Children in slums, babies without limbs, and women trafficked across the globe. Christey West has seen the worst of it.
At an orphanage in Hanoi, Vietnam, a little girl plays outside. She’s HIV positive with not much chance of getting medical treatment. She bends down and picks up a dead bird and, with its feathers and beak intact, takes a bite like she’s eating an apple.
Christey West has enough stories like this to fill a book. She has travelled the world studying human trafficking and, on her journey, has seen soul-destroying scenes of poverty and suffering.
She describes children affected by Agent Orange at another Vietnam orphanage. “There were babies born with no eyes. They just had these long foreheads then a nose. Some of them had legs that went out horizontal instead of vertical.”
“One of the woman told me about a baby that had just been handed in. ‘She was abandoned so we called her Abandon’ she told me. I had to leave to compose myself. Even now it’s a little …” Christey trails off, tears welling in her eyes.
It’s enough to render anyone hopeless but, even from a young age, Christey knew she could help, even if only in a small way.
After years of fieldwork and study in countries like Vietnam, Japan, Philippines and Singapore, she’s now dedicated her life to helping victims of human trafficking and poverty, volunteering with organisations and starting her own fundraising platform.
Christey has launched Just Peoples with fellow New Zealander and best friend Johanna Peek. The goal is to connect people who really want to make a difference on poverty with organisations who are already doing effective work but need funds. Rather than donating to a big organisations, people choose projects and fundraise directly for them.
Born and raised in Christchurch, Christey was a middle child. She cultivated a “strong sense of justice”, she says with a giggle, and accepted that everyone was equal no matter what their position.
“I saw Oliver Twist and it left a bit of a lasting impression on me. I thought, ‘wow, these kids without parents or families, asking for more food and not getting it.’ I understood that I was privileged on the global scale and that I wanted to do something to help.”
With a system that makes sure most have access to student loans, health care, and benefits, New Zealanders stand a good chance of achieving, even when from humble beginnings. But Christey says it’s a completely different story in the places she’s lived.
“There’s this idea that if people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked hard, they could get out of poverty. I think they don’t understand that in a place like New Zealand, if you work hard – really hard – and you want to succeed, the conditions are there so you can mobilise yourself.”
“In some places where you’re born poor, 99 percent of the time you’re going to die poor and it’s not your fault. There’s natural disasters, there’s war, there’s corruption on every level.”
She remembers in the Vietnamese orphanages how some managers lined their own pockets with the money they were collecting, using the children to attract volunteer fees and donations. People would come from all over the world, bright eyed and hoping to make a difference but quickly realised lives weren’t improving at all.
“I saw there were a lot of good intentions – resources, time and money – going to these organisations but not to where it was really needed.”
The goal of Just Peoples is to take out the ineffective organisations and get funds to grassroots projects that Christey and her small team have vetted, so that locals can implement their own solutions to poverty.
“A lot of people want to do something, but there’s a distrust of donating to larger NGOs because they don’t know where their money is going, they don’t want it to go to overhead costs. We can guarantee that the money goes to exactly where we say it goes.”
Christey now lives in Singapore, a city with one of the highest rates of millionaires per capita. But she works with the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.
“I’m part of an anti-trafficking team so I interview domestic workers who have been abused and are living in shelters.”
The organisation she works with, HOME, provides holistic care to low-wage migrant workers. There are about a million low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, including domestic workers and construction workers. Christey, works with abused maids who come from places like the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar.
“One girl had a plate broken over her head and then her arms were slit with the shards.”
Many of the women have their passports confiscated, work around the clock, and are verbally and physically abused.
“One girl was only allowed a bowl of rice a day and one day she was caught eating a banana skin from the rubbish and was beaten by the family. Another had to wash her hands in the toilet which the grandmother that poured bleach into – she had scars all over her hands.”
By the time they get to the HOME shelter, the women are often black and blue and some appear lifeless. The shelter has about 120 women at a time in it. Through rehabilitation, legal support and classes, the women eventually rebuild themselves.
“When you start the rehabilitation process, you have to start by confirming that they’re human,” says Christey.
Currently, Christey doesn’t make any money from Just Peoples or her work with HOME. She teaches English in Singapore to support herself but hopes she’ll eventually be sponsored to run Just Peoples fulltime.
“I want my life to contribute to the world. I’m here just once and I have to work 40 a week or whatever, I don’t want that it go nowhere, I don’t want my effort to go into something that doesn’t matter.”