Jessica Jeang is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University with a bachelors in Political Science and a Masters of Science in Finance. She has several years of experience in academic research and healthcare management consulting. She is deeply passionate about international business as well as international women’s health and economic empowerment. She has been a volunteer with Senhoa since 2014.
When I first graduated from University in 2013, every step after leaving the nest of safety that characterized my student years felt like a monumental decision. I knew that I was lucky to have the freedom to shape my own future, to choose to participate in the meritocracy of the working world, and to set career goals for myself and put in the work to fulfill them. While I had options in front of me, I often felt confounded and upset by my indecision, knowing that other women and girls around the world had no freedom of self-determination whatsoever. This fundamental realization of the value of freedom led me to take time off from work and come volunteer with Senhoa, an organization that is fiercely devoted to fighting human trafficking and promoting economic empowerment for vulnerable young women and communities worldwide. I needed to exercise my freedom to choose every step of my career path in a way that promoted freedom and economic empowerment for others as well.
After graduation, I spent a year working in healthcare management to improve processes for physicians who were juggling patient care and the implementation of new technology and regulations in light of the Affordable Care Act. After concluding an implementation project, I soon found myself stepping off a plane into the dusty, sweltering night in Siem Riep. I hopped onto a tuktuk that brought me to the wonderful Horizons Guesthouse where I was warmly received, and eagerly went to bed.
The next morning, I headed to work. With limited resources, Sylvia Dang was running an impressive operation at the Senhoa Jewelry Social Enterprise design studio. About a dozen young women designed and crafted jewelry, stepping out throughout the day for their various classes in English, mathematics, computer skills, and life-skills. Standing in the studio on the first day, I remember feeling exhausted and almost stunned by my privilege. Not only did I know that I had lived a comfortable life while the artisans standing around me had suffered unspeakable pasts, I also felt privileged to be in the presence of such resilience and grace.
That night, I wrote notes to myself in my journal, awestruck by the overall sense of gratitude and hope that is the lifeblood of Senhoa: “The girls sing together and hum to one another, laughing quietly and admiring their handiwork. Sylvia has told me how the organization is wary of short-term volunteers because, as utilizers of Senhoa’s social work services, the artisans may have emotional challenges with abandonment and with foreigners in general. They are shy towards me, and I feel shy towards them.”
Flipping through my field notes today, two years after my visit, I still fondly remember eventually connecting with the girls: “The girls in the jewelry program have already been through rehabilitative programs and I am not allowed to ask them about their pasts…but I had sort of a breakthrough with one of the girls. She previously seemed very sheepish, but tonight she casually opened up to me about her life. She tells me about how she dotes on her ‘niece’, the daughter of the family that she now lives with. I’m impressed by her fluency in English. I told her to keep studying, and she says she studies a little bit every night before she goes to sleep. Outside of Senhoa, she doesn’t go to school because she works cleaning houses as a second job. She is clearly so appreciative of the life she leads and of the classes that Senhoa offers. I ask her about her jewelry and she tells me in detail about the level of skill that goes into each piece. She points out a pair of earrings that contains many crystals and explains to me that it is an expensive product, but actually was quite easy to make. She beams with pride and delicately handles the baubles that in all truth belong to her. I came to Cambodia to help market Senhoa as a luxury brand, thinking I was good at selling. But I have never myself felt so sold about a product than at that moment. No elaborate vocabulary needed. I do not know completely what she has been through, but I know she has come far. Sylvia tells me that all the girls have grown immensely in their confidence and calm. It is clear to me that Senhoa’s jewelry and education programs have helped.”
In the backdrop of Cambodia, where only 5% of girls complete secondary education and over 50% of children are stunted, largely due to malnourishment, Senhoa’s approach to combating human trafficking is holistic as it nurtures each individual service user as well as the entire community to overcome vulnerability. Children, families, and survivors benefit from Senhoa’s social work efforts — education, nutrition, hygiene, health, counseling, financial literacy, vocational training. Senhoa’s full-fledged jewelry brand provides fair wages for young women who have endured horrible indecencies. Nothing at Senhoa is done half-heartedly. Every single service-user touched by the organization is cared for like family. Every single piece of jewelry produced is filled with love and meticulous attention.
In addition to the life-changing memories and the enduring sense of hope that I gained from my visit to Cambodia, I also came away with a beautiful Senhoa Kelly Necklace. I can tell you that this piece takes days to create. I was informed that the first step is to encircle a large fancy black stone with 68 sterling silver seed beads, and then carefully weave the wires with 46 additional seed beads to encircle a smaller fancy black stone. This process is repeated until it is ready for the clasp to be attached. Every step counts and if one were to miscount the number of seed beads used on any one stone, the artisan would have to start over. The end result is something extraordinarily beautiful, but no words can fully describe the beauty behind the product. No elaborate vocabulary needed.