02 January 2018 | Clan Jeti Anchorage, Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia
Tom and Lilly
Almost every day we read stories in the international press relating the horror and hopelessness experienced by young girls, often barely teenagers, as they are abducted and thrown into the abyss of prostitution and forced drug addiction. Likewise, the human tragedies created by the refugee crisis of the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is constantly in the news. Yet how many of us have any direct connection or understanding of these very disturbing human events? Cruising under sail in the Developing Countries of the world is not always swaying palm trees, and white sandy beaches. As sailors, we brush up against a world much different than Suburbia USA; the land of equality, the rule of law, and the economic opportunity we grew up in and take for granted. Sometimes we even immerse ourselves in this other world - and are faced with the stark and uncomfortable reality of raw poverty. After spending the last eight months in a boatyard in the backwaters of southern Thailand we were challenged almost every day by that uncomfortable fact of life; and found that under the guise of economic displacement, slavery still exists right here, right now, in the Twenty-First Century. This is the story of a girl and a woman who came together from different worlds - East meets West - who developed a bond of love, and who will never be the same again. This is the story of Dala and Lilly...
MODERN SLAVERY - Refugees are created by all sorts of horrid events: war, famine, religious persecution, natural disaster and the insidious poverty created by corrupt governments. We met Dala’s mom Mrs. So at the PSS Shipyard in southern Thailand, where we were hauled-out to conduct a major refit of TIGER LILLY. So (she only has one name) is a Burmese “guest” worker, and she is employed by PSS as a yard cleaner for the equivalent of about ten US Dollars a day. She, and her family of 4 children and a sickly husband, are economic refugees; her ten dollar a day cleaning job is far better than anything she could expect up in her home country of Myanmar. We are not referring to light sweeping and dusting, but rather heavy industrial clean-up; lugging large barrels of stinking marine bottom scrapings and trash, stacking heavy steel scaffolds, and working in a dangerous polluted environment six and sometimes seven days a week. There are no paid vacations or medical benefits for these Burmese laborers, and we often saw them working while sick or injured - no work, no pay, no food... So is a tiny thing at less than 90 pounds, and just under 5 feet tall; she has never had a day of school in her 34 years, and when her husband is sick and unable to work (often), she is the sole bread-winner for her family of six. But she is a mighty woman of character; she lives her life with her chin up, a smile on her face, a spring in her step, and a deep sacrificial love in her heart for her family. Truly a woman of substance.
TOWIE - Lilly’s first contact with So’s family was with the little boy who would come into the shipyard after working hours each evening with a rice bag slung over his shoulder and make his rounds; collecting anything not nailed down which his mom could sell to the scrap dealer. His physical presence was that which we would expect of a six year-old back in the States, but he was eleven years-old, and his left foot and right hand were deformed from birth - an Oliver Twist like fellow. But Towie always had a quirky smile and a twinkle in his eye for Lilly, and they quickly became chums as she escorted him around the shipyard and helped him collect scrap metal. When he and Lilly walked around the shipyard together, she always made a point to hold Towie’s deformed right hand and reassure him... Towie’s shy and withdrawn 16 year-old sister Som usually stayed home to cook for the family and take care of his little brother Mon. His 14 year-old sister Dala would come to the shipyard and fetch him for dinner each evening, and that is how Dala and Lilly met. Spirited Dala was obviously her mother’s daughter, and the combination of her striking beauty and intrepid personality were stunning. At 14 years-old she was already turning heads; and unfortunately the recipient of overt sexual comments from the men of the village and the crews of the fishing boats hauled-out for repairs. Dala was clearly headed for the Third World version of the “ME TOO” sorority - or worse, much worse...
THE SHACK - Absolutely incapable of minding her own business, Lilly invited herself to their home one afternoon after work. We had seen pythons and cobras in and around the PSS apartments where we lived across the road from the shipyard, and feral dogs regularly maraud the outskirts of Chebilang. Lilly was very wary as she followed the over-grown narrow foot path through the low jungle scrub that led to Dala and Towie’s home. The family of six lived in a two-room tumble-down shack built of industrial scrap and tree limbs on the edge of an extensive mangrove forest. They have no running water, no electricity, the roof leaks during the monsoonal down-pours, and the area is infested with snakes and rats. Conditions such as these are reality for refugees all over the world... Lilly was welcomed warmly by the entire family and invited to share in their dinner - no one (much less a foreign yachtie woman) had ever come to visit them. And thus began a wonderful relationship between So’s family and Lilly.
A TOUGH LIFE - So’s children are exceptionally close, and especially Towie and Mon. They have no other playmates because they do not go to school, and the local Muslim kids persecute them horribly. We have seen this intolerance in Muslim communities throughout Indonesia, Malaysia (both Islamic theocracies), and southern Thailand which is about 90% Muslim. Up in Myanmar, the majority Buddhists are pushing out the Muslim minority - the ancient hatreds go so very deep... As the children of Burmese temporary immigrant workers, none of So’s children had ever attended school. Life is not easy for them, and they live an isolated existence between the mangroves and the shipyard. Lilly took all four of So’s children to a run-down playground in Chebilang - it was their first such experience, and they did not know how the rusty swings or teeter-totters worked - a pretty emotional situation for Lilly... But they quickly learned, and had a great time. Lilly had to get up on the trampoline (at 59 years-old) and teach them how to do a drop-seat swivel hip... She taught Towie how to ride a dilapidated bicycle with warped rims; and last seen, he was enjoying his new-found freedom on two wheels. One day Lilly heard Dala scream, and saw little Mon being taken by the hand and led out of the shipyard and into the village by a stranger off one of the fishing boats. Lilly jumped on a motor scooter and gave chase. The five year-old was being kidnapped for God only knows what nefarious purpose, and Lilly challenged the man right in the middle of the village, and then scooped up Mon. There was quite a joyful celebration by So and her family when Lilly brought him back home.
MENTORSHIP - Lilly and Dala hit it off from the very start; Dala became Lilly’s shadow, and Lilly became her mentor. Lilly knows hard work and sacrifice; as a young woman she was a pioneer in woman’s athletics (she was one of America’s first professional women triathletes), she raised a son as a single mom - and educated him to the university level on her own, and she founded and operated a very successful carpet cleaning business. Lilly had a lot to give Dala, and Dala was an energetic protégée with a sharp mind. In the nearly 7 months they were together their friendship (and Dala’s command of English) blossomed. But Lilly was disturbed that neither Dala nor her brothers or sister were getting any formal education, and she knew that in their case it would lead to a life of back-breaking poverty - or worse. Teenage sisters Dala and Som were very much at risk as they grew up poor and pretty in a world full of predators (with zero legal protection for immigrants), and Dala was a spirited and lovely young woman - just what the sex sharks were looking for. As Lilly and Dala worked on TIGER LILLY projects in the shipyard together, they went into the village each day to pick-up lunch, and Lilly was a first-hand witness to the persecution (and thinly disguised danger) which pretty Dala suffered from the local men - usually while keeping her head held high, and turning her back on the cads who brazenly called out to her...
A THAI ANGEL - Lilly was convinced that something had to be done - and it needed to be done before TIGER LILLY left the boatyard and sailed away from Thailand. (Since Lilly was convinced - THAT made it Tom-Tom’s problem to solve...) Who can better understand what a profound difference an education could make to a person’s life than a person who lacks one? But Mrs. So did not have the resources, or a plan, to make it happen for her children. And then our Angel Auntie Aor (pronounced like “Awe” as in AWESOME) appeared...
Auntie Aor is Lilly’s particular friend - they hit it off the moment they met in Satun at Auntie’s Gleam Resort. The Siri family are leading lights of the southern Thailand region - Tom-Tom calls Auntie Aor “The Queen of Satun”. We were privileged to be adopted by them and to have the titles “Auntie Lilly” and “Uncle Tom” bestowed upon us by this wonderful family. Although born into a family of means, Auntie Aor (Sirikul Limsakul) has a heart of gold, is modest to a fault, and she actively pursues a life of giving - starting each morning at 0430 when she prepares breakfast for the local Buddhist monks. She is a highly educated person. She received her first bachelor’s degree from the beloved King of Thailand when she was 21 years-old. (In those days the King conferred all the university degrees on Thailand’s graduates.) She went on to earn additional degrees in the United States at Lamar University in Texas, and her Masters in International Law from Temple University in Philadelphia - she is an extraordinary woman!
FRIENDS - Lilly and So became great friends even though neither could speak the other’s language. As we say in the Navy, they both came up through the hause-pipe (a tough life). Because of the language barrier, we asked Auntie Aor to meet with us and So to try to untie this Gordian’s knot and make a plan. In addition to being a lovely multi-lingual problem-solver, Aor is a practicing lawyer and could steer us through the legal rocks and shoals. Understandably, Mrs So had all she could do to just keep her head above water and feed six people, and she had no idea how to advance her children’s station in life; the situation seemed absolutely hopeless to her. But she fully understood the practical reality that without an education her daughters’ likely fate (there were no choices) was to become prostitutes, or to spend long hard hours at menial labor - or first one, and then the other... She knew that at 14 and 16 years-old, Dala and Som were so very vulnerable, but what’s a mother to do?
THE PLAN - After some serious discussion between the crew of TIGER LILLY, Auntie Aor, and Mrs. So (and not a few tears), several phone calls back to Myanmar to determine what was possible (60 minutes of cell phone time between Thailand and Myanmar costs So almost a day’s pay), and a heart-wrenching and courageous decision by Dala and Som, we were able to collectively come up with a plan: The girls would return to So’s home in Myanmar (to a small town east of Rangoon); her sister Khuntoh would become their Legal Guardian; and Som and Dala would take vows and enter the local Buddhist nunnery to be educated. TIGER LILLY committed to fund the repatriation of the sisters to Myanmar, and a return trip for So to escort them on their journey. Auntie Aor (who already was sponsoring and mentoring homeless Thai girls in Satun) agreed to manage any funds that could be raised to provide for Som and Dala’s ongoing educations. After they receive fundamental reading, writing, and math instruction at the nunnery, they will need additional training to become employable. As Myanmar comes out of its dark time, tourism will surely become a major industry in this beautiful country with a rich cultural heritage. There will be a place for educated and personable young women like Som and Dala to make their mark.
TODAY - It is so heartening for us to report that in early November 2017, after a 38 hour four-bus journey from the town of Satun in southern Thailand, to the little village of Koh Pun, east of Rangoon, Myanmar, the girls have been interviewed and accepted for entrance to the Mueri Haa Ra-Rong Pun temple school. They traded their thread-bare street clothes for robes, and they sacrificed their long beautiful hair to become eligible for enrollment in this safe haven for children. How many teenage girls do you know that would make such a sacrifice? This was a very tough decision since the next day their mother would leave them and return to her job and the rest of their family at the PSS shipyard in Thailand. The sisters and their mother have never been separated, and this courageous change was a tough decision for all concerned - including Lilly. The last report we received was that the girls were happy and doing very well in their studies, and they were enjoying being around other kids at school.
This miracle became reality because three heroic women, from three completely different walks of life - a Burmese laborer named So, a Thai queen named Aor, and an American yachtie named Lilly - came together, and worked as one to change the world they live in - against some very difficult odds. We have read recent news stories that predict that 2018 will be “The Year of the Woman” and we think that this lifting-up of two young Burmese women is exactly the kind of thing that can happen if someone takes the time and effort to get involved. It takes so much more than money to make this happen - first, people must care for one another... This is the story of the magic of mentorship, the power of prayer, and cooperation across cultural lines and international boundaries.
LILLY SEZ - The sex sharks are not going to get these young girls. My prayer for this Christmas is that both of these lovely sisters stay safe and have a bright future, that they may have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to their world - and then to lift up others. That is exactly how it works - we just pay it forward.
Ladies: Think about Som and Dala, pray for them, then SHARE DALA’s STORY so that other women will join us in prayer - and become part of this wonderful Christmas miracle...
Lilly & Tom
S/V Tiger Lilly
Penang Island, Malaysia