by Page Forrest
Last year, Lillie Belle Viebranz (C’15) applied for a summer internship with the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), a company based in New York City dedicated to “eradicating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Southeast Asia, and empowering survivors as part of the solution,” as stated on the Somaly Mam Foundation’s website. However, Viebranz’s internship was thrown into chaos by a Newsweek article published on May 21, 2014. In the article, journalist Simon Marks provided evidence that Somaly Mam, founder of SMF, had fabricated most of her background and life story. Mam, born in Cambodia in 1970, claimed she was abused and enslaved, forced into marriage with a Chinese soldier when she was 14, and then sold into a brothel where she stayed for 10 years. After escaping from the brothel, and marrying a French biologist, Mam founded Agir Pour Les Femmes En Situation Précare, or AFESIP, an NGO dedicated to helping girls escape the trafficking industry in Cambodia. Later on in Mam’s career, however, it was discovered that some of the women who spoke on behalf of AFESIP, who claimed they were rescued by the organization were not actually victims of sex trafficking, and had been coached into their roles by Mam.
After further research, Marks discovered that family and friends of Mam in Cambodia remembered her clearly, including her very normal childhood, including attending of high school until age 18, with no sign of her supposed husband or the man Mam claimed enslaved her. By the time Viebranz arrived in New York City on June 1, the SMF had already undergone huge changes. Mam had resigned as President of SMF in light of the scandal, and the foundation had to restructure. Gina Reiss-Wilchins remained in her position as executive director, but the foundation had lost its face and namesake. Viebranz had originally applied as a development intern. She was told she would be writing grants and planning events, including the foundation’s gala in October. Instead, her role changed completely. Viebranz’s internship became devoted to rebranding the company, researching new grant sources, and helping the office relocate. All ties to Somaly Mam had to be cut. “There were certain books that had been published which referenced Somaly’s story and work…all of those had to be shredded as they were no longer legitimate. I had to shred several thousand dollars’ worth of books, and I felt my heart break a little while I did it,” Viebranz shared. Viebranz also noted that the foundation was still in chaos over the summer. “Two people were let go while I was there, and the woman who had hired me quit.” In April, the company received a heads-up about the article and its content.
Viebranz described the feelings as being similar to the scandal with Lance Armstrong – “You have this person that so many people have idolized, that has an amazing charity built up around them, and then suddenly, the whole thing is shattered.” While Mam was relieved of her position almost immediately, unlike Armstrong, she has yet to own up to the allegations made by Marks. She still claims her entire story is truthful. After Mam was asked to leave SMF, she became even more resentful when the foundation was forced to cut funding to the AFESIP shelters originally founded by Mam, as she was still involved with them. On the last day of Viebranz’ internship, the foundation had nearly moved out of their NYC office. Viebranz spent the last of her time there inventorying items and packing them up. However, she has no regrets about her internship. “I’m really glad I did it, I got an experience and a perspective that no one else will ever get. It was a very transparent internship. I was exposed to parts of the foundation no one else will ever see.” Viebranz’s unique experience put her front and center for the blowout of the Somaly Mam scandal. It will be some time before the Somaly Mam Foundation is whole again, but Viebranz has no doubts about the strength of the foundation’s mission, and her own dedication to creating a safer world for women.