From slaves to saviors |

From slaves to saviors

Sex-slavery survivors visit Steamboat during cultural immersion

Brandon Gee
Sina talks about why she is involved in the Somaly Mam Foundation, which strives to create a world where women and children are safe from slavery. Marabou Ranch, just outside of Steamboat Springs, has been hosting Sina along with other survivors.
Matt Stensland

On the 'Net

To learn more about the Somaly Mam Foundation or to make a donation, visit

— Watching them laugh and smile as they prepare for a bike ride along the Elk River, it’s hard to imagine the horrors these women have endured.

“I wake up and say, ‘Hi mountains,'” said Sina, one of six rescued survivors of the Cambodian sex-slave industry who are spending the weekend at Marabou Ranch. “I’m so happy.”

Speaking on behalf of all the young women – the others’ names are Sok, Neang, Pov, Mey and Pheap – Sina is full of gratitude, and not just for her present surroundings. The women are members of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s Voices for Change program. Through the program, these women who have first-hand experience with human trafficking are becoming leaders in the fight against it.

Foundation co-founder Nic Lummp asked that the women be referred to by only their first names and that they not be questioned about their pasts.

“They’re still kind of in a delicate situation, so we don’t want to get into details of their past,” Lummp said. “They get really emotional.”

Considering the horrors involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution, that is understandable.

“A lot of times, girls get stuck in this by being sold into it by their families,” Lummp said.

Sometimes, traffickers come into unsuspecting rural villages and trick families into turning over their young women and female children. Other times, Lummp said, the families are desperate and willingly make a deal for money that will help them survive.

And still other times, victims are kidnapped and trafficked across borders.

“If you don’t catch them within the first 24 hours,” Lummp said, “they could be pretty much anywhere in the world.”

In the brothels of the world, some victims of sex slavery are kept in cages and subjected to torture, Lummp said. Nearly all are physically and mentally abused.

According to the Somaly Mam Foundation, more than 1 million young women and children are sold into slavery every year. At $12 billion annually, it is the most profitable criminal industry in the world behind narcotics and weapons, according to the foundation.

The foundation’s namesake was born into poverty and sold into slavery at age 12. Somaly Mam was forced to work in a brothel and faced torture and sexual abuse on a daily basis. After watching a pimp murder her friend, she resolved to escape.

She succeeded and ultimately returned to Cambodia. In 1996, she established the organization Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, which now has 155 social workers in Southeast Asia and has saved more than 4,000 women, including Sina.

Mam also founded the Somaly Mam Foundation with Lummp and Jared Greenberg. The foundation is “dedicated to ending human trafficking through action, advocacy and awareness.”

Lummp said the mission of Voices for Change and the goal for the girls in the program is to essentially replicate Mam’s work.

“It’s a very difficult problem to attack, and it’s a very complex problem to attack,” he said. “Just imagine how much more of an impact we could make with more Somaly Mams out there.”

As part of their preparation, the six young women are spending a month in Denver studying English at Regis University. They came to Steamboat for a bit of a vacation and to see Western culture. At Marabou, where Lummp’s uncle owns a lot and is building a home, they are participating in activities such as horseback riding and fly-fishing.

“We love it here,” Sina said.

When they return to Cambodia, they will work to spread awareness and work with other survivors to teach them skills they need to find jobs and survive on their own – to help them “stand up,” as Sina put it.

Lummp said those who wish to help in the fight against sex slavery and forced prostitution can donate money to the Somaly Mam Foundation at Lummp also encouraged people to educate themselves about the problem. He said a good start would be reading Mam’s book, “The Road of Lost Innocence.”

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