The Thumbprint of God

How I survived a summer I never could have expected.

by Sarah Bonthuis

One minute I was walking across the stage to receive my college diploma. The next I was walking across an airport terminal about to catch a flight halfway around the world.

Graduation, packing, training, traveling… My head was already spinning as I landed in Phnom Penh.

The girls hard at work in the workshop.

The girls hard at work in the workshop.

I had expected some obstacles during my time in Cambodia, but thought I would breeze by them, faith and confidence intact and stronger than ever. Surely as a college graduate I had all the skills I would need to thrive in any environment. Hadn’t I received a certificate promising just that? I never did take the time to read the fine print on my diploma, but I was fairly certain it said something along the lines of “Sarah Bonthuis. English. Communication. Awesome. Will Succeed. Sincerely, Calvin College.”

What I had not expected was three weeks of vomiting, an intense homesickness, a silent God, an insurmountable language barrier, and a full-on identity crisis at the ripe age of twenty-two. But that’s what I got.

Each day I faced brought more questions than answers and more doubts than assurances.

I was struck primarily by the contradictions of Cambodia. It is a place notorious for sex trafficking, but I was hard-pressed to see or hear any evidence of this supposedly thriving industry. Poverty is widespread, yet everywhere I went I saw smiling faces. The narrative of Cambodia I had built in my head didn’t match the reality I was bearing witness to.

This dissonance only grew when I met the Imprint Project girls.

When I first found out I was going to be working with “at-risk” girls I immediately conjured up images of victims: tattered, broken, insecure, untrusting, fearful individuals. The girls in the Imprint Project, I quickly realized, were anything but.

laughing-girlsWalking into the Imprint Project workshop for the first time, I was blindsided by a hug. It came out of nowhere and nearly knocked me off my feet. I managed to keep my balance and laughing, looked down into the big, sweet eyes of a spunky Cambodian girl. She didn’t know my name and I didn’t know hers, but she literally welcomed me with open arms into her small, tight-knit community.

I’ve always struggled to learn names and recognize faces, so mastering the names of the eight girls in the program was no easy task. But as I learned their names, I also began to discover the unique personalities that went along with them. Srey Noch, whose hug had almost toppled me over that first day, was obsessed with hair and makeup. During lunch breaks I would see her sitting at her sewing machine, compact mirror in hand, trying out whatever new product she had picked up at the market that day. Then there was Chanthou, who never bothered with makeup, but whose rounded cheeks were always glowing. What Sina lacked in height, she made up for in attitude—at least until our eyes locked and she bust out that sweet grin of hers.

I certainly wasn’t in love with Cambodia, but it was hard not to love these girls.  Even so, my mind was reeling with questions—about myself, my place here, the world at large, and God’s presence in the country. I was frustrated with the injustices and the silence, with my own confusion and waning confidence. Hadn’t I already dealt with these questions? How was it possible that I was backtracking rather than making progress?

Somala’s laugh is contagious.

Somala’s laugh is contagious.

My insecurities increased tenfold every time I checked Facebook. I was bombarded with status updates from friends back home: “Landed the job!”, or “She said yes!”, or “We tied the knot!” Everyone I knew seemed to be moving forward with their lives and working towards their future; meanwhile I was sweating nonstop in a workshop in Cambodia, trying to figure out how to choke down another meal of rice (and keep it down). Furthermore, I had no job lined up, no housing secured, and only enough cash in my savings account for a month or two of unemployment upon returning to the States. I berated myself for my flightiness and cursed my passion for traveling. No matter the doors God had opened—clearly I should have spent the summer attending to my responsibilities back in the US, not traipsing around Cambodia by tuk-tuk.

To put it rather bluntly: I had become the most unattractive version of myself—and I’m not referring to my lack of personal hygiene, though that was flying out the window as well (did I mention I took bucket showers in a closet-like structure accompanied by frogs and geckos?). I was letting envy, fear, and anxiety eat away at my heart, rob me of my joy, and trick me out of grateful living.

My pity party was put on hold the day CGI hired an interpreter and I was finally able to communicate with the girls at a level deeper than just “Good morning!” and “Coffee?”

The Imprint Project girls now have dreams for the future.

The Imprint Project girls now have dreams for the future.

One by one they sat down across from me at the big wooden table. Through the translator, I discovered that nearly every girl was one of six or seven siblings, had received only a fourth or fifth grade education, and had worked for a time in a factory to provide for their families. With tears of joy welling in their eyes they told me of their gratefulness to CGI, who paid them a good salary to learn and practice sewing—a skill that would help them get a well paying job and potentially allow them to open up their own tailoring shop someday. With their income, they were able to help their family, keep younger siblings in school, and help parents pay off debt. Since they all lived at the Imprint Project house, they were guaranteed three meals a day, a roof over their heads, and most importantly, security. They were assigned different chores each week, taking turns cooking and cleaning, learning basic skills that would help them run their own households one day. In addition, they got to do fun things, like having pizza and pool parties and taking trips to the Zoo. None of these things had been a part of their lives prior to CGI.

I ended each interview by asking the girls what they hoped to be doing in five years time. They smiled shyly as they shared with me their dreams for the future: Somala, Sophea, Srey Noch, and Sina hoped to join the staff of CGI, to help girls with stories like their own rise above all the cards that had been stacked against them; Saran, Chanthou, Pisei, and Sokchea wanted to open up their own shops so they could provide a good living for their families.

The girls of the Imprint Project have become amazing seamstresses.

The girls of the Imprint Project have become amazing seamstresses.

After finishing the interviews that day, I felt like the smallest, pettiest person alive. These girls had actually experienced true hunger, fear, and insecurity. I simply imagined these things and was scared silly. My entire life I had never truly gone without and I still had the audacity to doubt whether God would provide. It is one thing, I realized, to be told you are among the world’s elite—it is another thing completely to see what that looks like firsthand. In comparison to the mountainous trials these girls had faced, my own joblessness, homelessness, penniless future looked like an anthill.

Something that dawned on me after the interviews was that none of the girls had mentioned sex trafficking. Undoubtedly their lives had been characterized by a strangling poverty—but what exactly put these girls in particular at risk?

I went straight to the top for these answers, sitting down one afternoon in the workshop with Chris Alexander, founder of the Center for Global Impact (CGI). He explained to me that, unfortunately, all of these girls had had their brushes with violence, trafficking, or rape—they were indeed girls at-risk, or at least had been before the intervention of CGI. They had left out these portions of their stories because they weren’t pleasant memories and they didn’t see the use in bringing them up. And CGI agrees. They choose to focus not on the pasts these girls can’t change, but on a future that’s bright and full of hope.

I left it at that. The stories of sex-trafficking exist, all over Cambodia, and I realized if I kept pressing and searching, I would probably get someone to tell me about their experience. But if no one wanted to talk about it, why should I make them? Wasn’t living through it once enough suffering? If the roles had been reversed, I would not want to go around broadcasting those details either.

Despite a dark past, hope shines in Saran’s eyes.

Despite a dark past, hope shines in Saran’s eyes.

But even though the girls chose to keep quiet about their difficult pasts, I was able to pick up a lot just by paying attention to the little things. A story that I kept coming back to was that of Pisei.

One by one, bits of information were told to me about this petite and stylish Cambodian girl. At first I thought she was just another one of the girls. Then someone told me she was the instructor. Then I found out she was 26. Then someone mentioned that she was divorced. And had a son—no, two sons. And she had had an arranged marriage. And her ex-husband had been abusive. And her family wasn’t supportive. They didn’t believe in her. As I gathered these bits of information my respect and admiration for her grew.

With every new struggle that comes my way, I am tempted to think “welp, that’s it. I guess my story ends with this.” Pisei and her story kept reminding me, all summer long, about the power of “and. No matter what I am facing, whether a trial or a tribulation, my story cannot end with that because of the loving sacrifice of Christ—the “and.” Christ gets the final word, the final “and” in my story. He redeems it all in the end—all the brokenness and injustice. And with each new “and” that was added in Pisei’s story, I could see that He wasn’t finished writing her story, either.

The sewing instructor for The Imprint Project, Pisei, has an amazing story of her own.

The sewing instructor for The Imprint Project, Pisei, has an amazing story of her own.

I had spent a lot of my time thinking that Cambodia had been forgotten, both by God and by his people. How else could I explain the existence of such poverty and tragic injustices? But as soon as I opened my eyes and my ears, I saw evidence of God’s goodness all around. I saw his goodness in the work of CGI, an organization dedicated to alleviating poverty through programs like the Imprint Project.

Once I took the leap from despair to hope, everything changed for me. It was almost as if God had dipped his thumb in paint and every day I was seeing his thumbprint all over, claiming these places and these people as his own. I looked at myself and discovered that I, too, was dripping wet with fresh paint, covered a thousand times over with the thumbprint of God.

In addition, I had acquired some new thumbprints, the lasting influence of a summer spent with eight amazing girls.

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