MARQUETTE - As she shook hands with former President Ronald Reagan and he told her she had officially become a United States citizen, 8-year-old Chong Kim felt invincible.
But a childhood marred by severe abuse from the adults who were supposed to keep her safe - her parents, her teachers - led then teenaged Kim to a bar one evening in June of 1994, where she met a handsome man in a U.S. Marine's uniform.
Kim confessed to a packed house at Northern Michigan University University Tuesday evening that she had fallen in love with the man after only dating for a couple of weeks.
Chong Kim, a survivor of human trafficking, shows the trailer to the feature film “Eden” to a packed house inside Northern Michigan University’s Bottum University Center Tuesday evening. The film is based on Kim’s experience of being forced to live and work inside the sex slave industry in the United States. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Hosted by Platform Personalities, Kim was the featured speaker for the seventh annual NMU Uniting Neighbors in the Experience of Diversity Conference.
"Because I grew up in a domestic violence home, I didn't know what healthy was," Kim said, saying the man had treated her well to that point.
Kim had no idea the Marine - who turned out to not be a Marine at all, but a man with the cruelest of intentions and a uniform bought from a surplus outlet - had only one interest in her.
Telling her he was taking her to Florida to meet his parents, he actually drove Kim from Texas up to Oklahoma when she was 18 years old.
"I couldn't read maps," Kim said. "I didn't know we were going in the wrong direction."
The man took her to an empty house and chained her to a doorknob for weeks. From there, she was sent to Las Vegas, where she lived in a warehouse with other girls, many of whom couldn't speak English, or even remember their own names or birthdays.
Kim told her story of being trapped in the U.S. sex trafficking industry from 1994 to 1997, and how, when she could no longer take the repeated beatings and rape of herself and the girls she'd come to know, she escaped her captivity by crawling through an air duct, sliding down a laundry shoot and running out into the street in nothing but a neglige and stiletto heels.
Now, more than a decade later, Kim tells her harrowing story of being an American citizen trafficked in the underground sex slave industry.
"I'm forever scarred by these nightmares," Kim said.
She spent years dealing with flash backs and a deep distrust of men before she found she couldn't hold her story inside any longer.
Kim is now a writer, an artist and an activist, working to help save the countless number of other people trafficked in the United States every year.
Her story has been turned into a feature film, "Eden," which will be released in early 2013.
The UNITED Conference continues at 7:30 p.m. today in the Bottum University Center Great Lakes Rooms, with featured speaker Chris Waddell, a paralympian who became the first paraplegic to complete an almost entirely unassisted climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Waddell is a U.S. Ski Hall of Fame member and the most decorated skier in Paralympic history, with 12 medals won over four games.
Thursday will feature speaker David Kiefer, co-author of the book "National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs: The World's Most Efficient Health Plants." Kiefer will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the Great Lakes Rooms on how culture and tradition impact herbal medicine.
For a full list of speakers or to watch videos of past speakers from this year's conference, visit www.nmu.edu/UNITED
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.