Sold into slavery, and later to suffer horrific abuse in the brothels of Cambodia, Somaly Mam still tears up when she remembers her childhood.
“I don’t want to talk about my life. It’s such a sad life,” she said last night, speaking to an audience of more than 300 people at the Sanctuary on Penn in downtown Indianapolis. “I want to talk about solutions.”
Indeed, solutions are her specialty. Mam operates shelters serving more than 7,000 girls and women. And she doesn’t stop at rescuing girls from forced prostitution. Her holistic approach to recovery helps women move forward, set goals, live new lives of freedom. “We need to empower them,” she said. “It’s not just about trafficking.”
In a lively question and answer session in the candle-lit Sanctuary, Mam talked about the importance of finding happiness in life, and in loving unconditionally. “I wish that each of you — all of you — be happy,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t appreciate their lives. Appreciate your life. It’s what I wish, it’s what I want.”
She also spoke of the hardship of being raped and tortured as a child, and her sorrow at confronting the willful ignorance of society. “One day [as a child] I sat outside the brothel,” she recalled. “I tried to look at the eyes of the women passing by but no one would even look at me.” Today, she works to combat that ignorance, to awaken the world to the horror of sex trafficking.
Today, Somaly’s book, The Road to Lost Innocence, is a New York Times Bestseller. Her organization, the Somaly Mam Foundation, works to eradicate sexual slavery, and Somaly travels all over the world sharing her story.
But most of the time, she can still be found in the brothels of Cambodia, walking through dark corridors, entering dim rooms, rescuing girls who are enduring the same hell she once experienced. When asked how she enters the brothels in spite of numerous threats on her life, Somaly smiled. “I go and no one can stop me,” she said.
The emotional and physical scars from her own tragic experience remain, but Somaly has found a way to channel her own grief into love for other victims. “What I have been through, I cannot forget it,” she said. “But I learned how to forgive, how to open my heart and love.”
Kristin Wright serves as Director of Development for Exodus Refugee Immigration, an Indianapolis-based refugee resettlement agency. She recently co-authored A Journey from Burma to Indianapolis, a book chronicling the joys and challenges faced by refugees entering our city. Her website is Kristinwright.net; reach her at Kristin@kristinwright.net.
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