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Recovery and empowerment

Matt Pais

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Top MDRT Foundation Quality of Life grant awarded to support survivors of human trafficking.

There is civil war in Cambodia. It’s 1994, and many of the women, widows from the war, are homeless. Children are searching through the garbage, looking for food.

And it’s where Chee Onn Chan, CLU, ChFC, now a six-year MDRT member from Singapore, found a deep responsibility to help vulnerable communities while participating on a volunteer trip with his church.

More than 25 years later, Chan’s ongoing work with Hagar Singapore Ltd. — a humanitarian organization that primarily works to support people who have escaped human trafficking and sexual slavery in Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Myanmar — has earned $50,000
from the MDRT Foundation’s top Quality of Life grant.

“Hagar has helped more than 19,000 women,” Chan said. “We are very happy about that and want to reach many more.”

The MDRT Foundation grant money will help fund Hagar’s efforts to aid survivors of human trafficking and sexual and labor exploitation through safe accommodations, legal support, education, economic empowerment and reintegration into the community. Though based in Singapore, the program’s participants include women from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines and more.

Specific goals for the program include:

  • 80% of clients who show symptoms of trauma receiving counseling and therapy
  • 70% of clients with medical conditions receiving appropriate treatment
  • 30 participants learning English
  • 40 participants receiving vocational/soft skills training
  • 70% of clients being reintegrated into their original families or the community of their choice with concrete plans for the future

Throughout years of work with Hagar, Chan, who now serves as chairman of the board of directors for the Singapore office and as a board member for Hagar International, has seen the impact of this work. To name just a few examples, he remembers Aly, who, after being raped at 16, was rescued and referred to Hagar, which supported her and the child that resulted from the assault. Years later, Aly now works as a teaching assistant in a school for children with special needs and volunteers for Hagar as well.

There was also the boy brought in by Hagar at age 10 after his grandfather, who raised him after the death of his parents, passed away himself. Hagar provided residence and education, and today he goes by Dr. Rithy, works in a public hospital and spends his weekends traveling to villages to provide free medical service.

And there was Priya, a 14-year-old girl whose parents in Bangladesh sold her as a child bride because they needed money for Priya’s six brothers and sisters. Priya eventually bravely testified in court while facing her perpetrators (who were sentenced to just 15 months in prison) and now lives safely with her siblings.

“So many of the clients we have helped now have been restored and empowered,” Chan said. “Not just to rebuild their lives but so they can contribute back to society.”

Back in 1994, Chan’s mission was local: building the first shelter for the aforementioned widows, children and orphans. That meant painting, doing repairs and helping out with whatever was needed. In his visits since, he has played with children, visited foster homes where they have been placed and evaluated the work being done while searching for new opportunities to assist.

Now in his role as chairman, Chan frequently travels to Cambodia and helps lead discussions about allocations of funds to address needs in Cambodia, Vietnam and beyond. That also includes running a charity golf event in Singapore (with proceeds supporting Hagar) and various social media efforts to spread awareness and raise the profile of the issue and the organization’s work to combat it. A PR organization also provides free assistance to support Hagar’s cause.

And while the issue has hardly gone away (and, needless to say, the coronavirus is inhibiting progress as donors cut back and the economy slows down), there has been good news on individual and broader levels. Recently, two survivors supported by Hagar have testified and successfully prosecuted their cases, resulting in convictions for their attackers. And in 2015, Hagar was part of the origination of Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, a bill that has resulted in decreased human trafficking activity.

“Worldwide, a lot more can be done,” Chan said. “We will do what we can to help those who have been abused and go the distance to help those who are in need.”

Contact: Chee Onn Chan


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