I first heard about Somaly Mam and her work of rescuing young women and girls from the horrors of the sex traffic industry when I was doing research on visionary women for my last book Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World. I was amazed at her courage. Once enslaved in the horrendous dark world of human trafficking herself, she had the courage to go back and fearlessly fight for and rescue others.

Universally recognized as a visionary for her courage, dignity, ingenuity, and resilience, Somaly has been honored as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2009” and as a CNN Hero.

She is also the recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, The World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (WCPRC), and Glamour Magazine’s “2006 Woman of the Year” award. She was one of Fortune Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in 2011” and one of Fast Company’s “2012 League of Extraordinary Women.” She has won accolades from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State. Somaly and her team are featured in PBS documentary and transmedia project, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Hers is a story all of us need to hear. It’s not only a story of survival, but of new beginnings built on compassion and love put into action.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Somaly Mam. Here is some of that interview, which provides a wonderful insight into Somaly Mam and her work.

Angella Nazarian (AN): Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

Somaly Mam (SM): I was born into an ethnic minority family in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. I don’t know my real age and don’t remember my parents, but what I do know is that I spent over ten years in situations of sexual exploitation. One day, my friend was killed in front of me. Immediately, I knew I had to figure out how to escape or die. At the time, I had no idea of how to help the others. I just kept thinking of how I must run away and some day come back and kill the pimp (my trafficker).

In 1996, I founded AFESIP, which was the first registered organization in Cambodia to provide specialized services for trafficking victims.

In 2007, I co-founded The Somaly Mam Foundation, through which I aim to provide a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world.

AFESIP continues to run shelter-based programs in victim care and rehabilitation, while the Somaly Mam Foundation has three core areas of focus:
1. Providing grants to direct victim services organizations (including AFESIP)
2. Education and survivors empowerment with Voices for Change and a scholarship program
3. Eradication of slavery through awareness and advocacy

AN: What has been your proudest moment? 

SM: For me, I am so proud to see my girls—victims and survivors—studying to get a higher education. This is what fulfills my dream and gives me hope to do more. Today, one of my girls is a second year student at University of Law and another is a first year psychology student.

AN: Can you remember the moment when you were at your lowest point? How did you regain the hope and energy to carry on?

SM: lowest point was when I was trapped as a sex slave and didn’t know how to find my way out. My adoptive parents always gave me good advice: “Use the difficulties to make you stronger—difficulty is your life’s experience.” Their words gave me hope to move on. I now understand “Life is love; life is about forgiveness.”

AN: If you had a message to share with everyone, what would it be?

Solamy Mam:
Life is love.
Life is about accepting.
Life is about forgiveness.
Life is about passion and compassion.

AN: Who are the people in your life who won’t let you fail?

SM: My girls, victims and survivors. They are a huge part of my life. I could not do whatever I am doing without support from my girls. They are so special to me.

AN: What is the one characteristic that you would say defines you best?

SM: I don’t see myself as “the best” in anything, but you can define me by the way I look at life. I’m realistic with life.

AN: What nourishes you and gives you strength?

SM: Trust, love, and reality have made me strong. If people do not trust me or I do not trust my girls, how I can help them or how can they be helped?

AN: Do you have any words of advice for someone trying to heal himself/herself?

SM: I would like them to accept what they have been through and learn forgiveness. Please react with your life in whatever way you can for good. Turn your life around by using your difficult experiences to move forward.

AN: You talk about living a life that has unlimited potential. What are the steps to unlocking our potential?

Somaly Mam: In life, you have to learn that you are enough. If you learn how to be enough and accept it, then you can unlock all your potential.

AN: How has working with your girls changed you? 

SM: My girls taught me trust and love without conditions. I learned from them about real love. When someone hears that they have been raped or trafficked, one must think that they are so sad and hopeless. In contrast, at the core, they are full of joy; they laugh a lot and look so happy. They hug and kiss with true love.

AN: Do you ever fear for your life because of the risk you take each time you rescue a young girl from the slave trade?

SM: Life is life. You will die no matter what, so it is so meaningful to spend your life for a good cause. I never fear about rescuing the girls and risking my life, but I fear about the people who don’t understand what the victims go through.

AN: What is your motto?

Somaly Mam: Life is love, and love has no conditions.

AN: What is a dream that you would like to achieve in your lifetime?

SM: I have enough in my life, but my dream is to see more and more people understanding victims of trafficking and helping them, to see a world where victims have been empowered and have the ability to make their own life, and to see a world where there is no discrimination and no victims.

Originally posted on Huffington Post Impact on January 9, 2013.

I am especially grateful to have Somaly Mam be our guest of honor tonight for the 2013 WOMEN A.R.E. Conference. The purpose of this conference is to inform, inspire, create, and exchange ideas among Los Angeles’s aspiring and top female leaders. Stay in touch with us on Facebook for updates.

Angella Nazarian is a bestselling author and noted speaker. Both of her books Life as a Visitor and the newly released Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World have become bestsellers for the publisher and have garnered glowing reviews from Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, Martha Stewart, and Diane von Furstenberg. To learn more about Angella, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

*Photo courtesy of Somaly Mam Foundation