After overcoming a childhood scarred by the Khmer Rouge and abusive relationships, Teav Mam found new purpose and identity through the beauty trade. She says hairstyling saved her life. Now she wants to save others.
Mam, a Folsom hairstylist, mentors five girls who were brought from Cambodia by members of a Roseville-based missionary group, Agape International Missions, after being rescued from sexual slavery. Mam, 34, plans to return to her native Cambodia this fall in hopes of opening a beauty school there for other girls rescued from sex-trafficking.
"Little girls as young as 5 years old are being sold every day by their parents," Mam said. "It just breaks my heart."
Mam is partnering with The Trade, a nonprofit based in El Dorado Hills that aims to empower impoverished women in developing countries by instructing them in the art of hair and makeup and helping them set up their own businesses.
The Trade was created by Chris McCarley and Jonathan Klein, two men from Redding who in 2009 maxed out their moms' credit cards to launch a scissors manufacturing company, Hattori Hanzo Shears. Through Hattori, the pair sell high-end hairdressing shears, then funnel a portion of their profits into charitable work through The Trade.
The company, which expects to do more than $3 million in sales this year, puts $50,000 annually back into The Trade, McCarley said.
Their customers trade in used shears, which are sharpened and given to hairstylists, along with blow dryers and stipends, to train girls in Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil and Kenya, McCarley said. Many of the girls they help are rescued from sex-trafficking.
"When we met Mam at a Starbucks in Granite Bay, it was an instant connection," McCarley said. "Teav has a heart for Cambodians. We're supporting her with all the tools, and we're working hard to help her raise the funds."
Mam said she was deeply touched by the stories of the five Cambodian girls she mentors, who range in age from 16 to 19.
The girls were flown to California to testify against Michael Pepe, a retired U.S. Marine captain who had worked as a teacher in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. According to testimony at his Los Angeles trial, he hired a prostitute to buy the girls from their families, then repeatedly and violently raped them. He was convicted in May 2008 of sexually abusing seven girls and still awaits sentencing.
Mam's mentees were rescued by a joint task force that included the International Justice Mission, the Cambodian anti-trafficking police, the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Renee Burkhalter, who retired from Agape International Missions in January.
Agape was founded by the Rev. Don Brewster and his wife, Bridget, of Roseville, who moved to Cambodia in 2005 to battle the rampant sex-trafficking of children. The Brewsters put the girls in Agape's after-care program in Cambodia, got them therapy and medical treatment, and helped them come to the United States on visas for sex-trafficking victims, Burkhalter said.
The girls live with host families in the Sacramento area, and Mam serves as mother, driver, confidante and advice counselor, helping them adjust to American life. She is one of the few Cambodians the girls have met since they started school in Placer County in 2010.
"They call me Bong, 'Big Sister,' " said Mam.
She cooks for them and packs them into her SUV for swimming parties at Folsom Lake, shopping adventures at thrift stores, and farmers markets in Stockton.
"One wants to become a stewardess, and we're going to give another girl a scholarship to beauty school. She's a natural with hair," said Mam.
Mam had her own difficult journey to America. She was born in Cambodia during one of history's worst genocides. The Khmer Rouge, soldiers who became communist revolutionaries, killed 3 million of their own people in the 1970s.
The "suspected capitalists" executed included ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and other minorities, as well as Catholics, Muslims and Buddhist monks; artists and musicians; professionals, teachers and anyone who wore glasses.
Mam's father, an engineer, was forced to become a soldier. Her mother was nearly executed because somebody said she had an Omega watch, Mam said.
"I was 2 when my family escaped," she said. For three days they hiked through a jungle littered with land mines.
They spent five years in Thai and Indonesian refugee camps before coming to the United States in 1982. The next year, they joined the growing Cambodian community in Stockton.
When Mam was 13, she said, she was molested by a family friend, and ran away from home, only to wind up in an abusive relationship. She ran with gangs, then gradually rebuilt her life, getting her GED.
Mam said she got the idea to cut hair from her older sister, who found her own path to financial and emotional independence when she started cutting hair for a living. Eventually, Mam got a job in Folsom, and gave free haircuts at women's shelters.
At a benefit concert for Courage To Be You, which runs a Sacramento shelter for girls rescued from sex-trafficking, Mam met Clayton Butler, a Sacramento missionary who worked in Cambodia. He asked if she would like to be a big sister to a rescued girl.
Soon, she had five little sisters. Though they'd had little schooling, each has embraced her new American life, Mam said. They have Facebook accounts, text in English and one has earned her orange belt in Taekwondo.
When they're not in school, they love swimming, shopping and movies. "But not kissing movies," Mam said. "They like action and adventure."
Mam hopes to raise $10,000 to go to Cambodia to start the "Growing Hope" beauty school. The plan is to train 20 girls at a time to cut hair.
Mam knows what it's like to feel powerless. By opening a beauty school in Cambodia, she said, she hopes to make other young women feel beautiful, confident and independent, "so they can live and love freely."
And she doesn't plan to stop at Cambodia.
"That's what I want to do, bring joy to women all over the world," she said.
HOW TO HELP
On Sept. 16, Mam and other hairstylists will participate in The Trade's fundraiser, Cut for a Cause. To donate, go to supportthetrade.org.