Sana Musasama’s Full Newsweek Response

Sana and her chosen daughter, Sheynich

Sana and her chosen daughter, Sheynich

I first met Somaly Mam via an article in Glamour magazine. Her story of sexual abuse and forced prostitution was anything but glamorous. I subsequently emailed her that I was moved, pained really by what she had suffered in her childhood and what so many girls around the world have suffered, having their childhood stolen from them. And I asked what I could do as a women, artist and world traveler. “Come to Cambodia,” she wrote back.  So I saved up some money, and five months later, traveled to Cambodia to volunteer in the shelters of AFESIP, the NGO she had founded as a refuge for girls, some as young as five years old, rescued from human trafficking in the sex trade there.

As an artist I have dedicated my life to creative pursuits based on a deep conviction in the power of art to heal and transform lives. I was already working with felony defenders at Cases, a New York alternative sentencing program, when I made the decision to go to Cambodia. My population at Cases was girls, who were not inherently criminal, but whose circumstances and bad or desperate choices had landed them there. When I told them of the girls in AFESIP, who, though safe in the shelters, were yet struggling to recover their lives from the trauma of sexual slavery, they gave me the idea of making dolls with them. “Sana, they were never little girls,” they said. So I set off for Cambodia, half way around the world, with my tools and materials for making art.

The first time I met Somaly – met her in person – was in New York City at SUNY’s Levin Institute, where she and dozens of advocates for young girls were speaking out against sex trafficking. She had been allotted just seven minutes and confessed that she didn’t know where to begin. But she did begin. She spoke compellingly of the lives of “her girls” and only briefly about her background. Instead, her focus was on the moment and the scourge of trafficking she was life-invested in ending in Cambodia, and beyond Cambodia, any and everywhere it exists in the world. Her time was up, it seemed, as soon as she’d started.

I had already visited the shelters in Cambodia twice by then, but had never yet met or even seen Somaly Mam. I had not pursued meeting her in fact because it was her story more than her that had lead me to the girls, and I knew she was busy spreading word of this human tragedy throughout the world. I had asked for her once on one of my trips to the shelters but was told that she was traveling.  But given the opportunity her appearance at the Levin Institute presented, I was determined at last 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 just a little time to talk to her, to tell her about my time in her shelters. Finally, I got the chance. She was sitting with her head down, signing the books. A young woman standing over her was asking the people on line to write their names on a piece of paper so that Somaly could autograph the books to them quickly. When the scrap of paper with my name printed on it was handed to her, she held it in her hand a long time while her lips silently sounded out the syllables that brought a slow, dawning recognition. As she raised her face to mine, I said, “Somaly, I am Sana, the artist who makes the dolls and hand bags with the girls.”  She jumped up and grabbed me up into her arms as she shouted in Khmer to the others that I was the woman who makes art with her girls. They crowded around me like angels, big smiles on their faces. With tears in her eyes, Somaly said, “Sana, I heard your name so many times from the girls that I finally asked, who is this Sana that they love more than me?” We laughed, holding hands until a new line for her autographs had formed and, with so many people crowding around her, I politely said goodbye.  As I climbed the steps, 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 first meeting time, I have seen Somaly on only two other occasions – once at her home, receiving a blessing from the monks. She didn’t know I was going to show up at her house, nor even that I was in Cambodia at the time, but as soon as she saw me enter she shouted my name and called me to come sit close to her and her son. She called to girls that were themselves now voices of change to come greet me. She had interrupted the monks for me.   Afterwards she invited me to the ritual bath, where we were all washed with water that had been blessed by the monks. She made sure I had dry clothing to wear home. She also insisted that I go to Kampong Chhnang, where the youngest of the rescued children are. I did not want to go. I was afraid to see children so young who had been sexually abused and exploited.  But Somaly said, “Sana, they need to see you. They need to create too. Please consider.” I went with another volunteer who travels to Cambodia annually for three months to teach English.

The last time I saw Somaly Mam was at NYU in New York. She was there with a few of her girls – always her focus. From the audience, a young co-ed student asked the same question I had asked years before: “What can we do?”  Somaly turned to me sitting in the audience and asked me to stand. “Come to Cambodia,” she said, “like Sana. The girls would love to see you.”

Somaly’s focus is on the girls. That’s what I see. When she comes to the shelters, the girls run into her arms. They sob deeply but with joy at being held again by her, their adoptive, loving mother. There are four young women in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that have completed their training and now work for AFESIP.  They say they are the survivors and insist that they could never considerer working for anyone other than Somaly.  They live nearby and come to the center every day.  Over the past seven years, I have watched them recover, blossom and find their purpose in helping others. One has married but still comes to work at the center. I have in fact witnessed the recovery of hundreds of girls. I have seen them enter sick and fragile, traumatized, frightened. I have seen the other girls take them by the hand, hug them, tell them they are safe and invite them into a new life. When I see them again a year later, they are strong, happy, alive and full of the promise of the future-dancing, singing, learning new skills and developing into powerful young women with dreams.  And a devotion to ending sex trafficking in Cambodia.

To witness this recovery has been, for me, profoundly empowering. The staff is few but devoted to changing the lives of these girls for the better. I have seen new rules implemented and institutionalized to further protect these girls. I now must have a police report on myself submitted and reviewed before I can enter the shelters. No still or video cameras are allowed. At first, I was insulted that after so many years of devotion to these girls I must now submit a police report. I wrote Somaly, and she was straight with me. “Sana, we have to follow the rules”…for the safety of the girls. So I stopped protesting the new rule and last year got my report before I left. Also, I have to write and explain in advance what my project will be and how I think it will benefit the girls. Before I can enter the shelters, I must first sit with the social workers and an administrator to review the importance of what I do. And they often interject with concerns for the girls and suggestions how I should make the projects applicable to the lives the girls will lead in the future; how I must teach employable skills that fit within the framework of the future lives of girls in Cambodia; the lives they will lead after reintegration into Cambodian society. I am deeply respectful of this and have learned a lot about rehabilitation.

I have never sat and had dinner or even tea with Somaly, even at her fundraisers in New York, where I live. She is all business. Her life has been the girls she calls her own. I read the Newsweek article. Everyone in New York who knows of my work in Cambodia has written me. Many have asked if I will ever return to Cambodia. My thoughts are these: Somaly led me to more than two hundred girls, whom I have sat with on tile floors for seven years and witnessed a healing and resurrection that only dedication and love such as she has provided could have accomplished. I have taught them all the crafts I know, and they have taught me that there is life after death. But I am there with them for just six weeks each year. Somaly Mam lives there. She lives the tragedy of this unforgivable human rights abuse through them, even if it is not her own story. Her empathy and compassion have made it her own. In that, she is in my eyes, the Cambodian everywoman and an effective storyteller.

As an artist, I stay close to the facts, but I lure viewers in with beautiful glazes and elegant forms to soften the blow of heartbreaking subject matter. As a storyteller, I know that so often the public wants more than just the facts. Sadly, we have become too often jaded to the facts. You look into the eyes of your audience and see it. You read in the media what gets reported and what gets people’s attention. Many of us have exaggerated, confabulated and out and out lied for less honorable reasons. And many more will use the revelations in Newsweek as justification for dismissing Somaly and rationalizing their own lack of engagement. If we do nothing, say nothing, we enable, and we are culpable.

Somaly Mam has been the one constant, protecting and nurturing her girls into health and wholeness, redeeming humanity in their eyes. She has fought for them fiercely and perhaps lied when necessary, as any mother would. Am I going back?  Yes. Unequivocally, yes. I won’t ever not go back to Somaly Mam’s girls.

The fact here is I have seen firsthand what Somaly Mam has done, bringing awareness to the plight of young girls everywhere, worldwide. I say to those who want to doubt her, come to Cambodia and see for yourselves… but first get a police report. Somaly’s girls need to be protected and cherished, as she has cherished and protected them for more than a decade.

I look forward to my eighth year of making art and a brighter future with Somaly’s girls, who are now my chosen daughters as well.

Sana Musasama

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