It was a typical fall evening in New York: gusting winds, rush hour traffic and a charity gala. Political activists, ambassadors, State Department grandees and educated urbanites assembled last week to support Somaly Mam, a woman who has dedicated her life to combating the sexual exploitation of young girls in her native Cambodia. Since the foundation’s inception in 2007, the organization has rescued over 7,000 women and is now the leading sex trafficking charity South East Asia. While even 10 years ago the subject of human trafficking and sexual servitude was taboo, both business-minded and philanthropic New Yorkers assembled en mass to show their support for Somaly Mam and her extraordinary foundation.
As we walked into the party we saw that a table was set up in the corner of the room where fresh-faced supporters were selling colorful necklaces and scarves. The Observer inquired about the items and soon learned that they had in fact been made by sex-slave survivors currently residing at one of Somaly Mam’s centers in Cambodia. Several guests around the room wore the knotted silk necklaces to show support and solidarity with the victims.
We noticed Office Space actor Ron Livingston ordering a drink. Mr. Livingston has been a staunch supporter of Ms. Mam’s work. He spoke articulately and passionately about the issue, surprising The Observer with his knowledge and soft-spoken vehemence. “The child is worth more than whatever it is that has been taken away from her,” he said of victims of the sex trade. “We’re not here because of any particular fight or crusade. It’s about individual children, who we can cast aside and say, ‘Oh well, we didn’t catch that one they’re damaged goods now anyways.’ Or we can do what Somaly’s done: one child at a time, one life at a time, rescue her, give her a second chance, give her another family, give her another opportunity at some form of dignity,” the actor explained.
Ms. Mam was greeted with celebrity fanfare when she entered the room. Guests swarmed the red carpet, hoping to take her picture. Wearing a pink, one-shoulder dress, Ms. Mam posed for the photographers, both professional and amateur, all the while showing off her radiant, contagious smile. “I’m so happy to see everyone,” she said, adjusting her dress which was askew after the dramatic entrance. “The people who love us … they’re sacrificing their lives and coming here,” she added gratefully as she gazed around the crowded room. The Observer asked Ms. Mam what she hoped the gala would accomplish. Although she struggled to find the words in English, Ms. Mam was poignant in her simplicity. “Tonight … 250 people [are] coming. I hope that … each of the people can tell 10 of their friends. It’s what I hope,” she said flashing once more her brilliant smile.
The Observer ran into model and activist Petra Nemcova. Ms. Nemcova, the ex-Sports Illustrated swimsuit model best known for her harrowing escape from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, was stunning in a brilliant blue Lanvin gown and keen to discuss Ms. Mam and the infectious inspiration she spreads. “Every time when anyone meets Somaly, you kind of put a pause on your thoughts, on your life and what you’re doing and try to re-evaluate,” the stunning blonde said. “It just shows the power of one human being. You can always rise up and make yourself stronger. She is the example.”
As cocktail hour was coming to a close, Susan Sarandon appeared. The sexagenarian had no qualms dressing in the trendiest gown of the season, donning one of Stella McCartney’s cut-out polka dot creations. “Oh, my god, it’s freezing in here!” she grumbled, making her way to the bar in the dining room. “I’ll take a shot of tequila,” she told the bartender. “Maybe that will help.” Drink in hand, Ms. Sarandon sang Somaly Mam’s praises. “She has so much love and at the same time is so practical,” she said of Ms. Mam. “I don’t really go on the line personally for many organizations, but I know that the money she gets goes to where she says it goes. You get, as I always say, a big bang for your buck,” the actress added.
Just as we were headed to our seat, music mogul Russell Simmons was retreating from the red carpet. One of the evening’s honorees, Mr. Simmons was in high demand from photographers. Wearing a bow tie and a wide-brim Yankee’s baseball cap with his bright blue suit, Mr. Simmons walked through the room with his typical understated yet undeniable swagger. “Well, modern-day slavery … It’s such a brutal industry, and it’s so big,” Mr. Simmons told The Observer. “It’s good to bring awareness, and money,” he said. “If you have a chance to make a difference, you should. And I’m lucky enough to be able to do it so I’m here,” he explained humbly. “And I love doing it,” he added with a grin.
We took our seat and settled in for the evening’s program. Working through the first course, the audience heard stories from two survivors who had traveled with Ms. Mam from Cambodia for the occasion. Now thriving professionals, the young women bore testimony to Ms. Mam’s work.
After a successful live appeal, dinner was served. If The Observer’s table was any measure, Ms. Mam’s desire to inspire conversation about sex trafficking was most certainly realized. Our tablemates engaged in a lively discussion of the issue, voicing shared anger and the desire to affect change. While perhaps not accustomed to discussing such weighty issues over fine food and drink, many of the attendees were genuinely moved by Ms. Mam’s message and personal strength.
After the closing remarks, guests spilled out into the reception room. A receiving line of supporters surrounded Ms. Mam, all hoping to shake her hand and experience her almost mystical presence. We saluted Ms. Mam and went back into the gusty, traffic-clogged night, encouraged by the meaningful evening.