Her mission is putting an end to the exploitation of children

NEIGHBORS

May 02, 2002|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A CHILDHOOD SPENT in Asia gave Christina Arnold an insider's view of life in India, where she was born, and in Thailand, where she lived as a teen-ager with her American missionary parents and five brothers and sisters.

Now, Arnold, a former Anne Arundel Community College student who lives in the Ulmstead Gardens area of Arnold, is working to eliminate the sexual exploitation of women and children in Asia.

She is the founder of Project Hope International, an organization that wants to build and maintain safe houses for Asian children who have escaped sexual exploitation.

"The best way to generate support is to set up an organization of people who care about the problem," Arnold says. "You can only cook so many hot meals. I wanted to make a lasting effort."

Arnold, 26, has lived in Anne Arundel County for about three years. But she remains determined to help the people who live in Thai cities such as Bangkok that are very modern and very crowded.

Many who live there are refugees from neighboring countries who come to Thailand to find work. These impoverished people are the targets of several forces, Arnold says.

To protect their sons from being recruited to fight a war in Myanmar to the north, families need to find money to buy off recruiters. And they must protect their children from traffickers, who try to persuade parents to trade their daughters for cash to buy food for the rest of the family.

According to a report by the United Nations, "Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transport, harboring or sale of persons for their labor, increasingly in the sex industry." The United Nations calls trafficking a "modern form of slavery."

Arnold saw these problems firsthand. Three years ago when she came to the United States for college, she founded Project Hope International.

The group, aligned with the private U.S. organization Free a Child and working with Thailand's Fight Against Child Exploitation, hopes to build rehabilitation facilities for children and to educate them so they can support themselves.

Arnold, a political science and justice major at American University in Washington, is the director of PHI. Her husband, Daniel Arnold, is its business manager. Nine members from across the country complete PHI's board.

Christina Arnold thinks the attitude of some world governments toward trafficking is beginning to change since the State Department opened its Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons last year. Countries are being rated on their involvement with trafficking, and the United States is considering withholding aid to countries involved in it.

She believes that American and Thai young people are the best resource for PHI. She envisions them disseminating information in the United States and traveling to the safe houses to teach English and computer skills.

The organization is applying for grants from the Gates Foundation to build the first PHI safe house. It would be built in the northeast region of Thailand, home to many refugees from Laos, she says.

With the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Arnold led a group of college students on a working visit to Thailand last summer. In June, she'll conduct another trip to Thailand. Students from American University, the University of Maryland, George Washington University and Anne Arundel Community College will research the issue and help people in Thailand. The State Department will brief the students before they leave.

Arnold spoke at American University in February at a "Stop Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children" conference. PHI has received an invitation from the Vatican for a conference on human trafficking this month in Rome. The United States will play host to next year's conference in Washington.

"I have a lot of hope with the doors being cracked open," Arnold says. "The government is taking this seriously."

And so is she. She maintains a 3.8 GPA at American University to maintain scholarship money for tuition. She, her husband and 5-year-old daughter, Cheryl, manage to live on his salary and still attend far-flung conferences with the help of friends and grants.

Arnold received some encouraging news recently. Her college advisor suggested she apply for Glamour magazine's annual "Top 10 College Women of the Year" honor. When she found out the prize was $1,000 - enough for a ticket to Thailand - she agreed.

She was notified this week that she is one of 20 semifinalists.

"You have to do anything that works," she says.

For more information, call 443-254-6945.

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