I hadn’t yet heard of the Khmer Rouge, or Pol Pot, or even knew of a genocide halfway around the world in the ‘70s until a just few months ago, when I began to devour everything I could learn about Cambodia upon the opportunity to join nine incredible women from Women Who Stand on a ten day journey to this country in January.
My stomach churned as I learned that from 1965 through 1973, the U.S. dropped 2,756,941 tons worth of ordnance onto Cambodia, as the Vietnam War expanded deeper and deeper into the country. When the civil war ended in 1975, Cambodians were optimistic as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, hoping for a more stable society. However, the Khmer Rouge quickly evacuated people from the city to camps in the countryside, where families were dismantled and separated, facing forced labor of 12-15 hours per day, electrocutions, starvations, imprisonment, and killings, contributing to the deaths of over 1.7 million people, all in the name of Communism.
I remember reading this and calling my dad, indignantly asking, “Why, throughout my entire education, didn’t I learn about this?” Was this not being taught in our American education systems because the US was too focused on our involvement in Vietnam that we didn’t have the courage to listen to the cries of children being taken away from their parents? In the process of trying to “leave no child behind,” are we avoiding teaching these uncomfortable history lessons simply because they aren’t going to be on state exams? In this process, I fear we are leaving out the entire history of families that were “left behind;” left to be used like inhumane machines, leaving another generation of future leaders hoping, much like the generation before, that the next generation might be the ones who will somehow discover these lessons on their own and learn from history’s pain and adversity.
The next few months flew by, and soon our group landed in Phnom Penh. Slightly jetlagged, excited, and inquisitive about the journey ahead, we began our adventure. Our first stop for the day was The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of approximately 20,000 sites (commonly referred to as the “Killing Fields”) where mass killings and burials were conducted during the Khmer Rouge.
Prior to 1975, Choeung Ek was an orchard and graveyard, but became a final resting place as prisoners were executed. In that process, prisoners were forced to perform the most hideous of acts, including the beating of children against trees (see left). Presently, bones and tattered clothing seep up from the ground during heavy rainfall (see right).
Similarly, the next day, our group traveled to Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh’s genocide museum. Formerly a high school, this place became a prison and interrogation center. Each prisoner was photographed upon arrival. Prisoners were given ten rules to follow, including, “while getting electrification, you must not cry at all.” As our group explored the rooms of the center, I could barely look into the eyes of such young, emotionless faces; each of them wide eyed, looking straight at you as if to say, “What are you going to do about this?” It was almost as if Jesus himself was staring back, echoing Matthew 25. These children and young adults, though not being permitted to talk, spoke to me through their silent, estranged glances, asking to be fed, to be clothed, to be comforted. Instead, their lives would resonate with, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you didn’t take me in; I was sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of me” (25:42-43).
Feeling forlorn, I remembered a quote from one of my favorite authors: “God disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.” I was grateful that my comfort was coming. Our translator for the week, Sarith, asked us how we were feeling. “Are any of you carrying a burden in your heart?” Our group was quiet, each sharing a token of their thoughts on brokenness. Sarith gently reminded us to walk in forgiveness and encouraged us to, much like Jesus, “shake the dust from our feet.” To leave this place with heaviness and despair is to walk around with burdens that our shoulders were simply never designed to carry. To leave this place feeling such a way is as if to say evil has won, and that hope is mere fallacy. But no. We can walk in forgiveness; what’s done has been done, but how we respond is our choice. I saw the gentleness and sincerity in Sarith’s face and eyes and held back some tears as I was reminded of all of the unnecessary burdens I carry daily. In those few brave moments, I asked God to set me free. Truly, much like Sarith and the many other amazing people I would meet this week, I could see that living in freedom is not only 100% possible, but entirely essential…
I believe that you cannot understand a person, cannot enter their present experience fully, without knowing where s/he has come from; you cannot understand just how much they’ve overcome to earn the lines on their faces, or the calluses on their hands; you cannot fully appreciate the entirety of who someone is without learning their journey, their past, and what have they faced. I was aware now. It’s as even though you cannot walk a mile in someone’s shoes of a painful journey some 35 years ago, you can roll back the blinders of ignorance, walk a few steps in unadulterated acknowledgement of one’s pain, and allow for a soul-to-soul connection to be formed, one that doesn’t need spoken words, but rather embraces with understanding in such a way capable of coming only from the heart. I still sensed a little bit of hopelessness in a few of the people I’d pass by this week, and know that Cambodia still has an economic uphill climb. Though these two things seem to sometimes both be passed along to younger generations, I believe they’ll be passed down in much thinner layers to the next generation, and hopefully even thinner in the generation after. New layers will fill these generations. It’s my dream that these layers will be filled with hope.
With that mindset of hopefulness, we left the genocide museum, and traveled to Bloom Café, an NGO training hospitality and cake making skills to young women who have been trafficked. Beyond employment skills, Bloom provides girls with an opportunity to learn English, worship weekly together, and receive support mothers/families with whom to live in peace. We were told the incredible testimony of Lia, whose parents died when she was five years old. Lia’s aunt sold her into sex trafficking, where she would spend the next seven years of her life forced to perform sexual acts for men. She used to cry out to the men who would first come, and ask them for help. Eventually she learned that this didn’t work, and she stopped talking altogether. Once she was rescued at age 12, doctors told her during her first medical exam that she would never be able to conceive, as she had been so sexually abused. Lia entered Bloom’s training program and began going to church, fighting the lies entering her mind- telling her that she was worthless, a damaged good, unable to be fixed. With the power of God, and the spirit of sisterhood, Lia re-gained her footing and her smile back, eventually marrying and conceiving her first child. Her picture upon training graduation day hangs on one of the walls inside Bloom, showing the bright smile of a beautiful young woman, ready to face the future with the utmost optimism and joy. I sat in the room as the director was telling all of us this, in awe of the ways in which themes throughout the Bible still occur today— where God can bring life out of death, hope out of despair, restoration after chaos. Just like in the Bible with Jesus being raised from the dead, certainly God is still at work making old things new, turning once enslaved girls into joyous victors of freedom.
I walked out of that Café satisfied not so much by the delicious cupcake a smiling young girl served me, but by the fact that there IS hope for girls who have been rescued from trafficking, that smiles CAN return to once defeated faces. My heart swelled with hope for young girls affected by trafficking and I smiled upwards at God, feeling convinced that S/He is doing something special in the lives of these precious women.
The next morning, our group headed out to the World Relief headquarters via tuk tuk. We began the morning with worship. Imagine a beautiful cacophony of Khmer and English languages, tan hands raised high in the air alongside white hands. I closed my eyes for a minute, and echoed along with Nancy and Maria that indeed, it was “just a slice of heaven.” I am truly astounded that at any given moment in the world, someone, somewhere is singing a song of praise in a language I cannot understand, celebrating the same God that I celebrate. It’s a beautiful God, whose creativity and vastness extend far beyond the “God Bless America” Christianity that focuses on flag and faith, rather than cross and crucifixion, that I so desperately want to leave behind. Hearing all of these voices this morning made me ever longing of Heaven- where truly we will all be one. But for today, I got to experience a taste of it, and it was beautiful and harmonious, perhaps much in part because of the language barrier-turned-blessing that enabled me to think outside of my own everyday church experience.
That afternoon, we went out to an HIV support group. Our group huddled into one of the houses, passing joyful smiles and waves of children, playing and running around, completely unfazed by the trash and wandering animals scattered around them. We were immediately welcomed by several women who shared stories of how they learned of their diagnosis, which included transmission from husbands and traffickers. Many of these women were shunned by community members and a few reached a desperate place of wanting to end their lives. Though disheartening, the room did not feel at all hopeless. This group of a dozen women and a few men had found something special: community. They cared for and loved each other with God’s love, assisting each other with getting to medical appointments and reminding each other to take medication. I looked around the room and learned a lesson on the power of building safe community, one in which each person knows that there are people out there who will feed hope, support, and encouragement into your life on tough days, and celebrate victories and joys together with you on happy days. I think about America and wonder how many people walking across the street, or passing each other in the grocery aisles have this kind of support, this kind of precious community. It causes me to swell with hope for the Church, whether building community through stained glass windows, thatched roof homes, or in someone’s living room, offering prayer and God’s love. Church and community can be built anywhere, but I am always refreshed when I discover it in the most unconventional of places.
For the remainder of the day, we went to an adult education group, held on the living room floor inside one of the community member’s homes, which was filled with women and children spanning multi-generations, coming together to learn about nine common ways trafficking occurs. I smile as I think about the great hope and possibility that these precious women may never experience the horridness of human trafficking because they have some basic, empowering knowledge, being taught through one of their own community volunteers.
Transitioning into the next day and the start of a new month (February 1st), I was excited to experience first-hand one of my new year’s goals: to learn about and participate in microfinance. We visited a few communities, about an hour and a half away from Phnom Penh, with bumpy dirt roads and the most basic of shelters. The first community we visited was gathered together learning how to make chicken feed and building cages to enhance their chicken production. The community chose one of the poorer families to receive the first loan and chicken cage. Humbled, I imagined God smiling down on this community, proud of the way that they look out for the most vulnerable among them. The next site we went to was the home and garden of a young family with three children. They use their loan to not only feed themselves, but to sell produce at the market. The gentleman in this family uses his small bucket to water the garden, taking up to 40 trips per day to the nearest lake in order to do so. I think about how I could have been born anywhere, and that these could have been my parents, patiently watering this beautiful green garden, with joy, free of complaint.
The final site we went to was quite an experience. Our team was greeted by a circle of women gathered together to pound rice into a snack called Ambok. Groups of two or three women would take some rice, place it into a wooden container and then use long wooden poles to pound the rice. The women gladly let us take a stab at it; in fact, I don’t think we would’ve been allowed to leave until each one of us had tried. “Muoy, muoy,” (one by one) one of the women called out as we try our best to mimic her pounding moves. She especially gravitated toward Maria, who could not only keep up with this woman’s fast pounding, but could do so while dancing a jig. That got all of us really laughing. After each of us had a turn to pound, we were invited by the village chief to have a snack of coconuts and rice with bananas and sugar. The food kept coming, so we tried our best to keep eating what we had, secretly hoping no one would try to hand us another coconut, but felt with appreciation the warmness that they so willingly extended, regardless. For the group who went, it would only be fair for me to share the story about one of the women who had too many Betel nuts. Imagine a caffeine buzz that stains your teeth red, having been consumed by an already energetic woman who hugged (squeezed might be more appropriate) each one of us, touching our faces and cheeks (especially Kathy’s). Through our uncanny attempts at pounding rice (and dancing), to the village women’s tight hugs and Betel nut frenzy, we laughed so hard and it was that laughter and sense of friendship that carried us homeward on the two hour journey back to our hotel.
The next morning, we headed out to a children’s program. Education is not a huge priority for most Cambodian villagers, with children getting just under half a day of school in each day, attending class in either the mornings or afternoons. Many of the kids in this particular village stick around for the children’s lesson, and I could see why. Three energetic World Relief volunteers led the 30+ children into games, skits and songs (with children exploding into laughter). The songs contained simple health messages that the kids learned to sing along to- reminding them to wash their hands and to sleep with their mosquito net.
Next, we went to a community leaders meeting in which ten leaders from different villages came together to share about what is and what’s not working in their communities in terms of addressing issues such as AIDS, trafficking, and violence. It’s always amazing to me how sometimes all it takes to see changes in a community are these cost-effective, volunteer led events and simple health interventions that shape and inspire one community at a time.
We finished our morning with a visit to one of the teen groups. World Relief staff used visuals, games, and discussion to teach awareness of trafficking to these young girls and boys, and what to look for in a potential trafficker. All I could think about was how these teenagers, through a caring adult sharing some basic information, are now empowered with the knowledge and tools about how to recognize trafficking in their own communities. My heart yearned for every girl, for every boy, to receive the love, attention, and teachings that this wonderful volunteer shared with the group. It gives me great hope to see one more community of girls and boys empowered with knowledge of human trafficking prevention.
After lunch, we went to an HIV support group at another village. Members openly shared their stories and hearts with us, including stories of medical staff, “Giving [them] medicine, but not telling [them] how [they] got sick.” My heart breaks for more knowledge, more health education, and more taboo walls to be broken down, so that no matter where one lives in this world, you can receive such valuable life saving information. We prayed together, for the health and welfare of their children, some of whom are living with HIV, and for provision of daily needs. The women and men in this group prayed for us, especially for comfort for our wonderful leader, Nancy, who found out that her sister-in-law died that day. Tan and white hands mixed, holding hands, or wrapping arms around another’s shoulders, and though we spoke different languages, we knew that God brought us together to experience this deep moment, in which love has no language and you truly realize that you are a part of one family, God’s family, and that you were truly holding the hand of your sister or brother.
Our final day in Phnom Penh was spent at Chubah Ampor, a host site where prospective volunteers stay for a three month training. Afterwards, they will go back into their villages and provinces to share health education and develop spiritual formation with their community members. During the morning, we planted Moringa trees, whose leaves are ground into a powder that can be used in cooking to provide huge nutritional benefits for people who are HIV positive. After lunch, I gravitated towards an open swing set, where a little girl and I swung together. We’d say, “Muoy, pi, bei” (1,2,3) and see how long we could swing side by side at the same pace. I looked up at the clear blue sky thinking, there is simply no other place I want to be right now…
When lunchtime (and apparently recess for me and this little girl) was over, we went inside to share a lesson on child abuse. We posed the question, “What are your experiences with child abuse in your communities?” Several shared, but the last woman who stood up, I will never forget. Tears streaming down her face, she courageously told us about her daughter, who was sent to work in Malaysia. She received a phone call from her daughter recently describing the horrible conditions to which she was being exposed. I know God’s tears were mixed in with hers as she told us about the beatings, starvation, and hitting that her daughter has endured. She had to wrap a towel around a telephone to sneak away from the family just to call her mother. The World Relief staff knows of some connections in Malaysia, and it is our hope and prayer that this sister would be freed from her oppression and be able to come back into the arms of her loving mother. We ended our afternoon with the most delightful and sincere hugs and kisses on cheeks from the women and girls- whose hearts were filled with love and more love. Truly, in this moment, I knew that global sisterhood exists and felt it right there in that room, being surrounded by women who will go out into their communities and change the world.
Being our last night in Phnom Penh, our group chose to do some fun evening activities. Four other women and I went to the Olympic Stadium (where soccer tournaments and sporting events are held), where, for a whopping 25 cents, you can dance to techno aerobics, even mixed in with a little bit of Blondie’s, “Call me” blasting from the speakers. These evening workout classes are quite the hit right now, and as I watched the sun set over Phnom Penh, laughing to awkward left, right, arms up, arms down moves, my spirit was filled with energy, hope, fearlessness and strength. Something was stirring in my heart as I continued to gaze at the evening sun. I was overcome with this desire to let go of fear and I made a promise to myself, at the top level of a cement stadium in Phnom Penh, that this would be the year to fearlessly say, “Yes!” to all that God asks of me.
The next morning, we headed out for a team debriefing breakfast on a boat ride along the Mekong River, gathered around a table full of mangos and rambutan fruit. We processed scenes of rural poverty, recalling stories heard during the week of human trafficking and how to continue to advocate with and for women internationally while back at home. For the next hour and a half, my mind saw nothing but the tears, hugs and smiles of the women we’d met during the week. And I know we’ll meet again one day, if but in heaven.
That evening we traveled by plane to Siem Reap and woke up the next morning to trek the temples of Angkor. These are dozens of temples built in the 1100s. As my hands touched the sandstone walls, each part etched in intricate design, I feel connected to the hands of those who built this place some 900 years ago. It was incredible to feel so alive, to climb to the top of narrow stone steps to reach the high tops of temples. There is something so incredible in feeling alive in the role of an explorer, I think as I vowed to constantly live life as an explorer, whether in places like Angkor Wat, where I felt like an extra on the filming of Indiana Jones, or right in my own backyard in inner city Baltimore.
Slowly, our time was ending, as we said goodbye to a couple of teammates departing on different airlines. That night, as we flew to Seoul, Korea, I closed my eyes, whispering to God, “Thank you. Thank you for the women I’ve met. Thank you for bringing them into my life; my life feels so much richer because of their presence. Thank you for choosing to speak through village women who, though material poor, are immensely rich in spirit and hope. I think about the people I met, the people who worked so hard and endured much, who suffered literal Gehennas, Sheols, valleys of the shadow of death–and how their view of heaven must be much different from my own— for the people in the killing fields, where heaven meant, among other things, a place where torture and beatings stop. For the girls yet to be rescued from trafficking, where heaven will be a place where there will be an end to rapes. All of this makes me think about how these people will see heaven differently from those of us who’ve had easier lives.
I drift to a half sleep, and five hours later, continued to sleep for almost all of our four hour layover on some chairs, only to be woken up by Kim, who was telling me that our flight was boarding. Holding back some tears, we embrace, as she was now headed off on another flight back to her town in California. I smile, so grateful that God had brought such a wonderful group together.
And so, as we said goodbye to another teammate and now, friend, dare I say sister, we headed aboard our last leg home, smiling at each other with a dazed, exhausted, yet invigorated smile before settling into our morning/day/evening (depending on which time zone you were choosing to observe from 36,000 feet in the air). I reclined my seat, let out a nice sigh, and glanced through the morning paper. Front page to the left of the International Herald Tribune, I read of the new COO of Facebook—- a woman who recruits, trains, and encourages other women to be all they can be, whether in the working world or everyday living. I smile. Flipping just a few pages over, in a small paragraph, smushed in with other World News tidbits, were a few sentences about some Saudi Arabian women who were calling on their government for permission to be granted drivers licenses. Just last year, the Saudi king gave women in the right to vote in the next election, which won’t take place until 2015. That feeling of righteous anger rose up inside of me again, but yet there was a part of me that knew nothing will stop the song in my heart— Yes. Clearly we still have work to do. But the voices are rising louder now, from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, to the villages and provinces of Cambodia, from One mom women in Kenya, to the churches of Baltimore. And our voices are learning that we are not solo artists, but a grand choir birthed from God, and together, we will stand, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, heart to heart, and someday greet each other from the foothills of heaven, telling our stories, celebrating the big, big God who brought us all together.