Two more mouths to feed, thought the father of twin infant daughters. Two mouths too many. Born into abject poverty in a village along Cambodia’s Mekong River, the girls only signaled additional hardship to a family barely surviving.
Their father came up with a quick solution to the problem. He grabbed one daughter’s neck in both hands and twisted, and then tossed her body into the river below their stilted house. Before he could deliver the same fate to her twin, however, his horrified wife swept her up in her arms, placed her into a basket and, like the mother of Moses, set her adrift on the river.
In the next village downstream, a woman discovered the baby-laden basket along the river’s edge. She brought the infant, who would later become known as Jesse, into her home and cared for her. In time, Jesse’s birth mother learned that her daughter had been found and was being cared for by a woman downstream. As Jesse grew over the next 6 years, her mother visited occasionally, bringing morsels of food when she could.
Tragically, Jesse’s foster mother became ill and died. Despite Jesse’s pleading, her birth mother said she could not care for her, and sent her to live with relatives in the tourist city of Siem Reap. Jesse had no time to adjust to her new surroundings, however, because she was soon consigned to another family.
Unknown to 6-year-old Jesse, she had actually been sold to human traffickers. The men had a truck that carried rice, but they also transported human cargo in a hidden compartment below. Little Jesse was placed inside the cramped space with about 40 young women bound for the same fate.
That night, during a brief rest stop off the main road and surrounded by uninhabited jungle, the women were allowed out of their cramped compartment to relieve themselves. The women feared reprisals upon their families (who had sold them to the traffickers) if they ran away, but they felt compassion for Jesse because she was so young. They explained to her that she was in danger and, at their urging, she fled into the dark shadows of the jungle.
After wandering for days, Jesse found a cave that offered her cool shelter—but she had to share the rocky refuge with bats. That cave was her first jungle home. During the cooler months she slept under nearby trees.
Amazingly, Jesse survived 6 long years alone in the jungle by foraging for fruit and trapping small animals. Her clothes became tattered rags. She forgot how to talk.
At the age of 12 she was discovered by a team of scientists flown into the remote area by helicopter to evaluate natural resources. They took Jesse back to civilization and placed her with a foreign family, where she learned how to speak and live with others once again. But a year later problems with her host’s employer forced them to leave Cambodia, and Jesse was moved to another family.
Over the next 10 years Jesse moved from one place to another—ultimately living with 4 different families and 2 humanitarian organizations. Although Jesse never attended formal schooling, she did receive lessons in English, sewing and computers. But just when Jesse’s life seemed stable, the husband of her host family tried to rape her, so she fled into the night as she did from the traffickers years before. She found shelter with another family, but then, a few years later, Jesse faced new abuse that forced her to run once more. (You are probably beginning to understand why I titled this story, Survivor.)
Although Jesse suffered from abuse and instability most of her young life, not all her experiences were bad. She did meet some genuine believers along the way who introduced her to Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until she heard about a place called Precious Women, a Heaven’s Family-supported ministry in Phnom Penh, that her future began looking very bright. After speaking with Solida, the ministry’s founder and director, Jesse came to live in their Butterfly Home, a refuge for young women who have escaped the sex industry. (Read more about this ministry in our January 2013 magazine.)
Now 23, Jesse has been thriving in the few months she’s lived at Precious Women. I had the opportunity to meet her during my visit in January, and I was amazed at her joy in the Lord, and her excitement worshiping Him. Although homeless most of her life, Jesse has found her true home in Jesus, and she’ll never have to move from that Home again.