When Liem was 15, she left home.
It was 1999, and she was studying in Grade 9. Life was difficult and she wanted to find a way to help her family through some tough times.
A woman from the neighborhood approached Liem with an offer: a job at a restaurant in Hanoi. She could work there for a few months, save up some money, and return to her family as a hero.
But, the woman warned, Liem would need to keep it a secret. Her parents would never agree in advance – it would be better to send a message once Liem had already started the job.
Liem left with her school bag and a dream of saving her family from poverty. She was gone for 21 years.
Those decades away were a living hell. The woman from her village took her to China, and Liem didn’t even know that anything was wrong at first. By the time she realised, it was far too late.
At first Liem was sold into a brothel, and a year later sold into another. Over the 21 years of slavery, Liem was sold again and again. Her final years in China were as a ‘wife’ to a man who wanted a servant he could control and force himself onto.
The years of extreme hardship took their toll. Liem had a stroke, and was left unable to walk.
Her family knew none of this. On that awful afternoon in 1999, her mother and father came home in the evening to an empty house and wondered where their daughter had gone. The next day they set out in search of her, desperately hoping there was some simple, innocent explanation that Liem had stayed out over night.
Liem never came home. Days turned into weeks and then years. It was as though she had just vanished, like a puff of smoke.
Everyone was sure that Liem had died; there could be no other explanation. But while some families would have built a grave and placed their daughter’s photo on the family altar, Liem’s parents did not. Deep down they continued to hope that somehow their little girl would come home.
Then one day a mysterious phone call came. A woman who refused to identify herself was asking questions about Liem. When the family was able to verify that Liem was indeed their daughter, the woman told them the news that they had waited 21 years to hear: Liem was alive.
With 48 hours, Blue Dragon put together a rescue team and brought Liem back to Vietnam. Unable to walk, we carried her across the border.
COVID precautions meant that Liem was required to go straight to a quarantine facility. In an act of compassion, the border guards allowed Liem’s father to also go to quarantine. After two decades separated from his daughter, he could not wait another two weeks.
Liem is home now. After release from quarantine, she was carried back to the home that she walked away from more than half her life ago.
For her whole family, it seems that the impossible has come true. The years ahead are going to be hard: Liem will always live with the trauma of slavery, and her parents will always live with the regret of losing their daughter.
But at least they have a chance to start over, and to build a life from the ashes of all they lost.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam with children and families in crisis. A donation to the Rescue Appeal will provide urgent assistance for the rescue and care of people like Liem.