An Empowerment Story - Chapter 1: Mai Lae's Story
Mai Lae’s journey is one of bravery and healing. At Eden, she began to heal, talk with others, and enjoy herself again. Her trafficking experience ceased to define her. She learned how to manage her panic attacks, and before long, they lessened and stopped altogether.
As she joined in the deep breathing exercises and the music started, Mai Lae’s body relaxed. Singing class was Mai Lae’s favorite time of the week. She looked forward to gathering with her friends, learning new songs, and singing together. As she looked around the room, her heart filled with joy. She felt home in a way she hadn’t thought possible. Mai Lae had worked hard to get to this point. With the help of Eden and the multi-layered approach to therapy, she is now able to see that she stands among a sisterhood of warriors, holding powerful stories of hope and restoration.
The Empowered Collection was inspired by Mai Lae’s journey of healing at Eden. As Mai Lae shared her story, three different themes surfaced, and these influenced the three distinctly different styles within her collection.
Mai Lae’s journey before arriving at Eden, however, was fraught with hardship and trauma. Before participating in counseling, she thought that her past defined her future. When she was younger, Mai Lae’s parents divorced, and she was sent to live with her grandmother in Central Myanmar. She felt unwanted and unloved. Life there was difficult. Mai Lae’s grandmother was poor and couldn’t afford to send her to school. To make things more challenging, their village had been devastated by a cyclone which made work hard to find.
“Eden was a wonderful experience for me. They loved and accepted me. After the counseling sessions, I always felt better. I could share my whole story, and it felt as though a huge burden was lifted off me. I know that counseling laid the foundation for me to be brave and believe in myself again.”
Then one day, her cousin came to visit her with a woman she had not seen before. She thought her luck had changed when the woman told her about a job in a neighboring country. Mai Lae was thrilled to think she might be able to get a good job despite her lack of education. She was excited at the thought that she could care for her grandmother. She loved and trusted her cousin and was enthusiastic about the opportunity. Together, they asked permission from their families and left for the bordering country.
On arrival at the border, the woman booked a room for them at a guesthouse, locked them in the room, and left them there alone. They both thought it was strange, but the woman said it was for their own safety. Several hours later, the woman returned, and they could hear her on the phone in the hallway. Mai Lae’s cousin put her ear up to the door and heard the woman arranging to sell them as brides. The girls felt terrified.
Mai Lae recalls feeling helpless and frozen with fear, but her cousin encouraged her. Together, they devised a plan. After being released to eat dinner, they returned to the room and jammed something in the door so it wouldn’t close properly. As soon as the woman left, they escaped and ran into the night.
Like many women who are trafficked as brides, Mai Lae and her cousin had no idea where they were, they couldn’t speak the language, and they had nothing but the clothes on their back. They were very frightened. They ran until they felt far enough away from the guesthouse, but they still had no idea what to do or where to go for help. As they discussed their options, they miraculously overheard a family speaking their dialect.
Mai Lae and her cousin ran over to them. They urgently shared their situation. The family helped make some phone calls. Without their help, the girls would never have made it back home. Mai Lae didn’t feel the same after she went back. She felt afraid and couldn’t speak. To make matters worse, the villagers gossiped that they had been sold.
“I was home, but I still couldn’t speak very much, and every time I spoke I cried. I was terrified all the time and felt that something bad was going to happen to me.”
Like many of the women who face the trauma of sexual exploitation, Mai Lae was suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. When Mai Lae was referred to Eden, she was nervous but hopeful.
Steps of Empowerment
The Empowerment design captures the progress Mai Lae and the other Eden women make during their time at Eden. Each stone is representative of a two-month period in the Eden program. The five stones represent the upward trajectory of an Eden woman’s well-being over ten months in the program. The outer triangle shows that the progress is linked to the fact that Eden works to engage and heal mind, body, and spirit. It represents Eden’s holistic approach to each woman.
Designed to inspire bravery, this piece calls the wearer to not be overwhelmed, but instead, to be spurred on by women like Mai Lae. In understanding her story, and by seeing her courage, perseverance, and progress; the design hopes to encourage the wearer to continue in their own personal battles. It is a reminder that we can overcome seemingly impossible obstacles by taking one small step at a time.
“After I returned to Myanmar, I stopped wanting to eat and felt even more isolated and afraid to go outside. Through the counseling at Eden, I felt myself begin to change. I began to enjoy spending time with the other Eden girls. I began to make friends and communicate more. I am now brave enough to go outside by myself.”
Music and Dance
The Music and Dance design is inspired by the creative therapies through which Mai Lae found healing. At Eden, weekly music and dance therapy is a key part of our program, taught by both our internal staff as well as external art professionals. We have seen incredible transformations in which women and girls have regained the confidence, creativity and freedom of expression they once had.
“When I first started at Eden, I wasn’t speaking very much, but the singing really made me feel free inside. There is this special atmosphere when we all sing together, all of us that have been through this terror. Singing is powerful and through singing I found my voice again. It always makes me feel free and encouraged.”
The chrysalis shape began to emerge as our designer reflected on the power of a simple hug. Mai Lae has now graduated and looks back fondly on her experience in the Eden program. She talks about how, as she entered Eden, it felt like all the love in Eden’s programs wrapped around and supported her. Eden was like a cocoon, a leaf that wrapped around her to protect her while she grew into something new. She felt like each therapy class and counseling session restored her little by little, enabling her to participate in the vocational and educational classes. These further empowered her move toward fulfilling her potential and realizing her dreams.
The decorative holes in the chrysalis represent the emergence of confidence which occurred with each new lesson learned. The cracked open chrysalis represents a fully healed woman, no longer in need of a protective enclosure. The piece is inspired by the power of connection, healing and nurturing found in a simple daily hug.
After her initial three months at Eden, Mai Lae enrolled in Eden’s hair and beauty training and did exceptionally well. After graduating from Eden, we connected her with a corporate partner and she has now completed a full time, paid apprenticeship at a well-known beauty salon. As you wear this jewelry, let it be an encouragement for you, wherever you are in your journey toward being healed, that each small step creates change and brings empowerment.
“I never imagined I would speak at all, never mind in another language. I never imagined I would move past the fear that held me frozen, and now I talk to customers and staff members easily. Eden has helped me to be free from fear.”