Recently, we had the privilege of chatting with Nicky Mih, founder of Free To Shine - A not-for-profit organisation doing incredible work with vulnerable girls in Cambodia. Free To Shine has been one of our main drivers when setting up Bondi Bandits. Annie and Amy always knew that whatever path they took with Bondi Bandits they wanted to give back to help girls in Cambodia.They both volunteered with Free to Shine and have visited Cambodia and the Free To Shine HQ. Nicky is a close friend of theirs and we love that we can share her story and also support her work by donating one day of drinking water with every splash bag we sell to a family of four in need in Cambodia.
In our interview below, Nicky shares a few deeply moving stories from her time supporting and talking with these vulnerable yet brave-hearted girls, as well as the momentum behind the Free To Shine and where they’re headed next.
Your website is incredibly informative, answering many questions one may have about your charity, but for those who know nothing; tell us a bit about Free To Shine
Free To Shine is a child protection organisation that prevents children being trafficked into the commercial sex industry in Cambodia. It involves a team of 20 professionals including education officers, social workers and psychologists, who help more than 750 girls across 59 rural villages achieve their rights to be free from slavery, and access education, safe drinking water, enough food and adequate shelter.
And how it came to be?
I read a bunch of books that upset me, yet inspired me. From Mukhtar in Pakistan who was sentenced to a public gang rape as punishment for a crime her brother allegedly committed; to 10 year old Nujood in Yemen who walked into a courtroom and requested they help her get divorced. I felt so much for these women and children. I hated that such awful things happen. I wanted to help. But I didn’t know how. So after reading each book, I placed it carefully back on my bookshelf and went about my life as usual.
But I couldn’t keep reading these books and doing nothing, so I made a promise: “the next book I read no matter what the issue, what the country, I’m going to do something.” The next book I read was about sex trafficking, in Cambodia. I learned that girls are being tortured with acid, electrocuted and raped because you and I are doing nothing to stop it. I knew it was time to step up.
9 and a half years ago I spent a month with survivors. It changed me. It taught me what real strength is. And it taught me to spend my time doing something that really matters.
I asked this group of survivors how I could help, and I learned that the day they got rescued the traffickers didn’t go without a girl, they just went out to the rural villages and took a new young girl. “Nicky, go out to the rural villages, find the girls who aren’t in school and get them into school,” they said. I looked around the room, and they were shaking their heads, not one of them had been in school when they were trafficked, and they believed if they had been in school they wouldn’t have been trafficked. So that’s what we do.
What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt so far in terms of supporting vulnerable girls?
I’ve learned so many lessons! In fact I’m writing a book right now called Do What Matters and it’s about the 35 lessons I’ve learned.
One lesson I learned was from Rina: In an art session several girls were asked to visually express their goals and dreams for the future. 14-year-old Rina had written in big English words, “I want to make library and hospital in my village.”
We obviously couldn’t build a hospital, but we could provide Rina with enough books for a small library. We arranged for her to immediately have 20 books and a notepad. Later that month we got her started with 67 books and promised that if after a month the books are still in good condition, we will add a further 10 books each month. Since Rina has been a librarian she says the girls are swapping books everyday, her library is thriving and she said thank you for making her dream come true. She is so happy to have a library to manage and said that in the future she hopes to have an even bigger library so that she can share knowledge with all the people in her village.
Rina is learning leadership skills that will help her serve her community even more in the coming years. And who knows, perhaps one day she will open a hospital in her village.
Rina didn’t write what she thought was possible, she wrote what she really wanted. These girls don’t limit themselves. They think about what they want to give.
The lesson I learned from Rina is to HAVE AN AMBITION THAT EXCITES YOU, AND MAKES YOU FEEL PROUD
What is one story you could share that may give others courage?
There’s so many. The one that springs to mind right now is Neth*
Neth is the eldest of 5 siblings who was 13 when her father died in an awful road accident. Mum was 7 months pregnant, so not only did they lose a loved one, they also lost the only source of income they had, placing Neth at even greater risk of leaving school to support her family. We provided a little additional help while they were in crisis and not only did Neth stay in school, but she asked for a whiteboard and pens, and now she teaches small classes to her neighbours! *Name changed to protect privacy
The nature of your work is so inspiring yet, one can only assume, requires a resilient determination. What keeps you motivated?
The girls and families we work with and the difference it makes to them.And knowing the torture and rapes they’d be subjected to, if without our team and the support they provide, they were targeted by traffickers.
We donate clean water - can you tell us a bit about where they go and why they are needed?
Safe Drinking Water is incredibly important because the families we work with get their water from wells, ponds and streams, often becoming sick and missing work or school, and then taking loans to cover bills or pay for medical treatment.
Watch this 3 minute video – it shows the impact: https://youtu.be/Kten7cxIBAo
How do you know the team here at Bondi Bandits - Amy and Annie?
I’ve known Annie and Amy a number of years now – they’ve hosted all sorts of events masquerade parties to Christmas markets, and run in the City2Surf for us, and Annie’s daughters have held book sales, cake bakes and even got up on stage to talk about the importance of girls education around the world and why they sponsor a girl through Free To Shine.
You travel a lot for work and we know you love all things sustainable. What are your three top tips in travelling more sustainable?
I think travelling sustainably starts with living sustainably. My top 3 tips are:
- Stay in small boutique hotels owned and run by locals.
- Eat at social enterprise cafes and restaurants that provide training opportunities to disadvantaged young people.
- Before you do anything as a tourist, consider the impact on local communities not of one person doing that but if 3,000 tourists a day did that. For example, lots of tourists to Siem Reap go and visit local communities and they think that’s ok because there’s only 20 of them on the bus, but they don’t think that they’re one of 5 buses that day dropping tourists off for an hour in that village, and the disruption and damage that can do to families and communities.
Lastly, what has this year got in store for Free To Shine and how can one get involved?
This year will see us publish our book Do What Matters – so it’d be great if you got in and pre-ordered your copy (that’d help us with the costs of publishing).
You can join us on fb and insta
And if you’ve got a birthday coming up you could Pledge Your Pressies: https://www.freetoshine.org/pledge-your-pressies/