COPING MECHANISMS

COPING MECHANISMS

Written By Ellen Falltrick (NFS Supporter)

“What kind of painting do you do?”

That is equally the most daunting and exciting question I am frequently asked as an artist. How can I quickly and impactfully explain that my large paintings depicting nudity, death, pain, self-harm and sorrow are not some kind of odd kink, but pay homage to the people that survive such tragedies. 

How do I make easily digestible the complex, painful and inspiring stories that inspire my artwork? How could I possibly illuminate the emotional turmoil, perseverance and recovery necessary to make these paintings beautiful?

Because, they are. These horrible paintings are beautiful.

My hope is that by donating funds from the sale of the Coping Mechanisms paintings, I can help to provide peace and emotional release to those that need it most.

Ellen Falltrick

In truth, I cannot easily elaborate on the inspiration behind my work which is why I fear such a question. However, to the right audience – for the attentive listener – it is the most valuable question to reach my ears. Asking me to explain my painting may be difficult to answer, but it allows me to share my vision for creating art that empowers survivors of extreme adversity. 

Painting has always been more than a hobby for me; it is the way that I express the feelings that are not easily spoken. What started as an outlet for my own feelings, challenges and triumphs quickly became a method of sharing the stories of others that were brave enough to confide their adverse experiences in me. 

I was approached by women in abusive relationships with their partners or employers, men who had been raped, people who had felt trapped, lost or hurt in a myriad of ways. As honored as I felt to receive their grief, I also felt the need to release the weight of their stories through art. Incorporating their experiences into my paintings not only allowed me release but – more importantly – honored their strength, recovery and survival. Although I do not label my paintings with the names of the people that inspired them, they know who they are; they know the depths of their own strength, courage and perseverance and, should they ever forget, they need only look at one of my paintings. 

These many stories culminated in my latest series, Coping Mechanisms. Upon completion of this set of paintings, I felt extreme peace. In fact, the emotional release was so strong that I felt guilty for keeping the healing to myself. Therefore, I pledged to donate 40% of the proceeds of the Coping Mechanisms show debut to people with stories similar to those that inspired me. Not For Sale seemed like an obvious choice to receive these funds, considering they serve those that have experienced one of the most severe adversities: sex and labor trafficking. 

Not For Sale’s mission to rescue survivors of trafficking and prevent future exploitations aligns well with my passion for empowering those that have survived exploitations of all kinds. My hope is that by donating funds from the sale of the Coping Mechanisms paintings, I can help to provide peace and emotional release to those that need it most. 

Coping Mechanisms is on display in Chico, CA at Tin Roof Bakery through January 31st. However, a virtual viewing option will be available at www.ellenfalltrick.com through February 28th. Online purchases are encouraged through the site, at which point, the painting will be shipped to the buyer’s location and 40% of the purchase price will be donated to Not For Sale.

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Behind the story

Behind the story

Written by Michael Brosowski

The first time I saw him, Tan was standing alone on a street staring into nothing.

He was down the road from the Blue Dragon centre (Not For Sale Vietnam partners), and everything about him signaled a child in distress. His face showed no expression; his shoulders slumped forward. His arms hung limply by his side.

Just 14 years old, Tan had been neglected and abandoned by his family, forcing him to leave home. Once on the streets of Hanoi, he was abused repeatedly by pedophiles who traded him like an object.

Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Once he was with Blue Dragon, Tan’s healing took years of care, counselling, and legal representation to find justice against those who had harmed him. Today he is a very different young man to the boy I first saw on the street. He has a job and a circle of great friends; he has started rebuilding the relationship with his parents; and his eyes shine with hope and joy.

Last week, Tan joined in Blue Dragon’s annual Tet celebration, called Tet Awards.  We hold this party for children in the lead-up to Lunar New Year, and many of our ‘old’ boys and girls come back to see us.

Tet Awards is one of the few big events we hold; our work is much more focused on dealing with day to day crisis than with organising ceremonies and parties.

For kids like Tan, this annual event has a significance beyond it being a great night. Dressing up, meeting old friends and enjoying hours of singing and dancing takes the kids away from the hardships of their daily lives.

The delightful chaos and laughter of a children’s party will never replace the need for long-term care, shelter, legal advocacy and psychological therapy. But a moment to forget the pain and turn instead to friendship and the simple joys of life is a precious moment indeed.

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Leap to freedom

Leap to freedom

Written by Michael Brosowski

Hoa was not yet 17 when she was trafficked.

How it happened is a very familiar story. She was facing hard times. Someone she knew offered to help. She left home thinking she was on her way to start a new job, only to find it was a trick.

What happened next is even more devastating.

Hoa found herself in China, sold twice before eventually being sold to a man with an intellectual disability. He wanted a wife so he could have a child, and for him that’s all that Hoa was: a vessel for a baby.

In the 6 months that followed, life was hell. Hoa had no chance to escape. She was locked into an apartment in an unknown city. She knew nobody, and had no way to call for help.

When Hoa could take it no more, she made a breathtaking decision. She jumped from the apartment, 2 storeys high, determined to either have freedom, or death.

At times Hoa’s situation seemed impossible. She could see no way out. To overcome this as she has, is an incredible feat of bravery.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Hoa survived, but she was severely injured. The fall damaged her spine, leaving her unable to move the lower part of her body. The pain was unimaginable, but her captor didn’t want to seek medical help – because he didn’t want to pay the expense. Instead, he took her back upstairs and kept her for another 4 months before finally admitting her to hospital.

In the safety of the hospital, Hoa was able to try again for freedom. The staff realised something terrible had happened and called the police. Now Hoa was safe from her captor; but she was not yet home. It would be another year, following extensive treatment and making statements to police from her hospital bed, before she could finally return to Vietnam.

Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon assisted with Hoa’s return, and since then have continued working with her. But how can anyone heal from such a traumatic episode?

Hoa is now fully reliant on her wheelchair for mobility. She will never walk again.

And the memories of the horror she experienced – tricked by a friend, sold into a waking nightmare, leaping from the building, then left for months to lay motionless with a serious spinal injury instead of receiving immediate treatment – will never go away.

In her darkest days, Hoa showed extraordinary courage by jumping for her freedom. This same courage has carried her through the months of psychological and physical therapy, wheelchair training, and learning to live independently with her disability… until finally Hoa was ready to return to her studies.

Hoa’s story doesn’t end there. Because this week, she has started a whole new chapter in life: her very first job.

When she left home at age 17, that was all she wanted. Employment. An income. A chance to live a life free from poverty.  Someone took advantage of her need, and the impact on Hoa’s life was catastrophic. But she isn’t going to let that stop her.

She now works in an IT firm. It’s an entry-level job in a company that has great policies for employing people with disabilities. They hired her because she’s smart, brave, and beams with optimism about the future.

At times Hoa’s situation seemed impossible. She could see no way out. To overcome this as she has, is an incredible feat of bravery.

Life will never be what it could have been. But it will be what she makes it.

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The Decision

The Decision

Written by Michael Brosowski

Tung’s early years had wonderful moments of joy.

He has some very happy memories of his mother. They travelled together on holidays, and when she was sick he stayed with her at their home, nursing her through the long nights of her fever.

When she died, Tung’s world turned upside down.

He was still just a child, barely a teenager. But the extended family looked to him as somehow to blame for the bad luck that had fallen on the household. A mix of superstition and long-held resentment bubbled to the surface, and Tung was driven from the house into a pig sty where he slept alone.

His carefree childhood was gone.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Tung knew he had to fend for himself. He refused to be treated so badly by his uncles and cousins, so he decided to leave. With nothing in his pocket, and no need of a bag, he hopped on a bus to the city.

He had never thought that he might one day be a ‘street kid’. In fact he’d never heard the term before. But his new life was exactly that: sleeping rough, living from day to day.

Tung was smart and quickly connected with other teen boys like himself. They too had traveled to Hanoi from their villages in search of a better life. They too were broke, homeless, and desperate.

Sometimes Tung was lucky. Sometimes he would find a job on a building site or with a work crew, and earn enough to get by. But there was always someone who would make trouble, or demand too much of the little boy. None of the jobs ever lasted very long.

After some months, when he thought he was at rock bottom, life took an even worse turn. Tung was spotted by a pimp and became the target of a ring of men exploiting homeless kids.

Tung was a good looking boy, and became a favourite for the men. At first he followed them out of a desperation to survive – he simply needed money so he could eat and have a place to sleep.

As time went on, going with the men was a way to punish himself. Tung hated what they did to him. He hated their lies and their manipulations. He hated the way they treated him as an object to be used and discarded. But he began believing that he deserved the pain, that it was payback for all his life’s failings. And so he kept going.

At the time Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon met Tung, as an organisation we were overwhelmed with similar cases. Most of the homeless boys we met on the streets of the city had been abused, and their stories were horrifying.

We were in the early days of exposing the networks of pimps, and working with the authorities to change the law so that abusing boys was clearly forbidden. We feared that the harm done to Tung might be more than we could help with.

Tung was damaged – there’s no other way to say it. He lived in a cycle of harm and self-loathing. He wanted our help, but couldn’t accept that he deserved it.

Sometimes we meet kids on the streets and they instantly become a part of Blue Dragon. For some kids, like Tung, it’s a much longer process. Tung would be at the centre some days, and then disappear for a week. He’d be the happiest kid at the shelter one night, and then be fighting with everyone the next, before walking out and heading back to the streets.

Tung needed someone to believe in him – no matter what. He needed someone to stand up for him, to go out looking for him when he didn’t come home, and to see him for who he was, not for what he had done. He found all of that in Blue Dragon.

Over many months, Tung would come and go. Everything would be fine one day, and the next he would be gone. From time to time the police would detain him for getting into a scuffle on the street, or some minor offense, and they’d call Blue Dragon to come pick him up.

On one of these occasions, Tung was in custody for some days. The morning of his release, one of the Blue Dragon staff rode down on their motorbike to pick him up.

As they headed towards the shelter, the staff took some money from their pocket and handed it back to Tung with a simple offer: “You can take this if you like and head back out to see your friends. You’ll always be welcome at Blue Dragon and you can come see us any time. Or we can go back right now to the shelter and start over. It’s your choice, and we’ll always be friends no matter what.”

This stint in custody was to be Tung’s last. His mind was made up. “I’m staying with Blue Dragon,” Tung told the social worker. “Please take me home.”

It took several years for Tung to settle down and return to school. He eventually did some training and then got a job in music and hospitality – which he’s brilliant at. It was a bumpy ride, but he got there in the end.

When Vietnamese law changed, his main abusers were arrested and imprisoned. Seeing justice served was important to his healing. Eventually Tung found his freedom, while those who harmed him have lost theirs.

As time goes by, the pain of his past has washed away into distant memory. Tung is a young man now, leading a happy life that he has defined for himself: he has not let those terrible years on the streets dictate what his future will be like.

And earlier this month, Tung reached a beautiful new milestone in life. He is now a father.

As he held his son for the first time, Tung’s eyes shone with a brightness that has been missing since he was a child himself. In becoming a parent, Tung dreams of giving his boy a life that’s safe and loving and free from all the hardships that he has known.

The cycle of pain does not have to continue. Tung has broken it, and in his son’s new life, Tung has a chance to make the world a better place.

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Almost Impossible

Almost Impossible

Written by Michael Brosowski

Phuong disappeared 3 years ago. She was offered a chance to work in a restaurant in another town, and followed someone she thought was a friend.

At the time, Phuong felt lucky. As a child, a terrible motorbike accident severed one of her legs, leaving her with a permanent disability. She doubted whether she could ever find a steady job and lead an independent life.

Phuong did all she could to turn her life around. At great expense she had a prosthetic leg fitted and worked hard to be mobile again. But nobody would employ her.

The offer from her friend was the best news she’d had in years, coming shortly after she had given birth to a baby girl. Her fear of how she could afford to raise her child led her to take the job offer immediately.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

It’s a common and deeply cruel trick of the traffickers: find people who are desperate to improve their lives, and prey on their hope. We see this in virtually every case of trafficking that we encounter.

Phuong’s hope turned to horror and then despair. She was taken to China and sold to a man who wanted a wife so he could have children to carry on the family name.

Through all the hardship of her life, Phuong knows a thing or two about courage. She refused to give up hope. Every day was a new chance to escape.

Three years passed. The terror of being bought and kept as a possession became a daily reality. But Phuong continued looking for a way out.

She took the chance to make a call for help one night when everyone else was sleeping. The message reached Blue Dragon soon after, and we could see that this rescue operation would not be like others we have done.

In most rescues, we rely on the victim to communicate with us through text message on a smart phone. But Phuong is illiterate. We had to talk directly on the phone, knowing that every phone call creates a risk of being overheard and caught.

We also rely on the victim being mobile enough to run, or at least to move quickly, during the escape. Phuong told us clearly that this would be out of the question. Her prosthetic leg is old and poorly fitted; this rescue would need to be taken slowly and gently.

It was as though the trafficker had prepared for a rescue attempt in advance. Phuong was deep inside China, far from the safety of the border. Once Phuong was with us, we would have a long, slow journey ahead.

But this is what Blue Dragon does. We find people in crisis situations – people who may have nothing but the slightest fragment of hope – and we bring that hope to life.

Phuong’s situation looked almost impossible… and anything that’s “almost” impossible is possible. After months of planning we sent a team to find her and get her out. Following two weeks of travel within China, Phuong crossed the border back into Vietnam.

A rescue operation is never the end of the story. Much remains to be done.

Phuong will need years of care and assistance to recover from this ordeal. The traffickers must be caught. Phuong is in quarantine now, and when she is released we will take her home to meet her 3 year old child, who has grown up not knowing anything about her mother.

For Phuong to finally have a good life, she’ll need a new prosthetic leg and some help to learn a trade and start a new job – when she’s ready.

The road ahead is long and winding. But for today, we can celebrate that Phuong is free, and for the first time in a long time has a chance for something better in life.

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A Little Boy Found

A Little Boy Found

Written by Michael Brosowski

It was about a year ago that Dak first came to Not For Sale Vietnam partners Blue Dragon.

His journey to Hanoi, where he met a social worker on the streets, is one of those incredible stories that could well be made into a film one day.

He had run away from home in the southernmost point of Vietnam, Phu Quoc Island, and over many months made his way to the north. Dak never had a plan or a sense of where he was going; he had nowhere to be and noone to see. So he just travelled.

Whatever money he had in his pocket, he would use to buy a bus ticket. When he could go no further, he would spend time in the strange new town or city, living alone on the streets and surviving by begging or working.

As Blue Dragon social workers took turns to sit by his bedside in the hospital, holding his hand and wiping the sweat from his face, he knew that he had found his family.

Michael Brosowski Not For Sale Vietnam Director

Life on the road might sound romantic, but Dak was only 13 years old. Being alone was hard, and he regularly went hungry.

On the night he met Tinh, a Blue Dragon social worker, at a Hanoi lake, Dak hadn’t eaten in days. He was desperate for a place to lay down and sleep without fear of harassment. The Blue Dragon safe house was an oasis – all the food he could he eat and a soft bed all his own.

For social worker Tinh, the meeting was also a memorable event. Tinh had been working for Blue Dragon at that time for just a few months. The chance to help street kids was his dream job.

Growing up in a remote mountainous region in an ethnic Tay community, Tinh knew hardship. Despite his family’s own poverty, he had been determined to study and get through school, even though that meant leaving home at age 14 to live in boarding houses while he studied.

Putting himself through university to earn a social work degree was another major challenge – but he did it, and when he graduated from his studies and joined Blue Dragon it was precisely so that he could help kids like Dak.

But this was not to be a ‘happy ever after’ story – not yet.

As Dak regained his strength with some rest and good food, he set his mind on hitting the road again. He simply didn’t believe that Blue Dragon, or any person, would really care for him. His life was littered with rejection and hardship; he figured he would be better on his own.

Such is Dak’s personal ethic that he didn’t just leave. He came to tell us he was going. We tried to change his mind, but his decision was made, even though he had no plan and didn’t know what would come next. All we could do was give him some money so that he would have food in his belly for a few days, and let him know he could come back any time.

The next time we saw Dak, everything was different.

Several months had passed. Vietnam was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. A nationwide lockdown was imminent. Dak was back on the streets of Hanoi, and he was very sick.

The hospital diagnosed him with Influenza A, but for a few worrying hours we feared he might have coronavirus. He was weak and thin, coughing badly and struggling for breath.

Dak was glad to be found again, and as Blue Dragon social workers took turns to sit by his bedside in the hospital, holding his hand and wiping the sweat from his face, he knew that he had found his family.

Since that day, Dak has been with Blue Dragon. He’ll be turning 15 soon and he’s gone back to school to pick up where he left off, in Grade 6.

During the week, he remembered that it was a year since he first met Tinh. So Dak asked a special favour.

He wanted to go with Tinh back to the lake in the centre of town, to the very spot where they first met, to take a photo marking the moment that changed his life.

Dak’s story is far from over. There will be days when he faces new difficulties, and days he will experience great joy.

But come what may, he knows he’ll never be lost again. Wherever he ends up, he’ll always know that he has a place where he belongs.

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