By: Christina Vo
Diane Truong started off her journey as a volunteer for The Pacific Links Foundations (PALS), a non-profit organization focusing on counter-trafficking efforts in Vietnam. The organization does this by increasing access to education, providing shelter and reintegration services, and enabling economic opportunities for at-risk individuals throughout Vietnam.
In our interview, Diana recounts her journey toward taking action against human trafficking in Vietnam beginning with her joining PALS as a volunteer all the way to becoming their Director of Communications. Diane is a truly inspiring, driven leader and a beacon of hope for all those looking to create change in their communities – I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it!
May you introduce yourself and your role in fighting against human trafficking?
My name is Diane Truong! I am the Director of Communications & Operations for Pacific Links Foundation. I work on our outreach to the public, reporting to donors and writing grant proposals. Part of my role is getting people to understand more about what the issue is, what we do at Pacific Links Foundation, and what they can do to help.
Tell us about Pacific Links Foundation and how they combat human trafficking.
We work on the issue of human trafficking as as a developmental issue. So as more people get trafficked away from Vietnam, we are looking at it as an issue where Vietnam is being stripped away of its young people that could be making contributions to helping develop Vietnam and what we do with this issue is we break the set of human trafficking by investing in at-risk populations to prevent trafficking before it starts and towards survivors to build a new life.
What we believe is that it is really important to, in order to make someone no longer vulnerable to being trafficked, it is really important to make them stronger as individuals. We do this in several different ways including making sure they develop their life skills, raising self awareness, bringing new knowledge and affirmations to them, giving them new opportunities, and creating supportive networks for them.
Why did you take this specific job position and what personally makes you passionate about fighting human trafficking?
So I started off as a volunteer for Pacific Links Foundation and then eventually became what I am doing right now. And so I have been working in this position for a really long time, because of that, I feel really connected to the work and that we are making a difference for the people that we are working with. I feel it has been important to me in doing what I do, because at the end of the day, we are all people and connected to one another. But also in this particular case, we are all Vietnamese. And if my parents didn’t come here to the US as refugees, then I could have been in the shoes as one of the girls we are helping. I see myself in the people that we are helping. I feel privileged that we have access to education, that we have opportunities, so I feel like it’s super important to give back to people who don’t have as much.
How do you identify the communities and individuals you work with in your initiative?
It really depends, it depends on the projects, we have a lot of projects that we support. So for example with the scholarship projects that we have that Rotary is supporting, if they are an orphan or living with only one parent/aunt/uncle/relate or multiple siblings or if somebody in the family has a long-term illness or disability, all this basically points to that they are usually living in economic poverty.
How do you work to build trust and relationships with survivors of human trafficking and help them in re-building their lives?
For the most part, it takes a lot of time and it’s like building any relationship, so there has to be trust and showing that you care, that you can support them to having a better life. But it definitely takes a lot of time, because there is a lot that has happened and that their trust has been broken. We have a project that we do, at the very beginning, our initial care packages!
Usually when a survivor returns back to Vietnam, they are processed by the border guards and held at an assessment center for a few days and during that time, they are figuring out who they are, where they came from, and are they a survivor or not. That’s when we give out this initial care package that has the bare necessities you need to stay there for a week, so it has clothing, a pair of flip flops, toiletries, and sanitary napkins, etc. which are all really important since a lot of these regions are in the mountains and they [survivors] don’t have easy access to these things. We find these care packages to be an important step to helping the survivors have something that feels normal again.
What are some of the emotional and physical effects survivors experience and how do they cope and pave their path towards recovery?
Everybody is unique and what they end up experiencing in terms of emotional and physical effects, this can include PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, and anxiety. A lot of them have difficulties with trusting other people, self confidence, feeling they have a personal problem with control, understanding their emotions and what they’re feeling.
What we see in Vietnam and also in other Asian cultures, there is a lack of mental services and a stigma around that as well, so that is something we work really hard to try to provide. It is challenging, because in the remote areas, there is not a lot of that available and that’s where we work. Physically, they can have broken arms or legs, burn marks, and things like that.
So you talked about how there is a social stigma with survivors reintegrating back into society, how can we reduce the social stigma and discrimination in these Vietnamese and other Asian communities?
I mean it definitely takes awareness, like in the communities, for people to kind of understand where people are coming from and understand all that is happening.
I think it is really important for the individual to have their own power to disclose whether they are a victim or not – it is ultimately up to them. So for us, it is important for us to not reveal their identity and usually when people see they [survivors] are successful individuals in their community, holding successful jobs, going back to school because of that, and they see how important they are and viable as a person.
What do you think is making human trafficking such a prevalent issue? What is the root cause to this and what do you think needs to happen to end human trafficking?
So there is a lot of different factors that leads to someone vulnerable being trafficked. First is someone’s lack of education, like their economic status, for example, living in poverty. If there is not enough law enforcement or their identity, like in Vietnam, a lot of ethnic minorities are trafficked. Where someone lives can increase their chances of being trafficked, like in Vietnam, a lot of the border regions, whether they are close to the border. Gender is another thing, more women and girls are trafficked, not that all genders aren’t trafficked, so that’s important to remember as well.
Those are all different risk factors. Another thing that is unique to Vietnam is the one child policy in China, because China is close to Vietnam which increases the risk factor due to the one child policy and the preference for boys that led to the lack of women and girls that can grow up to be brides. And so over the years with this policy, what happens is that there is not enough women and girls in China, so there is a demand for women in which, because Vietnam is close to China and similar in some of the culture and things as well, there is a demand for those women and girls. Unfortunately, there are bad individuals who travel to Vietnam to traffic vulnerable women and girls as brides.
Is there anything you wish more people knew about your organization or the issues you are trying to solve?
I think awareness is always important about the issue as well as the work that we do. The key thing for us that we really believe in is prevention, so making sure people are being protected and not vulnerable to being trafficked in the first place, because that is a lot easier to deal with that than working with someone who has been a victim of human trafficking. It is important to help them as well, but it is also important to prevent it from happening in the first place. Just like, for example, with an illness, they will say that prevention is key, rather than being sick and getting treatment for it. That is something that we focus on more, as well as education – making sure people have access to education because that will lead to more economic opportunities since often times people are trafficked due to looking for work.
What are the areas of opportunities your organization provides to people to help get involved, what more can be done to help support survivors of trafficking?
D: So there is a lot of projects we want to do and a lot of work that can be done. And I think right now with the survivors, they can always use more support because the work we do for survivors is usually underfunded or not funded at all since we usually don’t have donors for this program, so it comes from our general funds.
This makes it a lot harder to get donations for our survivors, so that is something we can always use more support on. We are also developing new programs, like training for first responders, the people who work with the survivors and other NGOs and police and getting to understand the Vietnamese culture, so they can better support the Vietnamese victims of trafficking.
Last question, what is your most successful program in your organization and why? Give me a best example of the way you see your organization works to make a difference!
One of our successful programs I would say is our scholarship program with the Mekong Delta, because we see that program grow over the years and we have about 700 girls in the program. When we started, it was only about 200!
Pacific Links Foundation (“Vòng Tay Thái Bình” in Vietnamese) is a 501(c)(3) US-based nonprofit organization with 15+ years of experience in empowering women and youth. Their mission is to support the sustainable development of Vietnamese communities and the enrichment of their cultural heritage, especially in leading the Counter-Trafficking portfolio that empowers at-risk youth to prevent trafficking and survivors to build new lives.
PALS is such an amazing organization, because every dollar you give goes towards giving youth the future that they deserve! To learn more information, donate, and/or get involved with PALS, go to their website: https://www.pacificlinks.org/donate.
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