Over the 2010 holiday season I had the incredible opportunity of returning to my home away from home, Cambodia. My older sister Angel and one of my best friends Melissa joined me on this trip in order to see a world many people are unaware even exists. We brought school supplies, donated computers and Christmas gifts to shelters run by my beautiful "sister," my friend, Somaly Mam. Somaly founded the grassroots organization, AFESIP, which is now supported by the Somaly Mam Foundation, to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors of human trafficking.
A true heroine of our time, Somaly was sold into slavery at age 12 and forced to work in a brothel, where she was brutally tortured and raped on a daily basis. Heroically, however, Somaly managed to escape her captors, vowing to never forget those left behind. She has dedicated her life to saving other victims and empowering those lucky enough to survive the atrocious plight of human trafficking. To date, Somaly has rescued over 6,000 girls from modern-day slavery.
During my trip back to Cambodia we returned to the first shelter of Somaly's that I ever visited, Kampong Cham, as well as two other shelters she runs in two of Cambodia's biggest cities, the capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On the trek to Kampong Cham there is an abandoned facility which was formerly a brothel. Multicolored condoms litter the floor in this skeleton of a building which once imprisoned innocent young girls being used for sex. In the basement the remnants of a true cage are apparent with metal posts decorated with rusted chains representing the punishment which would be inflicted should a girl refuse to service a client.
Upon arriving to the shelter, I was greeted by many familiar faces and Angel and Melissa were overwhelmingly uplifted by the dozens of vibrant young girls, all of whom now have the opportunity to study English, learn computer skills, and take practical job skill training.
It can take anywhere from three to five years for survivors of sex trafficking to reclaim their lives. The Somaly Mam Foundation is there every step of the way, supporting programs which rescue victims, offer psychological counseling and provide funds for education and vocational training to prepare survivors for reintegration into society.
Each of Somaly's girls bears her metaphoric mark. The love emanating from their very cells pours into my heart and soul, changing me eternally in ways I cannot express with words. Their illuminating beauty lights the room and the world around them, allowing no darkness anywhere to reside. Their laughter rings like happy Christmas bells to all who may be so lucky to hear it. "I love you in my heart!" they told me over and again with loving affection shining in their eyes.
I first met these beautiful beings on a glorious March day after an insanely bumpy hour and half long drive through the rural Cambodian countryside. The journey to Kampong Cham was only the beginning of my introduction to beauty so pure, so raw and yet not untouched.
As survivors of one of our world's most atrocious human rights violations, these young, would-be indentured slaves have seen a life to which we in our sheltered lives could never be privy. And thankfully so, as the stories I've come to learn would cause even the most callous of my peers to become ill with emotion.
Thank God for writers such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of my favorite book to date, Half the Sky. Their depiction of our world's continued conflict over equality for women worldwide is as honest as one can hope to find. With informative statistics, clarified myths, and calls to action laced into every chapter, one cannot finish this book without at least a slight understanding of the true importance of the fight to have women be free of oppression and allowed access to education without discrimination.
The idea behind Nicholas and Sheryl's book is, simply stated, empower and educate a girl if you hope to see change in a community and/or abroad. Even simpler still, as the book's title states, "women hold up half the sky." All women can realize their potential for greatness and all great men have already realized their need for a strong woman. I do not say this from a feminist standpoint. I do not say this thinking in any way, shape or form that women are at all superior to men. I say this because it has been proven and because he who hath an ear to hear, let him hear.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for millennia the female species has been viewed as a thing of beauty. Beauty that is revered, beauty that is lusted after, beauty that is appreciated, beauty that is preyed upon. The last of which not one of Somaly's resilient Cambodian girls hasn't fallen victim to. Whether by pimp or sex-tourist, local deviant or more heinous still, a father, brother, uncle, cousin, grandfather, Somaly's girls have survived the worst of what our world has to offer. And yet, something which may come as a surprise to you -- it most certainly did to me -- these beauties are the happiest young women and children I've ever met.
Forced into a life of shame and degradation, these "damaged" humans are so far above the piteous box in which most Westerners would think to put them. In fact, I would go as far as to say they are not the damaged ones at all. If anyone is to be pitied it is we of the Western world, as we gripe and complain about simplicities such as not having "enough bars in enough places," or in L.A. where I live, "the horrible traffic on the 405." I am most certainly guilty of this. Yes, it is we who have a lot to learn from these incredible individuals who can survive well beyond what would seem to be humanly possible and after, finally in their state of freedom, smile and dance with zest for life.
Human trafficking is perpetrated in every country and has been deemed the fastest growing form of organized crime in the world. UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. The Somaly Mam Foundation works internationally to end these atrocities through direct services for victims, advocacy and outreach.
Melissa, Angel and I are privileged to have experienced resilient love in its purest form: hugs, kisses and nonstop affection given by young heroes following in the footsteps of their hero and "mother" Somaly. I gained a new perspective on what is really important in life -- a gift from Somaly and her "girls."
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the United States. Please consider what you can do (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to raise awareness of the greatest human rights violation of our time, modern-day slavery. Visit www.somaly.org to learn more about this global crisis and how you can help raise funds to support programs for survivors. Every action, whether small or great, is a step towards ending this atrocious sin on humanity.