An Unjust Price

me with girls

–By Sara Johnson

For as long as I can remember the people in my life have emphasized the importance of education.  I come from a family of teachers who valued education highly, recognizing it as the great equalizer for women in the work world.  In addition, I come from a country that also values education, so much so that it offers it free to its citizens.

In my lifetime, I’ve learned the truth of what education can bring.  It has opened countless doors for me personally, and in my travels here has proven again and again to be the one thing that changes lives in a profound way.

We arrived in Laos last night, a country so beautiful it takes your breath away.  The city where we are staying, Luang Prabang, is charming, filled with shops, markets, temples, and views.  It is reminiscent of Ennis and as such put much of our group immediately at ease.

But behind the tourist facade the same situations loom for young women who fight daily to remain safe, free, and healthy.  Women who long for the education opportunities we take for granted daily in the United States.  They are desperate to receive an education, realizing it is the only hope they have of changing their lives of abject poverty.

But the cost of education is high.

In the United States the average university graduate walks away with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, a price many are willing to pay for the doors their degree will open and the advantage it gives them in the professional world.  While we gripe about the years of repayment, we don’t realize how blessed we are to have that debt.  At least I didn’t…until last night.

Without government loans and scholarships available here, the women face a difficult choice.  Yearning with a desire to complete their educations to help their families and open new opportunities but too poor to pay the tuition to do so, they turn to other options.  And this morning after a disturbing night of sleep I am still angry over that fact that the most common solution is to find a western or Laotian sponsor who agrees to pay tuition in exchange for sex.

Right now I hate that I live in a world where women working to secure a better life for their families are driven to pay for it with their dignity.  And I am sickened to know that it is the men of my culture who are doing this, traveling half a world away to take advantage of disadvantaged women simply because they can. Raping them repeatedly for years in exchange for a $400 annual tuition.  Yes, $400.

This seems like an injustice of immeasurable proportion to me.

When I put myself in their shoes the choice overwhelms me.  I cannot fathom selling my body repeatedly for years, at the mercy of another for the price of $400.  But then I’ve never know the extreme poverty these people face generation after generation. A poverty so crippling you would do anything to break the cycle for yourself and your children.

So I find myself walking around the city this morning with a restless spirit.  Groups of western men abound, walking, talking, enjoying their vacations.  On the surface they appear a happy part of the idyllic setting.  Yet statistics tell me 80% of them are here specifically to participate in the sex trade.  They travel halfway around the world to find a young Asian girl to sleep with for a few dollars, robbing her of another piece of her soul so they have a story to tell.  And that pisses me off.

And that is precisely why I MUST get The Million Girl Army started.  I simply cannot stomach that this is the life countless women in developing countries the world over face regularly, trading their self worth, their dignity, their bodies, and their souls for a chance at a better life.  I cannot sit idly by while other women enslave themselves to strangers for a $400 tuition.  And you shouldn’t either.

I am just one woman, limited in what I can do on my own to help.  But what I know for sure is that if I stand with an army of one million girls and women committing their resources and their finances to fighting back against this injustice, we WILL change the world.  For an army of voices is impossible to ignore, a formidable opponent.

For decades, generations of women did the same for me,fighting for equal rights and respect, laying the groundwork so that I could be here today with an education, a voice, freedom, and a blessed life.  Now it is my turn to return the favor, fighting to help these women find their power and their voices.  Will you join me?

-Sara

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Sense of Belonging

our group refugee camp

–By Sara Johnson

I am traveling with an exceptional group of young women (ok, and a couple great men too). We have been in Asia for three days now and they have had to show tremendous endurance, flexibility, and patience along the way.  Yesterday we piled into the van for what we thought was a relatively short journey to visit a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border.  We could not have been more wrong.  “Relatively short” turned out to be a sixteen hour journey, four of those hours hanging on to a metal “cage” in the back of a pickup truck as we bounced over the roughest dirt road I have ever been on.  Given that most of us are from Montana and have seen rough roads, that’s saying a lot.

But what could have been only a test of endurance turned into a bonding experience unlike anything I could have planned as their group leader.  Laughter and camaraderie filled the air as we worked together to stay upright, dodge tree branches, and keep our limbs intact. I have no doubt it is a life moment that every one of us will remember forever.  We felt we were part of a team, working against tremendous odds to obtain our goal of reaching the forgotten people at what felt like the end of the earth.  We bonded, we belonged.

This was especially important because just the day before we had learned how so many people in rural Thailand don’t belong anywhere.  Whether they are refugees from another country at the mercy of their host country and government, or citizens of rural villages with no proof of their birth or their citizenship, there are countless people here who don’t officially belong anywhere.  And that’s a problem. refugee camp 2

In Thailand, if you can’t prove you’re a citizen, you are denied medical care and education and confined to your immediate home area, unable to travel to a place that might provide a better opportunity for your family.  As a result, the children are at high risk for all sorts of violence.  From sex trafficking to abuse, kidnapping to exploitation, these people fight a losing battle on a daily basis.  Not only do they worry about finding a way to feed their children each day, they worry about how to remain healthy, how to protect their daughters from predators, and how to provide a better life for the next generation.

Without proof that they belong, that they are citizens, and that they matter, they are denied many freedoms we take for granted every day.  The freedom to move around the world, the freedom to receive an education, the freedom to seek and receive medical attention, and so much more.  It’s heartbreaking.

We were inspired to learn about the work of International Justice Mission here in Thailand.  IJM is a global group working against injustice of all kinds for the world’s disadvantaged, a group well known in particular for their work against human trafficking. But here in Thailand, they are working preventatively as well, helping the forgotten to prove their citizenship.  In doing so, they give them back their power, their freedom, their sense of belonging.

refugee campIt’s powerful to know you have a place in the world, whether it’s a place in a community, a country, or a group of people bouncing along in the back of a pickup.  Belonging matters, it creates value which leads to empowerment, the key piece of what’s missing in the world’s developing countries.  Without a feeling of worth, empowerment, or belonging, people here are at the mercy of those with authority over them.  And when you are among the forgotten people, everyone you come in contact with has authority.

I am passionate about empowering people like these, those who have no voice.  It’s why I will ask this team to bounce along in vans and pickup trucks for 16 hours to spend one hour with people few care about.  I want the people at the ends of the earth to know that they matter to me, that I will travel halfway around the world to see them, that they belong. They belong simply because they are human, created in God’s image with hearts that love and souls that yearn, just like mine.our group

If I accomplish that for even one person in my lifetime, it will have been a good life.  And if I get to do it while in the company of a team such as this one, it will be even better.

-Sara

Expecting Miracles

dad and me

–By Sara Johnson

Many who would follow this blog and support both this trip and my overall non-profit endeavor know much more about me and my family beyond this experience.  It’s been a while since I have published on any blog forum, but prior to that drought I was a fairly consistent writer.  I wrote because writing soothes my soul, shifts life into greater perspective, and encourages me to forge ahead even when life is hard.

My primary writing outlet in recent years has been for my family’s blog where we share together what it is like to be part of a family facing terminal illness.  For those who don’t know, my father was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor in April 2011 and given 18-24 months to live.  Upon hearing the news, my family gathered together in our kitchen stunned, saddened, fearful.  I remember looking at my sister Katy and my dad and saying to them, “Well, I guess we’ve had our last trip to Asia together,” before collapsing into the sadness of that realization.

This passion I have to travel, to learn, to assist, and to empower is not mine alone.  It’s one I share with two of my family members in particular.  Over the years we have traveled to the far reaches of the world, anxious to do our small part to alleviate the suffering we found when we got there.  The thought that we would never again journey together was deeply painful.

Yet I sit here now, nearly three years later, writing on the eve of our group’s departure.  My dad is in the next room working through what he will pack for yet another journey and I just emailed my sister in Rome to share how much I look forward to meeting her in Thailand.  And I find I’m a bit teary, wanting to soak up every bit of this moment.  For it’s not often that you are acutely aware that you are part of a miracle.  And in this moment I am overwhelmed knowing that I am.

The assembly of this particular team and the funds needed to get us on our way has been similarly miraculous.  After months of fighting to make things work the way I wanted, I finally surrendered my initial plan and agreed to listen to God rather than myself.  In response to letting go, suddenly each piece fell into place at just the right time with an ease I can only describe as miraculous.  I followed his nudges on who to invite to join me, thrilled with those who answered with a resounding yes.  I stepped out in faith, trusting him to lead me to just the right donors who gave generously in response.  I surrendered control and in doing began to see the miracle building around me.

As a result, as I sit here writing in the quiet of my room I feel my expectation building.  For whatever reason, I’m certain God has ordained this particular journey with this specific team of people at this particular time.  I cannot predict in any way what will happen when we arrive, what lives will change, what we will take with us when we return, or what we will leave behind, but I know deep in my soul that something big is about to happen.  Something miraculous.  And I can’t wait to share it with you.

-Sara

Counting Down

–By Sara Johnson

As I sit down to write this, we have exactly three months and 12 days until we depart for Asia. This trip is a dream come true for me, and more than that, it is the culmination of many dreams coming together.

I’ve had a passion for humanitarian work and world travel for years now. I’ve circled the globe and then some, stopping along the way to feed my soul, learn from different cultures, and literally feed others. It has been my greatest joy and a blessing I often feel I don’t deserve.

In 2007 I began traveling to Asia with my dad, sister, and extended groups of people. Our day-to-day activities varied, but the heart of the mission remained the same, to do our small part to right the injustices of the world. Through repeated trips, I grew to love my family members in new ways, to have my eyes opened to the plight of many women in the world, and to fertilize a seed of an idea that was building.

As a woman in the developed world I have had remarkable opportunities that just a few generations ago would have been incomprehensible. I’ve led staff, birthed companies, sold companies for profit, and have been able to make a comfortable living for myself. Yet over time, working just for myself began to feel empty and I realized that part of what nagged at me was that all the opportunities I’d been given are not available to the women I meet around the world. In light of that, just as generations of women before me fought for my right to equality and opportunity, I realized I had a responsibility to use my position to do the same for others.

A seedling of an idea for a non-profit organization began to grow. The Million Girl Army is the result of years of prayer, thought, conversation, and brainstorming with wise people. It’s essential premise is to educate and compel young girls in developed countries to donate $10 a year to support efforts to gain the same rights for young girls in the developing world. In doing so, it is my greatest hope that young girls worldwide become empowered to do more and to be more for one another, advancing their positions along the way.

This trip to Asia in January 2014 is essential to the initial launch of The Million Girl Army. Not only will we secure testimonies and stories from young girls throughout Asia which can be used in future marketing, but it’s my chance to take a selection of bright, young women with me. Women who I know will be inspired and changed by what they see.

The fact that the trip is now a reality amazes me. It has come together against many odds. When my father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer over two years ago, I thought I would never travel with him again, and in fact had lost my desire to return to Asia. Yet now, an unexplainably dormant tumor makes it possible for him to join us. When I heard the cost of the trip for the full eight people scheduled to go, the hurdle seemed insurmountable. Through the generous donations of people, we are now nearly fully funded and ready to go, a blessing that is difficult to put into words.

We haven’t even left American soil and already the miracles are stacking up. I feel God’s hand on this trip and am filled with anticipation for what it will bring. To me, to these special women traveling with me, and to the young girls we meet along the way. I look forward to our departure with great anticipation and am counting down the days to take off. What a wonderful journey it will be, thanks for taking it with us.

-Sara