Former victim, now a rescuer, shares her story

RICHLAND — Somaly Mam, once sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia and now a leader in the anti-human trafficking movement, presented her harrowing but ultimately inspiring life story to thousands gathered here at St. Augustine Preparatory School on Thursday, Oct. 28.

Growing up in Northeastern Cambodia, with no memory of her birth parents (and no clear facts on the date of her birth) and living first with her maternal grandmother, Somaly around the age of 9 or 10 was sold into slavery by a man who claimed to be her grandfather. Beaten, abused and raped on an almost daily basis, while living in dirty, disease-ridden brothels, she managed to survive her struggle, although other prostitute slaves her age died from disease or were killed for refusing their captors’ demands.

Eventually breaking free, in 1996 she started AFESIP, Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Precaire (“Acting for Women in Distressing Situations”), a Cambodian non-governmental organization dedicated to helping slavery victims not only escape their captors, but providing them with emotional and economic support.

In 2007, Somaly Mam began The Somaly Mam Foundation, which raises money to support anti-trafficking organizations and provide victims and survivors with a platform so their voices can be heard around the world to effect change, while also focusing on the victims’ rescue, recovery, education and reintegration into society.

To date, she has rescued over 5,000 women from an industry that sees over 2 million women and children sold into sexual slavery globally each year, with over $1 billion generated annually. Law enforcement and government officials in some countries do little to stop this practice. A particular focus of the organization is Southeast Asia, where young women and girls, some as young as 5, are trafficked on a widespread basis.

St. Augustine students read her 2008 autobiographical book, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” earlier this year in preparation for her visit, which was a part of the school’s Veritas Project. Each year, the school brings in a speaker to raise awareness for a social justice issue of importance to the world. Consistent with Somaly Mam’s message, the issue this year was human trafficking.

“I write my story to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women. They have no voice,” she writes in her book.

“The evil that’s been done to me is what propels me on. Is there any other way to exorcise it?”

Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009, Somaly Man has also won accolades from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among other honors.

After her presentation in St. Augustine’s Louis and Josephine Buondonno Forum, there was a performance by six dancers, teenage girls who have been rescued from sexual slavery. Each gave a tearful account of her slavery and her rescue to the audience.

St. Augustine student leaders gave Somaly Mam a check of $15,000 toward her foundation, and a glass bowl created specifically for her, with the colors of blue (the school color) and green (representing the Cambodian forests).

Tyler Monahan, a school senior who presented the $15,000 check, became active with the Atlantic County Human Trafficking Task Force after reading her book. He hopes to travel to Cambodia in the summer to help her foundation.

“Her talk was moving,” he said. “It starts with us. We have to be aware, for this to stop.”

Signing autographs in the dining hall after the speech, Somaly Mam was all smiles, happy to spread her message, and happy to see the young girls she brought with her from Cambodia smiling and laughing, and mingling with students and staff. Seeing the love given to them, and their happiness, is what fuels her work. Praising the everyday love shown by all those in attendance, be it to parents, friends, or children, Somaly Mam wants to bring this love to those young women who, while in slavery, were denied it.

And now, after her own horrifying experiences, she sees herself as a mother to every girl she rescues. She and the girls make up something both of them so much desire: family.

“They are a part of my family. To see them laughing, hugging (students and staff), that is amazing,” she said, her wide smile never leaving her face.

“I am here with family. I got a lot of love.”

For more information on the Somaly Mam Foundation, go to www.somaly.org

Categories: Catholic School News

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