CHIANG RAI, Thailand – A-Ga Powkeere was 14 years old when her 16-year-old sister, Mukda, disappeared. “I came home from school for a visit and she was gone,” Powkeere says. “No one would tell me where she went.”
But Powkeere knew from the sad, helpless look on her mother’s face that something terrible had happened. Later, the teen learned the truth. A-Ga’s father, an opium addict, had sold his oldest daughter into prostitution.
It was a decision that would eventually cost Mukda’s life; she died of AIDS five years later.
Such stories are not hard to find in this country of 60 million people, but they weigh heavy on the hearts of people like A-Je and Nancy Kukaewkasem, a couple who have dedicated their lives to saving children from prostitution.
Young children are in high demand in the sex tourism trade that still thrives in Thailand. The Thai Department of Public Welfare estimates that between 12,000 to 18,000 children work as prostitutes in Thailand. Other research has provided even higher numbers.
While the Thai government has enacted new laws to combat exploitation of children, pockets of deep poverty make some boys and girls susceptible to being sold or induced into prostitution. Children whose lives have been affected by civil unrest (in neighboring Laos and Burma), parental drug addiction or AIDS are also at risk.
Powkeere, now a 25-year-old college graduate, knows that she could have shared her sister’s sad fate if it weren’t for the Kukaewkasems and a children’s home called the “House of Grace.”
Trying to help her daughter the only way she knew how, Powkeere’s mother allowed the 14-year-old to go to the House of Grace when they agreed to take her. “My mother was happy that I would have an education,” says Powkeere. “My father did not even notice I had gone.”
For almost a decade, Nancy and A-Je Kukaewkasem have devoted their lives to helping children like Powkeere escape the grasp of prostitution. Hundreds of girls now have bright new futures due to the couple’s efforts.
But it is a passion that neither expected to have. Nancy, a 37-year-old American, grew up in Colorado, where she became an interpreter for the deaf.
“I loved my job,” Nancy says, “but there was something deep within me that felt like there was more I was supposed to be doing.”
Nancy left her job after two years, and went to Sydney, Australia, with a group called Youth with a Mission to work with prostitutes and the homeless in the city’s red-light district. “This was not an easy fit for me,” Nancy recalls. “But I developed a new compassion for people and each person’s individual story.”
In 1987, the group invited Nancy to help on a project in Thailand. “When I first saw Bangkok, I thought, ‘I can’t love this dirty city,’ ” says Nancy. “You would see the sidewalk moving and realize that it was cockroaches!”
Then she was taken to the picturesque hill country of Northern Thailand, where she spent several months working at a new girls’ home called the House of Grace. The home was for children at risk of being sold into prostitution. Several of the girls had been rescued from active prostitution, while others were admitted when their family situations deteriorated to the point where their sale was imminent.
The Akha are the poorest hill tribe in Thailand. Akha women sell carefully crafted stitching to earn a few dollars a day
“The first time I read an account of child prostitution, I went to bed and wept for an hour,” Nancy says. “It just broke my heart. I had never felt a burden like that before. But I couldn’t figure out what I could do about it, because that whole red light district thing scared me. I had always been a good girl, and never got in trouble. Still, I liked the idea of a preventive approach and helping girls before they were scarred.”
When Nancy was later asked to come back as the home’s “house mother,” she gladly agreed, giving a five-year commitment. “I had always been a born mother,” Nancy says. “As a child, I was the one reminding other kids to zip their coats and keep their hats on.”
Learning Thai was the first difficulty for Nancy. “I didn’t speak the language, and at times I wondered what I was doing here,” she says. “Because I have a hearing loss, the doctor doubted that I could ever learn a tonal language. But I kept trying. The girls would have an argument, and I would have to use a dictionary and pictures just to figure out what they were fighting about.”
Within a year, Nancy held her own in Thai and spent her time comforting girls, making sure they did their homework and meeting their needs. “The main thing is that the girls knew someone truly cared for them,” Nancy says. “For many of them, that was a new experience.”
Little by little, the home grew to 100 girls as Nancy and A-je found more children who needed help. Many of the girls came from the Akha hill tribe, an indigenous people with its own language and customs. Villages consist of huts with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. There is often no electricity, running water or schools.
Boys are at risk of being exploited, as well. Chadree, 7, lost his mother to suicide and his father is an opium addict. He was offered a home at the House of Joy.
“The Akha are the poorest of the tribes in Thailand,” Nancy says, “and most likely to sell their children into prostitution. They have the highest rate of AIDS and drug addiction.”
Akha children are looked down on by Thai society and often have a poor self-image. One of the goals at the House of Grace was to change that, says Nancy.
“My father died when I was 15, and I was sent to the House of Grace,” says Jutiporn Chunphongthum, now 28. “I had never been out of the village, never seen a stop light,” Chunphongthum says. “I was so scared.”
That soon changed, and the young teen grew more confident. “I couldn’t believe Nancy would come all the way from America to show me that love,” says Chunphongthum. “And all the American visitors who supported the work and came to visit cared about me! I couldn’t believe that.”
“Before, I had felt very low,” Chunphongthum says, “like I had done something wrong being Akha. Here I learned that God loved me and made me who I was. Now I am proud to be Akha.”
It was while working with the Akha people that Nancy met the love of her life and partner in her life’s work. “I was working on a project in a village,” Nancy recalls, “and met this handsome Akha man who was also helping there.”
A-Je Kukaewkasem was the first Akha native ever to graduate from college. He was putting his public health degree to work in the villages. A-Je, who had been serving as the “pastor” in his village since the age of 13, also shared Nancy’s Christian faith.
“When I saw A-Je with his people, I was so impressed,” Nancy recalls. “I turned to a friend and said if he was a westerner I would marry him in a minute.”
The two gradually grew close. “One day, A-Je went down this list with me,” Nancy said. “He said that he came from the lowest tribe, and that he owned nothing but a bike, a degree and a heart to serve God. Though he wanted to study in America, he felt called to help his people here. That meant if I married him, I would have to give up my country and my ways.”
After thinking it over, Nancy made her decision. Since A-Je’s father was the tribal chief of a large village, more than 1,000 people came to the couple’s two-day wedding. Nancy had to prove herself as a wife, cutting down a tree and feeding chickens during the event.
A later American ceremony in America proved just as foreign for A-Je. “We had to kiss in front of the whole congregation,” A-Je says, laughing, “and I about passed out!”
After attending seminary in Colorado for several years, the couple returned to Thailand and the House of Grace, where they served as house parents for six more years.
The pair works well together, says A-Je. “Nancy has a good understanding of where I come from,” he says. “We share the same vision.”
“The greatest joy in this work is watching a child’s life turn around,” says Nancy. “And when they come and throw their arms around you, it’s so rewarding.”
The hardest thing, says Nancy, is not being able to help more children. “We could go out today and find 200 kids in desperate situations,” she says. “It breaks my heart to see a 6-year-old begging with a 3-month-old sibling tied to his back, something we often see on the border with Burma.”
Nancy tells of one girl she couldn’t turn down, even though the home was full. “A man came to the door with his 12-year-old niece. Her parents had died of AIDS, and the man said he didn’t want the girl. She was hiding behind him, crying. I just melted, and I took her anyway. She is still with us today.”
Recently, the couple turned over the leadership at the House of Grace to several women who grew up there as children. A-Je and Nancy have turned their attention to starting a new boys’ home. “More and more boys are being pulled into prostitution now,” Nancy says. “And there are few places for them to go for help.”
The couple’s Akha Outreach Services (www.akhachildren.com) is raising funds to build a facility that will eventually house 100 young boys.
“Our vision is to raise Akha boys with a pride in their heritage and a healthy self-esteem who can make an impact on their villages, the Akha people and Thailand,” says Nancy, who now has two young sons of her own, in addition to raising two of A-Je’s teenage nieces.
But although Nancy has turned her attention to the new home, she hasn’t forgotten all the girls she mothered over the past decade.
At the House of Grace, visitors are greeted by dozens of happy girls 7 to 22. Now under the direction of Powkeere and Chunphongthum, two women who know all too well what these children have gone through, the home is a peaceful contrast to the pain and stress of the streets.
The decision to return to the House of Grace was easy for Chunphongthum. “I looked at Nancy and how she poured her life into other children,” says Chunphongthum, who is head director. “I saw what the house had done in the lives of others, and I wanted to see that continue.”
Although Nancy misses her family in Colorado, her heart is in Thailand.
“These children bring such joy,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see a child who came in with no self-esteem turn around to become one of your greatest leaders,” says Nancy. “These girls are giving out what was given back to them, and that is a great fulfillment.”