Natalie Allen, CNN
Twelve-year-old Dieu wears a bright-green top sprinkled with yellow flowers as she squats in a pile of garbage with her mother.
The two talk and laugh while their hands work quickly, sorting plastic from the discarded food and waste.
A full bag will bring their family just pennies. But this is their life’s work. They live on a dump in Rach Gia, Vietnam, part of the Mekong Delta.
Dieu’s little sister, one of nine siblings, watches from the family’s two-room shack. One of her brothers sits on a nearby tombstone with his dog. The dump lies on an abandoned cemetery, and the above-ground tombs are the only places to sit that aren’t covered by trash.
Some 200 families live on this and one other dump in Rach Gia. They are three generations of Cambodians who fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. It’s the only home they have ever known.
What they eat and what they wear is often from what they find in the trash. For the longest time, the children didn't even know flip-flops were supposed to match.
But there is a danger here far worse than filth or poverty.
Human traffickers prey on these poor people’s desperation. Children are bought and sold here, some for as little as $100. The parents sell because they are tricked into believing that the buyer has good intentions, that their children will have a promising job and a promising future. They so badly want to help their sons and daughters escape poverty.
Oftentimes, however, the children end up as sex slaves.
“The trafficker looks like your mom, (the trafficker) doesn't look like a bad guy," said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, who founded the Catalyst Foundation to help Dieu and other children in Vietnam's poorest communities.
The kids are sometimes stolen, too, when they make their long walk into town to sell lottery tickets.
“When we started, we knew of a house that was at the entrance of the dump, and we know girls were being taken in there by traffickers and being raped,” Ticarro-Parker said. "If they screamed, then they were let go. If they didn't scream, then they were taken. And the girls were as young as 4."
Lessons for survival
After leaving Dieu’s dump, I arrive at another one just as a sanitation truck leaves behind a fresh pile.
People scurry with picks and bags and start sorting. They work day and night alongside their children. At 1 a.m., when the last truck of the day arrives, they all don headlamps to work in the dark.
I follow a mother who carries her baby to the family’s shack. One could barely call it that; it is nothing more than tarps strung together for shelter. Bowls of discarded food are covered in flies. Clothes dry on barbed wire.
The mother lays her baby in a net strung up as a hammock. After rocking the baby to sleep, she heads back out to work in the dump.
Another parent offers me his baby when I arrive. He is cradling a little boy, months old, wearing a colorful striped hat. The father swats flies away from the child’s face. He mistakenly thinks I am here to buy his baby.
Ticarro-Parker’s family fled Vietnam when she was a child. She returned as an adult to give back to her homeland, bringing clothes to the poor. But when she stumbled onto the families of the Rach Gia dumps, she knew much more had to be done.
She went back home to Minnesota, started raising money and eventually opened a school for the children of the dump.
Lesson one: Arm the children with cell phones so they can call for help.
“It sounds weird, but we gave the prettiest girls the cell phones first,” Ticarro-Parker said. “They’re most at risk.”
Lesson two: Teach the children to read so that if they are taken, they can read city signs and call the school to let them know where they are.