James Havey discovered his passion for helping the downtrodden and underprivileged after a trip to Mexico in middle school. He went on a trip with a Christian ministry to volunteer in orphanages around Monterrey, Mexico.

“It was on this first trip down to Monterrey that I saw what poverty can do to a family, and what non-governmental organizations are doing to help alleviate these situations,” Havey says.

Today, Havey, volunteering with the Catholic organization Mary Knoll Missioners, is helping people subjected to human trafficking in Cambodia, working on an unprecedented 10-year research study in that country. The effort aims to better understand the individual impact trafficking has there and how to best advocate for victims.

The study

Human trafficking has pervaded every province of the Southeast Asian country of 16 million people, Havey says. Children from poor families beg on the streets. Many men and boys, some as young as 13, recruited into the fishing industry are underpaid and forced to work at sea for years. Women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking, some of whom are deceived into marriages and then forced to pay off their spouses’ debts through forced factory labor or prostitution. Sometimes, entire families are forced to work for brick kiln proprietors, who take care of families’ preexisting debts and then strong-arm them to work for them, while requiring them to take out new loans as a condition of employment.

It can all be frustrating to witness.

“I would have to say my biggest challenge living and working here is that balance of not being some elitist foreigner from a developed nation who has a savior complex,” Havey says. “While this sounds harsh, yes, it takes a daily practice of humility and a listening ear to walk with my friends and coworkers of Cambodia, rather than pull by the hand and lead.”

He has learned how to empathize with his colleagues and the 128 adults and children who are part of the study. The research project, launched in 2010 by the Chab Dai Coalition, involves following human trafficking survivors from when they join an aftercare program through their transition back into the community.

The work has revealed a poor support system for victims, abuse within shelters, stigmas against survivors within the community and, unfortunately, very few success stories.

This stirs Havey and his team to share their findings with other non-governmental agencies that can help, along with recommending policy changes to lawmakers and social service providers.

Signing laws only does so much though; how they’re implemented is what matters, Havey says. He points to problems in implementing laws here in the U.S.

“A paradigm in the U.S. — culturally and legally — is identifying a victim of human trafficking only after they’ve committed a crime (prostitution, drug trafficking, illegal migration),” he says. “It’s what’s being coined as ‘dual victimization’ and causes distrust within the victim to the proper authorities who provide them care and security.”

Prepared to serve

Havey, who earned the Eagle Scout Award in 2004 with Troop 777 in Wilmington, Ohio, credits Scouting for preparing him for his mission in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Campouts and backpacking treks require one to Be Prepared to adapt to any changing situation. Adaptability is a key life skill to have, one that has proven useful in Cambodia, where Havey has encountered rolling blackouts, language barriers and monsoons. He admits it’s tough to live by the Scout Oath and Law all the time, but he remains persistent in his mission to help others.

“There are times in my life that I fall short of every single one of these points,” Havey says of the Scout Law. “It’s not very clean to have the dishes and laundry pile up. To persist courteousness when meeting with a corrupt leader misguiding their people. Or even, remaining reverent while carrying in my arms a mother of three, dying of AIDs to the local clinic.

“But, that is because this is a living,” he continues. “Spoken and written, yes, but its only relevance lies within each Scout to carry its burden throughout their days. At the end of the day, I can roll around awake thinking about how that day I didn’t wash the dishes, or I can lay in peace knowing that tomorrow is a new day. To begin once again trying to live out the Scout Law’s charges.”

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