The Freedom to Hope and Dream: A Survivor's Journey from Brothel to Assistant Creative Director


The Parable of the Starfish goes like this: an old man walking on a beach sees a young boy throwing starfish back into the water one by one. The old man is perplexed, as the beach is covered in millions of starfish, and asks the boy what difference he can truly make. The boy replies, "I made a difference to that one."

Starfish Project has taken this parable to heart. They strive to restore hope to women who have been exploited in East Asia, one woman at a time. Starfish Project began in 2006 to provide women with an employment alternative, a means of creating their own income, and a sense of empowerment through self-sufficiency. Women participate in the jewelry making and distribution process in a myriad of ways, ranging from beading to helping with social marketing. In addition, Starfish Project provides a range of holistic care services: opportunities for women to heal and grow through counseling, vocational training, language acquisition, family education grants and health care access, as well as providing housing in our women's shelter.

Here, one of the amazing survivor artisans shares the story of her journey and what her time at Starfish Project means to her. For her safety, her name and location have been omitted. Instead of her photo, she has requested we share a photo of her favorite necklace she makes at Starfish (and also loves wearing!)

Tell us a little about your childhood:
I do not have any children and currently do not have a close relationship with my relatives. I never knew my biological father, and my mother remarried when I was 14. Soon after their wedding, he started to hit me and I knew there was no place for me there so I went to the city to live with a friend.

How did you find yourself at Starfish Project?
After going through years of physical abuse by my stepfather, I dared to move away to a friend's house in a major city. I needed to find work. My friend introduced me to a brothel. I did not understand the full situation and didn't realize what I had gotten into until it was too late. After being abused ever day for a year, I met women from Starfish Project and was able to leave that situation for a better one. I have been with Starfish Project for four years now, and I can honestly say that my life has been completely transformed. Today I feel confident, empathetic, and open-minded. And I have realized that I have my own identity that is unique to me. And that is beautiful.

How do you feel when you are working?
At my old job I felt constant shame, but now I have joy and am proud of the work I do each day. Being at Starfish Project has taught me all aspects of running a business which is incredibly empowering. My colleagues are my friends and they have encouraged me to set and achieve goals. And I do, now.

What is your favorite thing to make?
I have many favorite pieces that I make, but I really enjoy the bold and more unique pieces. They are fun and trendy, stand out, and are more intricate. My favorite color is red. It's bright, bold, and makes a statement. This is why one of my favorite Starfish Project pieces to wear is the Tabitha necklace.

How has economic independence impacted your life?

Working at Starfish Project, I have a salary and a housing allowance so I can have my own apartment. I also receive health benefits and medical assistance, as well as educational and vocational training.

What inspires you?
I first started out working in production making jewelry at Starfish Project. Then, they offered computer lessons and English classes and, to my surprise, I did really well in both classes. It was around this time that I discovered my passion for graphic design. I shared my feelings with the leadership at Starfish Project and they sent me to take graphic design and photography classes off-site so I could develop those skills. Now I am the assistant to the Creative Director and work with her on editing photos and designing jewelry. I also now teach Photoshop to other women. These are only two of the opportunities I know I would have never had otherwise, and it has given me the freedom to hope and dream.

What is your dream for the future?
I would love to open a wedding shop one day and help women find their ideal wedding gown, and do wedding photography. Imagine how happy it would be to work with new loving couples and taking their photos they will cherish forever.

To learn more about Starfish Project, click here.
Image provided by Starfish Project