The Tronie Foundation
This is quite a story. Thanks to ADK for sending me this link. It’s a long article, but definitely worth the read. G.S.
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Trong and Rani Hong are creating the first home in the state for international human-trafficking victims.
To learn more about Tronie Foundation: www.troniefoundation.org To help: The foundation is accepting donated items for its shelter via Target.com. At the site, go to TargetLists and enter “Tronie” and “Foundation” under first and last name. Cash donations may be made through Home Street Bank.
As a 7-year-old girl in southern India in 1978, she was taken from her parents and sold into slavery.
At the same time, a 9-year-old boy in Southeast Asia was surviving alone in a cave, after the fishing boat on which he was fleeing Vietnam became shipwrecked.
Rani and Trong Hong would eventually be rescued from their separate childhood nightmares and brought to safety in Washington state. They would meet as adults on a blind date, fall in love and marry.
Years passed before they shared the stories of their own sad pasts with one another — he because he chose not to remember, she because she couldn’t, the trauma so great it had forced to her forget.
Now, motivated by the pain of their early years to help others, they are renovating a home exclusively for victims of human trafficking — people recruited, transported and harbored for sexual exploitation or slave labor.
It will be the first of its kind in the state and possibly only the second in the U.S.
They want the five-bedroom, split-level on three wooded acres in Western Washington to be the kind of warm and welcoming place they wanted — but didn’t have — for part of their childhoods.
“When you consider what my husband and I endured, our stories of survival are quite remarkable … ” Rani Trong said.
In recent years, they’ve told their stories countless times — to federal agencies, members of the Legislature and millions of viewers on Oprah Winfrey’s television show — speaking for people often unable to speak for themselves.
A year and a half ago, the Hongs formed the Tronie Foundation to help victims of human trafficking around the world. The foundation partners with other nonprofits to operate a shelter in Fiji for trafficking victims.
At the home they hope to open next month, an 18-year-old from Southeast Asia could become the first resident. The Hongs asked that the home’s exact location not be disclosed to protect future residents.
The petite teen, whose accented English is peppered with hip American slang, tells of escaping this summer from an aunt and uncle who’d treated her like a slave in their restaurant in the Northwest.
They’d encouraged her parents to send her to the U.S. so she could get an education, she says.
But after she got here, they kept her working without pay from the time school got out each day until sometimes past midnight.
She broke free with the help of a teacher, telling her aunt and uncle she was leaving as part of a scholarship program and would be back.
“I think about what happened to me and think that shouldn’t happen in America,” she said.
“But it did happen.”
Hotbed for trafficking
By law today, Trong, 39, and Rani, 35, would be considered victims or potential victims of trafficking — she as a child who was sold into slavery, and he facing conscription into the Vietnamese army as a child soldier.
The U.S. government estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 victims are trafficked into the U.S. annually and about 1.2 million worldwide, although only a fraction are ever discovered.
In 2002, Washington became the first state to pass trafficking legislation and establish a task force whose member agencies, headquartered in Seattle, work with about 40 victims a year.
As a port city, Seattle is a hotbed for trafficking. Victims are often women and children — although men are trafficked, too — brought here from countries in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Many come to the attention of police or advocates as victims of domestic violence. Others turn up as migrants on farm fields, at youth runaway facilities or in immigration detention centers. They can be mail-order brides or women held captive in homes as domestic servants or sex slaves.
“Once they’ve been used up, they are often dumped off somewhere,” Rani Trong said. “In working with these victims, we have found that the biggest need is housing. For Trong and I, as children, the Number 1 thing we wanted was a safe home.”
Two years in a cave
To this day, neither understands why, of all their siblings, they were chosen for the kind of life that befell them.
In 1978, Trong was 9, the middle of three boys, when his father loaded him onto a fishing boat with about 400 other Vietnamese, intent on spiriting him out of the country and out of the reach of the communist army.
In a brown paper bag Trong carried a wallet containing his family’s address and a family photo.
Shortly after they set sail, their boat was attacked repeatedly by pirates. On the fourth day, it was shipwrecked. By sunrise the next day, Trong Hong remembers, bodies were washing up on shore.
Of the 400 who began the journey with him, 200 made it to an uninhabited island in Indonesia where they set up a camp that was visited by Indonesian government and other international aid officials.
Trong found a nearby cave large enough to shelter him — and that’s where he lived for two years.
Dark, rainy days brought thoughts of family, but Trong said he was too busy scrounging for fruit and plants to eat to think about what he’d left behind.
“We had struggled for food every day in Vietnam, so I was used to that,” he says now.
Eventually, international resettlement agencies helped the refugees find homes elsewhere. A family in Seattle sponsored Trong and brought him here.
Slavery and starvation
At about the same time he was living in the cave in Indonesia, Rani Trong was enduring daily beatings in India.
One of five children, she had been selected by a well-regarded woman in her small South India village to live in the woman’s home, as a way to help Rani’s poor family after her ailing father could no longer support them.
Her new home wasn’t far from her old one, and Rani’s mother could visit as often as she liked.
But rather than provide the happy household she’d promised Rani, the woman sold Rani to a child broker, who treated her to daily beatings and starvation. The idea was to break her and make her more pliable for work in the sweatshops and factories to which he was connected.
“They were slavelike conditions,” Rani said.
After nine months, the broker realized the haggard child would bring him no profit. He sold her in an international adoption.
A single woman in Olympia adopted Rani, unaware of what the sad little girl had endured. Over the next eight years she nursed Rani back to health.
“She taught me how to love, how to trust the human touch,” Rani said. “Ours was a wonderful love story between mother and daughter.”
Her adoptive mother died of cancer when Rani was 16. She remained alone in the home where she’d finally felt safe, finished high school and found a job. “I had to learn how to pay the mortgage,” she said.
Business is luxury homes
In 1989, a mutual friend set Rani and Trong up on a blind date when she was still in high school and he was a student at the UW.
They were married three years later and have four kids — ages 5 through 11. Ironically, after having no homes for years of their childhood, they now make a living designing and building luxury houses in Thurston County, through their company, Tronie Homes. The couple recently received the Award for Passionate Citizenship from the Thomas C. Wales Foundation.
In 1992, before they married, Trong decided to travel to Vietnam to try to find the family he barely remembered and to tell them about his plans to marry.
The only address he had was written on that crumpled piece of paper from the wallet that he’d kept all those years.
In Vietnam, he handed it to a taxi driver.
In an impoverished village, he was reunited with his mother and siblings for the first time in 15 years and learned that his father had died years earlier.
Three years later, he took his wife to meet his family. And as Rani Hong was walking through that small village in Vietnam, something about its poverty reminded her of India.
She came back to the States and began researching her past.
In 1999, she went to India, and at the place that handled her adoption she began asking questions about her past. Word spread quickly about an Indian-American woman searching for her birth family.
She remembers the woman who knocked on her hotel-room door that evening. The crying woman grabbed her, started hugging her and produced a picture that was nearly identical to one Rani had kept of herself all those years — proof to Rani that the woman was her mother.
“She told me she had been searching 21 years for me. She thought I was dead.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org