Raderstorf World Wide Adventure

Friday, February 04, 2005

Falling in Love in Cambodia

In 1975, I was a carefree 12-year-old (the age of my oldest son) and knew nothing of the brutal takeover in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Through execution, starvation, disease and forced labor, the regime killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. I also knew nothing about the half million Cambodians killed as by American warplanes bombing the borders during the American-Vietnam War. (Many believe this action, in part, aided the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s rise to power.) In truth, I knew very little about this country before stepping on its dark, red soil.

We came to Cambodia, like most tourists, to see Angkor Watt, one of the most amazingly beautiful and spiritual sites in the world. Siem Reap, home of the 200 temples of Angkor, is filled with stark contrast: luxury hotels alongside bamboo shacks on stilts, big white buses storming through a sea of families on bicycles and motorbikes. Tourists pay $60 for a one-week pass to the temples and yet many Cambodians can’t afford the “moto” gas money it would take to get there (admission for locals is free). Everyday outside the temples, Cambodian children sell souvenirs, postcards and books.

We met Srei Yah, Le Hieng and Diet when we wandered into food stall #27 in Angkor Thom looking for rest and a bit of nourishment. They immediately approached us speaking perfect English, hawking their wares: postcards, bracelets, books, flutes and more. Their ages mirroring my sons, I purchased bracelets on the condition that they would stay and chat for awhile. Like many of the children at the temple, they work half the day and spend the other half at school, six days a week. On Sunday, they work all day from 6 AM to 5PM. They laugh and smile non-stop, and know an amazing number of country’s capital cities. We all bonded that first day and spent the next three days talking, playing freeze tag and even touring our favorite temple together as an ever expanding family of 10! We all parted with tears hoping we would be together again soon.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia, with some 34 per cent of its people surviving on less than US$ 1 a day. Nearly half of all Cambodian children are malnourished, and one in eight dies before their fifth birthday, largely due to preventable causes. Because more than half of Cambodia’s 13 million people are under the age of 18, the countries biggest challenge is to ensure that the children will grow up strong and educated, able to contribute.

We met a Swiss doctor, Dr. Beat Richner (Dr. Beatocello) who’s committed much of his adult life to this cause. Besides overseeing three pediatric hospitals in Cambodia, he gives free cello concerts every Fri and Sat night to tell tourists about the hospitals’ work and why they should contribute. Dr. Beat worked in the Kantha Bopha Pediatric Hospital in Cambodia in 1974. He had to flee the country when the Khmer Rouge took over. He talked about the health care system being equal to that of Singapore in 1974 and how the population of doctors went from 950 to 50. (I assume 50 survived because they kept their true identity a secret from the Khmer Rouge.)

He returned to Cambodia in 1991 at the King’s request to restore the hospital and has since then created 2 other pediatric hospitals (one located in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap). He takes pride in the fact that the hospitals employ 1500 Cambodians and only two foreigners. He continues to lobby for quality health care for poor children arguing against a common belief that it’s too sophisticated and expensive. With first rate laboratories and diagnostic equipment, it cost only $170 for a 5-day hospital stay. As the tone of his voice intensifies, he passionately repeats in Swiss-lish, “without this laboratory you get to be criminal”. He’s referring to the many blood transfusions required for to treat children suffering from advanced TB. Without the lab, there would be no way to test for HIV or hepatitis. His love and commitment to the children and families of Cambodia brings more tears to my eyes and a desire to tell everyone I know to send money to help support the work of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital (90% of the funding comes from private donations).

You don’t have to look far for other sheros and heros in Cambodia. They are all around.
In Phnom Penh, Sokhary Yim founded SCADP (Street Children Assistance and Development Programme) after seeing a great need to help street children, beggars and orphans. On SCAPD’s website, Sokhary shares, “I really wanted to do something sustainable to get them out of poverty. I never have a BA, I did not know what an NGO is and first and foremost I did not have money. But I had four-year experience in the killing fields in my own country and I had the love and pity for all the victims.” After spending the early years working with individual children, Sokhary and her co-hearts realized that the focus needed to be on the whole community as well as the child. While in Phnom Penh, we visited 3 non-formal education centers in one of the poorest slums. Imagine the most meager, crowded (and in one case downright dismal) physical locations occupied by smiling and extremely attentive children all facing a committed and compassionate teacher and you will see through our eyes. Each class greeted us with song and traditional bowing as they stood in unison from their places on cement floors or crowded benches.

Besides preparing children for formal education in their 25 village-based non-formal education classes; committed staff of 60 provide vocational training, interim housing, community awareness, health support and youth group programs. The highlight of our visit was being the honored guests at the Cambodian dance performance given by the children in the program. It was a performance truly fit for the King, complete with brilliant choreography and costumes. At the end of the performance our hosts (the children) showed us graciousness beyond what I have or will ever experience in my life—more tears. SCADP confirms my belief in community-based models funded globally!

Serendipitously, news from the World Economic Forum hit the streets the same day we visited SCAPD. A business titan, a rock star, a former president and heads of many states demanding we address poverty and disease as TOP priority. The world proved it could come to the aid of tsunami victims and now it’s time to address the “silent tsunamis”. To me, it was a sign that the collective efforts of activists all over the world are starting to pay off. The cynical side of me could say, “It’s about time!” But the side that is out here viewing the world in it’s splendor and sadness is saying, “Yes!!! The people of the world are calling for global responsibility; AND the governments will have no choice but to follow!”

Today as the US Senate debates the nomination of Alberto Gonzales, I think about our visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and how torture was a common and accepted practice in extracting information from perceived “enemies” of the Pol Pot regime. It sickens me to think that anyone could still think torture is still a viable method. A woman my age led us through the prison, repeating that most of the regime’s leaders had still not been tried for their crimes. Both her parents were killed, yet she survived and now has two children. She is not allowed to talk about politics, only the history as democracy has not yet come to the people of Cambodia. Again with tears in my eyes, I was grateful to her for sharing a painful history, in hopes that history will not repeat itself.

In spirited partnership,

P.S. To learn more about life under the Khmer Rough, run (don’t walk) to your neighborhood library and check out “First They Killed My Father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers” by Loung Ung. While you’re there, refer to the history sections of Lonely Planet Cambodia and Vietnam guide books for a quick lesson.

P.S.S For the shopping activist in you, consider supporting the rich handicraft traditions of Cambodians while also lifting entire villages out of poverty. We visited a couple of these projects learning all about how to make silk. Log on to their websites and order directly from Cambodia:

VillageWorks is “building the lives of the villagers. Behind every piece of work, you get the whole person and his family, more than what you see, more than the hands that made the product.” I can vouch that each and every piece is beautifully crafted and reasonably priced. As the say, “Your support helps the villagers break free from their poverty cycle, and find hope in life.” Anak, the beautiful Cambodian woman who runs Villageworks, hopes this program will allow villages the option to give their children a good education and to freely move around someday.

Artisans d’Angkor was created to help young people find work in their home villages, allowing them to practice their crafts and providing them with a vocation and a role in society. Thet, our English-speaking guide, lost his parents as a result of the Pol Pot regime. He and the young people working at the silk farm were illiterate and without prospects before they became a part of the project. He beams when he tells us that this joint-government-initiated project is now fully self-supported.

Click here to see the pics :


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