: Haley Withers

The team’s emphasis on family holds particular meaning for Prae Saechang, Thrive’s Assistant Director of Programs. Prae grew up in a children’s home in the north of Thailand. “I was never free because I lived in the children’s home for such a long time,” she says. “I wore that [label] wherever I went. Being an orphan was stuck in my heart.” It wasn’t until her early twenties that she experienced healing. “God gave me a confidence in things I never knew I could do,” she says.

Prae’s experience informs the way she interacts with the children in Thrive’s homes. In her eyes, creating a family for the boys and girls is the most effective form of rehabilitation. “Just because you rescue kids from human trafficking and put them in an orphanage doesn’t mean you really help them. We hope that when kids come to [Thrive], they feel like they are home.”

Locating the Light

Several nights after our visit to Walking Street, Dianna takes us to Soi 6. This street holds roughly ninety bar-and-brothels with twenty girls working in each. On this single strip of downtown Pattaya, approximately 1,800 girls and ladyboys (transgender women) sell themselves. Dianna knows a number of them; in fact, some of Shear Love’s students originally worked here.

The night on Soi 6 puts a face and a name to the problem of prostitution like no amount of research ever could. We end up at a bar with pink lights and mirrors covering the walls. Over the next few hours we learn makeup tips from a ladyboy named Sara and talk with a girl named Mai about her family. We eat crickets together and dance and take turns choosing songs. The lesson here? It’s hard to label someone a prostitute once you know their name. More importantly, it’s hard to focus on despair once you’ve spent time with someone who—despite the weight of her circumstance—remains a vessel of light.

Many have written off Pattaya as a lost cause, but goodness is everywhere in the city. Jenifer, Jeremy, Prae, and Dianna know this. Their work consists largely in helping women and children see, and then own, their inherent goodness and worth.

Against all odds the city is a hopeful place. Hope exists on Soi 6 in the gentleness, graciousness, and generosity of the girls we met. Hope is in the laughter of the kids in Thrive’s safe homes who have emerged from trauma into redemption. It is in the friendships and persistent innocence of the Shear Love students. Ultimately, hope is in the knowledge that God hasn’t given up on Pattaya.

“If you look at the city, you can get hopeless,” says Prae. “If you look to yourself, you’ll have no strength to fight the darkness because it’s too big. But when you look at Christ you know how great he is and how much he can do for you and for the world. God doesn’t want you to do more and more and more. He loves you just as you are. We just do our part. The rest is God’s job.”

For the One

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the statistics and the complexities of human trafficking. The Thrive team, though, doesn’t spend their energy feeling daunted by the big picture. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Do you really think you’re going to stop human trafficking?’” says Jen. “And I think our answer should be, ‘For the ones who have been rescued, yes. Trafficking in their life has ended. So for that one person human trafficking can be stopped.’”

Dianna adds, “We only have six students in [Shear Love]. But those six lives are everything—because what if it was you?”

Of course, the road to restoration is a long one and healing is not a one-time event. “It’s not something that happens overnight,” says Jen. “It’s a journey we walk with them. And we need people who are willing to walk the journey with us.”

It’s thanks to partners around the world that Thrive has built a ministry of solidarity in Pattaya. These partners make up the larger Thrive family, a family who believes every life is worth the fight for freedom. “Instead of thinking about the whole world and being overwhelmed, think about what you can do to change one life,” Jeremy says. “You just do what you have to do to set people free.”

There is a modern hymn that calls the church to “love the captive soul/but to rage against the captor.” This could be Thrive’s motto. In a city that seems hopeless, the team reaches out in love to people who are held captive while fighting the unjust systems that bind them. Thrive perseveres because they believe one person in captivity makes the work imperative. Not only that, they know that one life can end the cycle. The nineteen children in Thrive’s safe homes and the six women in Thrive’s Shear Love program will teach a different way of life to their children. The healing they experience will create a ripple effect on their families and communities. The ones who were freed will in turn set others free.

If you are willing to walk the journey with Thrive Rescue, consider these ways to get involved:

  • Attend the Justice School, Thrive’s six-week program for young adults interested in anti-human trafficking work
  • Join the Thrive family by sponsoring a child or Shear Love student
  • Work alongside the staff in Pattaya as a long-term volunteer

Visit thriverescue.org, shearloveinternational.org, and thejusticeschool.com to learn more.

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  • Annelise Jolley

    Annelise is a San Diego-based writer and editor interested in stories that galvanize, build bridges, and prompt action. She is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction writing and serving as Editorial Director for Nations Journal.
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