My Chosen Daughters

I was interviewed this past summer by a French paper about the recent events at the Somaly Mam foundation. Unfortunately, the paper did not print my interview, so I’ll print my interview here in full.

Somaly Mam Foundation

Somaly Mam Foundation

I was first introduced to Somaly Mam via an article in Glamour magazine. I emailed her and told her I was sorry for what happened to her during her childhood and the childhood of so many girls around the world. I asked what could I do as a woman, artist, and world traveler. She wrote back and said to come to Cambodia. I began to save my money and five months later I traveled to the shelters in Cambodia to be a volunteer. As an artist, I know the healing ability of art to transform lives so I traveled with my tools of creation. At that time, I was working with felony defenders in New York via the Cases organization. My assignments were the girls in this program and I told them of the girls in the shelters in Cambodia, now safe from sexual slavery. The girls gave me the idea of making dolls with the girls in the AFESIP shelters. They said to me, Sana, they were never little girls.

The very first time I saw Somaly Mam in person, I was in New York City at a Levin Institute event where she and dozens of anti-trafficking activists were speaking. She only had seven minutes and said herself she did not know where to begin with such a short amount of time. She began to speak of the lives of the girls that she called “HER GIRLS”. She spoke very briefly about her background but more on the point that trafficking was an evil and she has invested her life’s work to stop trafficking in her homeland of Cambodia. Her main concern about the world at large was that human trafficking has not been recognized as a major threat to young women in third world countries. Her speech was over almost as soon as it had started.

I had been to the AFESIP shelter twice by that point, but had never seen her there. Since her story led me to the girls, I never really was concerned about seeing her. I knew she was busy letting the world know about the atrocities. I did ask of course if I could meet her, but was told that she was traveling. However, one day at the Tom Dy Center, I was determined to meet her in person. She was signing books and I remember getting out of line three times so that I could be the last person to greet her. I wanted to talk to her and tell her about my time in her shelters. Finally, I got the chance; Somaly was sitting with her head down signing books. A young women was standing above her asking the people on line to sign their names on a piece of paper so that Somaly could autograph them quickly. However, when my name was handed to her on the piece of paper, she held it in her hand a long time and I saw her lips sounding it out as she raised her face to me. I then said, “Somaly, I am Sana the artist who makes the dolls and hand bags with the girls.” She then stood up and grabbed me into her arms as she shouted to the others in Khmer whom I was. They crowed around me like angels with big smiles on their faces. Somaly then said with tears in her eyes, “Sana, I heard your name so many times from the girls and my ‘Moms’ (which I believe are the older women who work in the shelters), that I finally asked who is this Sana that they love more than me?” We both laughed, holding each other hands. Soon the line formed again and I politely walked away. I decided to leave as so may people were crowding around her and as I climbed the steps to leave she looked up and shouted, “Sana thank you for loving my girls. I did not see you in Cambodia, but I felt YOU.” I walked for hours afterwards hearing this beautiful chant in my heart and soul.

Since that time, I have seen Somaly on a few occasions, for instance, at her home receiving a blessing from the monks. She did not know that I was there nor did she know that I was going to show up at her house but when she saw me enter she shouted my name to come sit close to her and her son. She called to the girls that were now voices of change, to come greet me as they rushed to do so. She stopped the session for me and afterwards she invited me in the ritual bathing where we were all washed down with (I think) the water that the monks had prayed over. She made sure I had dry clothing to get home with. She also insisted that I go to AFESIP Kampong Cham (where the very young childen are); I did not want to go, as I was afraid to see children so young who were rescued from slavery. But Somaly said to me, “Sana, they need to see you too.” So, I went along with another volunteer who teaches English. Almost every year, I am only able to go during my winter break from teaching at Hunter College in New York, six weeks although the other volunteers go for three months. I’ve seen Somaly on other occasions in New York, at New York University with a few girls and at a fundraiser. Always, the girls are her focus. Once, in the audience, a young female student asked the same question I did, “What can we do?” She then told me to stand and said come to Cambodia like Sana, the girls would love to see you.

I always find Somaly’s focus to be on the girls. When she comes to the shelters, the girls run into her arms and many cry deeply like she is their long, lost, mother. There are four young women in the Siem Reap Center that have completed the years of training and now work for the organization. They say they are survivors and feel strongly that they could not ever consider working for anyone other than Somaly Mam. They live near by and come to the Center every day. I have seen them for the past seven years during my volunteering time. One has married but still comes to work at the Center. I have witnessed the recovery of hundreds of girls. I have seen them enter fragile, scared, and traumatized. I have seen the older girls take the new girls by the hand, hug them, and tell them that they are safe and invite them into a new life. Each consecutive year, I see the girls now strong, happy, alive and full of the future-dancing, singing, learning new skills and developing into powerful women with dreams of a future and devoted to stopping sex trafficking in Cambodia.It is a powerful feeling for me as a human being to witness these recoveries. The staff is few but devoted to the change of girls lives. I have seen new rules instituted to protect the girls. I now must have a police report clearing me before entering the shelters. This new rule has been enacted during the last two years of my seven years of volunteering. At first, I felt insulted that after so many years of devotion that I MUST get a police report and I wrote to Somaly. She was straight with me and told me I had to follow what the rules that were for the safety of the girls, so I immediately stopped protesting the new rule and every year get my police report before I leave. Now every year, I must write and explain what my project will be and how I think the girls will benefit from the project. Before entering the shelters, I must first sit down with the social workers and an administrator to review the importance of what I do.Often they interject with concerns for the girls and how I should make the projects more suitable for the girls, i.e. how I must teach employable skills that fit within the framework of the future lives of the girls in Cambodia.They have been deeply concerned for their present, fragile lives and the lives they will lead after reintegration. I AM DEEPLY respectful of this and have learned so much more about rehabilitation.

Somaly and I have never sat and had tea or dinner together, even at her fund raisers in New York, where I live, she is all business. Her life’s goal has been the girls she calls her own. Yes, I have read the Newsweek article, it took me a few weeks to finally open the article and read it. Everyone in New York who know my work in Cambodia have written and most ask if I will I return. My thoughts are these; Somaly has led me to over two hundred girls who I have sat with on the tile floor at the Center. During the past seven years, I have witnessed the healing ability of love bring them back to life. I have taught the girls all the crafts that I know and in exchange they have taught me that there is life after death. Am I going back???? YOU BETCHA! I will not ever consider not going back to Somaly Mam’s girls. As an artist, a storyteller, so often the public wants more. You look into their eyes and see it. I’ll stay close to the facts; the fact here is that I have seen first hand what Somaly Mam has done to bring awareness to the cause of young girls everywhere, worldwide. I say to those who want to doubt her, COME TO CAMBODIA and see for yourselves. Somaly’s girls need to be protected and cherished has she has done for over ten years. I look forward to my eighth year of creating with Somaly’s girls, who are now my chosen daughters.

Sana Musasama

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