People Over Products

There’s a large highway-ish road that travels north out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As you drive out of the city, a river runs to your right and colorful storefronts pass by on the left. Dozens, if not hundreds, of motos zoom in and out of tuk tuks, cars, and semis with precision and grace. The traffic flows like fish swimming in the river.

All of the sudden, your vehicle inches toward the center lane and begins to make the treacherous left-hand turn. Slowly, you move across oncoming traffic. Motos and cars move around you like the river continues to flow around a rock. Immediately you head down a steep embankment onto a much smaller, quieter street. Kids run by kicking a soccer ball. Men recline on folding chairs, chatting away. A shop owner sweeps dust away from her storefront. You continue to wind your way through the street. As you approach your destination, you see young women walking and laughing, carrying cups of iced coffee, green coconuts, and bags full of fresh mango. Their smiles are contagious and you can’t help but laugh a little yourself, even though you have no idea what they’re talking about. They wave and yell out, “Sok Sabay, Bahrung!” Now, you know they’re talking to you (Bahrung = foreigner). You wave back and nod, laughing along with them. There’s a joy in their voices that you don’t need a translator to understand. 

The young women pull on a huge, rolling metal door and it slides to the right. Apparently, they’re going to the same place you’re headed – AIM’s Employment Center. As you step inside, you’re greeted by a young man in a polo and you watch the women part ways and head to their work. The young man introduces himself as Thearos, the Director of Equipping at AIM. He leads you through the massive building.

The first thing you notice on this floor are a bunch of things that look like hairdryers! T-shirts are laid out on tables and women place screen prints over top, plopping ink onto the screens. They carefully spread this ink through the screen and remove it. Together, they work to align the designs and keep everything steady and smooth. Another woman follows with that aforementioned hair-dryer-looking thing and hovers over the ink to help it dry.

The whole process is mesmerizing to watch! Thearos explains that there are private offices on a mezzanine between the first and second floors. Here, social workers are available for the women whenever they need to chat about life or work or anything. “We have standards and procedures in place to give the ladies structures and allow the training center to run smoothly, but there are times when someone has a bad day. All the staff who need to be involved would take the time to come alongside the woman who is in need of encouragement, development, and growth. We all work together to get our work done, but we want each woman to be taken care of however they need it.”

As you make your way up the staircase, past the mezzanine, and to the second story, you notice the abstract floral mural on the wall. You ask what it is. “A lotus flower,” Thearos responds, “it has great significance in Cambodian culture. Basically, lotus flowers grow from the mud, but they become something beautiful. It’s a really special meaning to the women working here.” 

At the top of the stairs, you enter a large area with rows and rows of sewing machines where women sit, chat, and work together to sew pieces of clothing together. Some laugh and joke as they settle in after their morning break. The coffee from that morning break is hitting! A table takes up a quarter of the floor and, again, women work together to carefully lay sheets of fabric on top of each other before sliding a circular saw over what seems like 100 layers at once! They lay patterns for t-shirts on top of the layers and outline them in white chalk before using the saw to cut almost perfectly along the chalk line. Amidst the hustle and chaos of all the different tasks, everyone is calm and confident. Managers work with and encourage each woman. Those that work in pairs problem-solve together. It seems like a well-oiled machine! 

As you go up a final set of stairs to another mezzanine level, Thearos explains,

“When a woman arrives, we ask what department they prefer to be trained in. If there is space available, they can start wherever they would like to learn. We like to cross-train so that they can learn multiple skills, however, if a trainee wants to stay in one department and choose to excel, there’s the possibility for them to become team leaders.”

You take a minute to look in the training rooms, which are empty at the moment, and think of all the women who have come and will go through training at AEC. No matter their background, this is a place where they will learn a practical skill and be given the opportunity to break any cycle of exploitation or abuse that has been a part of their past. “Thank you, God, for how you will redeem their stories!” you think to yourself. 

Thearos leads you back down the 3 flights of stairs to the ground floor. “Before you leave”, he says, “I want to show you our jewelry room!” Along the edge of the first floor, there is a room with rows of desks. Beads and strings of all sorts of colors are organized along the wall. Women sit at their desks and move so quickly that you can’t even tell what they’re doing until they show you a stunning beaded bracelet.

One of them motions to you and says something to Thearos. “She wants to know if you want to make one.” I’ve braided hair before, you think, I can give it a go. She shows you a few samples and you pick a simple braid with a bead in the middle. Easy peasy. The woman shows you how to measure and cut the string and ties the end for you. On the table in front of you, you notice small nails to hook the end of the string. You start braiding and you think you’re doing pretty good! It might be a little lopsided, but that’s okay! You go faster, but suddenly the woman stops you.

She takes the string and redoes your work, making a perfect little braid out of the string. She hands it back to you and you continue, slowly. Adding the bead in the middle and finishing it off, you’re proud of your work! The woman helps you add a button for a hook and pats you on your back. She turns to talk to Thearos. “She said, if you worked here, we would lose money on that bracelet!” You laugh and thank her for her help. She is an artisan who has perfected the craft. In fact, all of the women here, although some are still learning, are artists. You never thought of the skill it takes to make jewelry or clothing, but here you see with your own eyes just how carefully each item is made. 

As you leave AEC, you think about what the woman said about losing money and you chuckle. It’s true, you would not be an efficient bracelet maker. But you also laugh to yourself knowing that that’s not the point of AIM’s Employment Center either. Of course, every business wants to be profitable and successful, but it’s so obvious from your visit that AIM cares more about the people than their production. When these women are safe and healthy and happy, they do good work that they can be proud of! And that’s the environment that they strive to create at AIM’s Employment Center. Not only are these women developing in their work and skills, but they are learning about what it means to embrace the life of freedom that is available to them through safe and sustainable employment. They are encouraged to pursue their dreams, within AIM or somewhere else. And they are cared for spiritually and emotionally by the staff that love them! 

AIM’s Employment Center trains survivors of trafficking and those who are vulnerable to exploitation. When you design with AIM Custom or shop at AIM Apparel, you’re supporting safe employment for these women! Check out the video below to see what AEC looks like and the impact YOU can make with your order!

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