A Lesson in Courage and Leadership

By:Nicholas Lumpp Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration lesson-courage-leadership

It all started over a plate of overpriced sushi in Laguna Beach, California. For over a year, my good friend Jared and I had frequently discussed the horrifying stories we had heard in the news and watched in documentaries about the global sex slave trade. We read about little girls who were trafficked across borders, bought and sold like property, and forced to have sex with multiple clients every night. We had discovered a $12 billion-per-year criminal industry that is for the most part hidden and ignored. Most Americans don't even know that the United States is the second largest trafficking destination. It was a world that baffled and angered us. How can something so horrifying be happening in the same world we live in? A remarkable thing happened that night at the sushi bar that would forever change our lives; we promised to make a difference.

Peering out the window of the 737, I spotted a small terminal across the runway. I squinted, my eyes struggling to stay open after an exhausting 19-hour flight to the other side of the world. I had not even considered that a week later I would be co-founding an organization with one of the greatest leaders of our time or that I would be involved in a presentation to the U.N. Security Council the following month. I nudged Jared, who was sound asleep in the seat next to me. "We're finally here!"

We anxiously located our luggage, moved through customs and hurried outside to find Somaly Mam and two of her staff members waiting for us with a big sign reading, "Greenberg, Lumpp." They greeted us with big smiles and a customary bow of respect. We followed their lead and then jumped into the air-conditioned car, pleased to have escaped the hot sun and humid air.

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We hadn't planned on bombarding Mam with questions right away, but we couldn't wait to get the answers we had come so far to find. She spoke in broken English, having taught herself the language in less than a year with no formal training. Her personality, charisma and character were every bit the legend we had envisioned before our trip. Her words, her energy and her passion inspired me in a way I had never before felt. She shared stories more terrifying than you can imagine and then there was complete silence as we contemplated the seriousness of this situation and our role in helping. Dropping us at our hotel, she left us with a warning that we were in for an intense experience in the upcoming week. This was surely an understatement.

The name Somaly Mam meant nothing to us until a week before we had plane tickets to visit her in Cambodia. A short clip on Anderson Cooper 360 on YouTube intrigued us enough to learn more and eventually contact her. The first article I read detailed her achievements that led to her becoming Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year. The next article was about her experience carrying the Olympic flag in the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino. She seemed like a celebrity to me. Then I read the third article and suddenly the words "Somaly Mam" meant more than I had imagined. That name began to take shape as a representation of remarkable courage and leadership, much as I had envisioned Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Little girls are trafficked across borders, bought and sold like property, and forced to have sex with multiple clients every night. Mam's past is more horrifying than anyone I've ever known. She was abandoned and raped when she was 12 years old. By the age of 15, she was sold into a brothel where she was forced to have sex with five or six clients every night. She described a time when two clients came alone, but took her someplace unfamiliar where 20 men gang raped her. Somewhere she found the strength to escape her slavery and start an organization that would rescue and rehabilitate girls with the same circumstances.

Her remarkable courage can best be described by listening to her own wordsโ€ฆ

"Our job is dangerous. Once this man who ran a brothel put a gun to my temple; he was angry that I'd talked to his girls. He told me I was a (expletive), and that he was going to kill me. Last December we rescued 89 women and children in a police raid on a big hotel. But the pimps went to our shelter and grabbed them back. The next day they threatened to come back with grenades. I phoned everyone I could for help, but I was told I'd gone too far - I had bothered powerful people. I make a point of going to see the criminals who threaten me. I have to show them I'm not afraid by talking to them."

We briefly visited Mam's headquarters, where we met her hard-working staff and coordinated our excursion with their AIDS prevention team. The lobby was filled with articles praising Mam's efforts. I spotted a letter from Condoleezza Rice, and another from Colin Powell. A "U.S. State Department Best Practices Award" was displayed between her picture with Pope John Paul II and one of her with Hillary Clinton. One of her staff members could sense our interest. "The Queen of Spain calls her often," he said. "That's when I thought why hadn't I heard of Somaly Mam earlier?"

Our first stop was the red light district of Phnom Penh. Images of deteriorating buildings and muddy streets littered with trash still linger in my mind. Two bodyguards accompanied us wherever we went. Most of the brothel owners know Somaly and many would like to kill her. At all times, we had to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. The girls get excited when Somaly comes to visit them. She is a source of strength and hope for them. She is a symbol of what is possible even if they cannot yet see that possibility in their own lives. A small 12-year-old girl in a pink shirt and flip flops ran to Somaly and hugged her tightly, burying her face in Somaly's waist. She was crying. Her name was Jenny. Somaly told us that she had been raped the night before and that she would be coming with us for medical treatment. At the end of the week we returned to visit Jenny, but she was nowhere to be found. They say she was kidnapped by a foreign casino owner. Even more disappointing is the realization that this is not rare. It happens to girls around the world every day.

The following day we traveled to Kampong Cham to visit the children's shelter. I was shocked to learn that there are so many victims under the age of 16 that Somaly had to open a shelter specifically for these children. A young girl sat on the front stairs hugging her teddy bear and watching us as we approached the front entrance of the shelter. "Please, God, tell me she is not a victim," I thought to myself. She is eight years old now. She was sold into a brothel at the age of six. Her virginity was sold to a foreign man for $500. She has AIDS now and the doctors say she will not live much longer. To her right stood another very young girl. She is seven now and had been rescued from a brothel when she was six. Her pimp kept her in a cage when she wasn't being raped by clients or tortured by the men who ran the brothel. Somaly told us horror stories of how they would cut her arms, put salt in her wounds and how they pulled out her hair; and on several occasions pressed nails into the back of her head. I quietly suppressed my feelings of anger and sadness as we moved on to see the rest of the shelter before departing for Siem Reap. Most Americans don't even know that the United States is the second largest trafficking destination.

About an hour outside the city in the beautiful countryside beyond Siem Reap sits an oasis of well-kept buildings, clean yards and beautiful gardens. We had arrived at the Siem Reap shelter just in time for lunch. After lunch, Somaly ordered a bus and we took all 42 girls to a park near the Angkor Temples. Jared and I chose to ride with the girls on the bus, which was quite an entertaining experience. They sang songs and clapped and smiled and I clapped and played along as if I knew what they were saying. They taught me how to play their version of the paper, rock, scissors game. I taught them some English words while they taught me Khmer. They laughed at my expense as I tried to pronounce the words. When we arrived at the park, the girls took turns singing songs they had written about their past. Without knowing a word of their language, I was struck by how intimately I could feel their emotion. Later, one of the girls, Sina, took my hand and led me over to a park where several of the girls were gathering in a circle. Unfortunately, she could not explain in words how to play the game, but I figured it out as we went along. They would laugh hysterically every time I messed up the game!

After a fun day of smiles and laughter, I couldn't help but think about the girls stuck in the brothels we had seen in previous days. Before leaving the park, the girls gave me a necklace and keychain. I will forever treasure these gifts as a reminder of the time I spent with them and as a daily motivator to continue my work on the foundation they have inspired me to start.

As I walked to the car, several of the girls stopped me. One of them held out her pinky finger and gestured for mine. She locked hers around mine and made me swear to return to Cambodia to see them again. We were more to them than just guests; we were friends. For the first time, I had real names and real personalities to attach to every horror story I had ever heard. On the ride home, Mam told us stories about what had happened to our new friends before they were rescued. I slept very little that night. We had the privilege of visiting a girl in a nearby village who had been rescued, rehabilitated in the Siem Reap shelter and reintegrated back into a small village where she now runs her own business.

Landmines still cover the fields along the Thai border. It is a problem that Cambodians still deal with daily. We stopped to eat before going to the hotel. Flashbacks of my Air Force Academy survival training ran through my head as the waitress placed the food on our table. A full pigeon, head and all, covered most of my plate. However, there was still plenty of room for turtle and lizard. Later we would be introduced to even finer Khmer cuisine: spiders, crickets and cockroaches.

The following day we had the privilege of visiting a girl in a nearby village who had been rescued, rehabilitated in the Siem Reap shelter and reintegrated back into a small village where she now runs her own business. At the shelter she learned basic literacy skills as well as sewing and basic accounting. She was doing so well that it was difficult to believe she had once been a slave in the brothels with no future.

Mam and her staff continue to follow up with reintegrated girls for three years after they leave the shelter. It is important to help them get on their feet again and gain the strength and experience they need to support themselves, and many times their families as well. It was amazing to see the direct results that come from Somaly's work. After the interview, we bought some items from her shop and continued back to the capitol city.

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One can learn a lot about courage and leadership from spending merely one day with Somaly Mam. She is the embodiment of everything I have come to appreciate in life; the will to fight for what is right, the courage to take a stand when no one else will, the strength to take command in the midst of chaos, the integrity to make a difference and the perseverance to find a way. She brings hope to the hopeless and a possibility of life to those who were once bound by the shackles of slavery. This woman needs no army, no personal wealth, and no elite title to be recorded in history as one of the great leaders of our time. She is an inspiration for all of us to take command and make a difference.

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I will forever remember my trip to Cambodia. I will never forget the courageous woman whose passion to fight for others will never die. Memories of laughing with the girls at Siem Reap, visiting the helpless victims in the brothels, and watching the little girl with her teddy bear on the front porch as we drove away, are constant reminders of who I am working for now.

For me, it is no longer an option to stand by and watch. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."