by Hatty Lee
Wednesday, July 11 2012, 9:18 AM EST
Young girls from about 11 to 23 years old fill up the small room as playful banter, laughter and hugs are exchanged. A couple of them search for their personalized, painted cameras in the box that Nhuanh Ly, the program coordinator at Banteay Srei, has put out earlier for me to see. There is a slight buzz of excitement as they gather before heading over to Berkeley’s the Addison St. Window Gallery, where their photos are on display.
On the way there, some of the girls share with me how the project has changed them. A couple of girls say they lacked confidence, and the program gave them a boost in self-esteem and made them feel stronger. Another girl tells me how it has changed her as a person—how she used to be stuck-up, but now she has opened up and talks and shares more with others. At the gallery, their confidence, bond and strength is apparent as they check out their framed photos and pose next to them with big grins.
These young women are part of the HOLGA program at Banteay Srei. The name is both taken from the Holga camera brand and an acronym for “hopes, obstacles, love, gratitude, and…” Most women are from the San Antonio neighborhood in Oakland, coming from Cambodian, Vietnamese and Lao families. This part of Oakland—on International Boulevard from 14 Ave. to far into the 80s—is known nationally for being a visible area for a sex trade, and too often sexual exploitation.
You don’t normally see many Asian American faces out in the open, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Many young Southeast Asian girls are involved more discreetly, through Internet sites and pimps. Banteay Srei was created to support young girls who have been impacted by sexual exploitation or are highly at-risk of it.
“We have girls who are living right on the track of International Boulevard where they, no matter if it’s nighttime or daytime, they are coming across recruiters all the time,” says Nhuanh Ly. “The sex trade is so visible, which makes it a viable option for them to be able to get involved when they want.”
The HOLGA program was set-up to give these young women an outlet to share their voices. Each year the girls come up with a different theme. For 2012, the theme was “Oakland: See What I See.” Ly says the girls came up with this theme in response to the influx of violence and crime this past year in their community, and particularly the Cambodian community.
“After a while the girls just got tired of talking about the violence and talking about these problems that felt like they were unstoppable. And so, they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t we ever talk about the good things that happen in our community?’ The HOLGA project was a great way to show the world what is the beauty of Oakland and the beauty of our community through our eyes.”
It’s also a way for the community to see the beauty of these young women.