Teen trafficked to China finds way home after a decade

By Pham Nga   September 16, 2020 | 04:56 am PT
With a new ID her most prized possession, Kim can now proudly claim Vietnamese citizenship, along with a true hometown.

Kha Thi Kim Dan (aka Kim) is a resident of Ky Son District in the central province of Nghe An. She was trafficked to China as a teen nine years ago and separated from her family, who believed she was working in Laos.

Kim, who virtually forgot how to speak her mother tongue after many years away from home in a foreign land, never stopped pining for her family and longing to return home.

Today, she’s thrilled to be reunited with her mother and her family, but she longs to return to China, where she has built a new life for herself.

"In China, I have a job and a two-year relationship. In my hometown here, I now have the happiness of reunion, but the feeling of being lost remains, because my mother and sisters now have their own families," Kim said, adding that life and eating habits in Vietnam are new to her now.

Xeo Thi Oanh knows her daughter wants to return to China, and gets emotional about it.

"I have missed her, I want to stay close to her," said Oanh, who belongs to the Kho Mu ethnic minority community.

Kim (L) and her mother Oanh. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Kim (L) and her mother Oanh. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Nine years ago, Oanh was working alone on her farm, having to take care of her three children and parents-in-law. Her husband, a drug addict, had sold everything in their house to feed his addiction.

Seeing her poor mother burnt out trying to keep the family afloat, Kim, the second daughter, lent a hand by harvesting vegetables and selling them at a local market. When Kim was 12, a relative invited her to go to Laos to work as a dish cleaner.

But, instead of being given a job in Laos, she was trafficked and sold to a farmer’s family in Anyang in China’s Henan province.

Vietnam has recorded over 3,400 victims of human trafficking since 2013, over 90 percent of them women, children and people from ethnic minority communities, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

Eighty percent of victims end up in China, which suffers from one of the worst gender imbalances due to its one-child policy and illegal abortion of female fetuses by parents who prefer sons, leading to increasing trafficking of Vietnamese women and baby girls to that country.

On seeing the dark-skinned little teenage girl, the Chinese family, who were looking for a daughter-in-law, adopted Kim instead.

"Having no personal documents, I could not go to school. But my adoptive parents bought notebooks and taught me Chinese," Kim recalled. The first letters she wrote on her new notebooks were the names of her Vietnamese parents and siblings.

Yearning for home, she worried that the new life in China would make her forget her own roots.

Every day, Kim followed her new parents to their farm, raising chickens and farming vegetables. She did not speak their language and spent the first two years in silence. Every night, she cried and resented her parents for not looking for their lost daughter.

At home, the relative told Kim's mother that their daughter was in Laos and would be home by the end of the year. But after two Tet (Lunar New Year) festivals passed, Kim was nowhere to be seen.

Oanh took her other two children to the relative's house to ask about her lost daughter, but she had disappeared. In the third year after Kim left, that woman was arrested for human trafficking, and Oanh knew what had happened to her daughter.

The poor mother wanted to go to Laos, but her family and neighbors told her to stay at home and take care of her children, considering they had no idea where Kim was.

Oanh got divorced from her addict husband three years ago, and married another man in 2019. One of her conditions was that the new husband had to live in her house, in case Kim came home.

Lost, finding a new life

Meanwhile, Kim faced an unstable life in China because of the lack of personal documents. Four years after being trafficked, she was allowed to go out freely and decided to become a worker in Guangdong. She sent her earnings to the foster parents, but they refused to take the money.

Kim asked many of her friends about ways to return to Vietnam, but drew a blank.

"They told me they did not know any Vietnamese, and I should report to the Chinese police, but I did not dare to do so," she said. Two years ago, Kim, who’d had forgotten almost all of her Vietnamese, started working at a clothes shop.

"I did not trust anyone. Without papers, I was always afraid they would capture and traffick me again," Kim said. It was only this May that Kim befriended a Vietnamese person via Wechat and requested that her story be shared on social networks.

"She said she had been trafficked. She missed her family, her parents, and the lack of freedom made her yearn for home. I saw that, so I posted the story on Facebook," said Phuong, 22, a Vietnamese national working in China. Phuong added that he did not ask Kim for too much information because he was afraid she would be sad.

When he stumbled upon Kim's story on Facebook, Cut Si On, Vice Chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front in Ta Ca Commune, surmised that Kim was his lost niece.

"I thought that I must send a photo of myself standing in the hall of the Ta Ca People's Committee, so Phuong can show Kim. When she believed it, he connected us," On said.

Police in Nghe An Province then worked on confirming the information and contacted agencies to rescue Kim and take her home.

On August 29, Kha Thi Kim Dan left a quarantine facility in Hanoi and headed home. The paths where grass grew wild was now lined with houses. She was both excited and anxious about returning home after nine years.

When the bus stopped, Oanh rushed out to hold her daughter, now a young woman.

"Mother, I missed you," Kim said, using the Vietnamese she’d practiced in her quarantine period. They burst into tears.

"I am sad because she is getting old, her eyes are sunken," Kim said.

That night, the mother and her three children shared a bed, just like they used to do nine years ago. Oanh held Kim tight as though she was afraid her daughter might be taken away again.

At home, she let her daughter tell her own stories without asking too much, avoiding sad memories.

When Kim first returned to Vietnam, she could not use her mother tongue fluently and avoided strangers, On said.

"We love her and care for her, but she is always worried she would be trafficked again," On said.

Oanh has tried her best to make up for the missing nine years, cooking her daughter’s favorite dishes and taking her to places that she knew earlier.

Deep inside, Kim wants to return to her life in China, where she has lived for almost a decade. She says there is a void in her mind that can never be filled.

"But I am happy because I have found my family and become a citizen. Now, wherever I go, I can tell them that I have my hometown, my roots, my family."

"And," she added shyly in Vietnamese, "I am Kha Thi Kim Dan."

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