- Jason, Shelly, Aidan and Easton
- We're just a family moving from a typical life to an atypical life...these writings are our reflections as we traded in our North American sense of security for an African education. It now encompasses life after Africa. We work with Hands at Work in Africa as volunteers and in Canada as advocates. Our boys were thirteen and ten and we took the chance that going to serve in Africa was going to be the kind of life changing experience that would give our family the chance to give to others from what we've been so readily given. We don't know what this means for our family, our finances, or our boys' future NHL careers : ) but took the chance that there is something in this for us to learn as a family, to work together and to give to others. Please note that the writing on this blog is my own flawed thinking in many cases and therefore is not meant to reflect on anyone else. Often names of children and communities are changed to protect their privacy. Please do not reproduce writings or photographs from our blog without express permission from us. Thanks!
Friday, December 6, 2013
From the Hands at Work website:
In our work in Africa, we talk a lot about having conviction to serve the most vulnerable children. We see a crisis, and hope people all over the world will respond with an understanding of the urgency needed.
Nelson Mandela lived his life in response to an urgent need, to a crisis. His bold conviction challenged, and continues to challenge all of us to rid the world of suffering. Inequality and injustice were non-negotiable to him. They had to end, and he would not stop until they did.
His passing leaves this challenge to our generation. How will we rid the world of suffering? How far will we go to live out our convictions? Look what happened when he laid his life down for what he believed in. Look, and act.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Down a long and bumpy road, outside of Bek Chen, Cambodia, is a long driveway and a small sign that marks "Place of Rescue". At the end of the drive, is a lovely house on stilts, with a large verandah and beautiful flowers surrounding it and it's there that we find Marie Ens. Marie is one of those women who should make Barbara Walters' list of most fascinating people but probably never will while there are the Miley Cirus and Kardashians of the world to watch. It's only one of the many injustices in our lives that we become immune to.
Marie is 79 and she first served in Cambodia with her husband and small children in the 1960's. She is feisty and determined, a fierce advocate for the children of Cambodia. Over the years, she has been evacuated from Cambodia several times in the face of the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnam War. She returned to Cambodia late in life and plans to live out her days right where she's at. In a little home on the edge of a piece of property that has become sanctuary and home to children who most likely, without this place, would be orphaned and on the streets, hungry and exploited.
When we arrived on the property, we were greeted as old friends, each of us. Marie has an uncanny ability to remember names and faces though she travels and meets countless people over time. We sit down with her and hear the story of how she came to be in this place, living out her life, pouring into the committee that she has in place to run the NGO. She believes in Cambodia and with the exception of the English teachers, has only Cambodian leadership in place. She used to be counted as the only non-Cambodian on staff but she recently was given her full Cambodian citizenship - an honour that absolutely delights her. She can't hide how proud she is to be a Cambodian.
Sitting with Marie and hearing her passion for the people of Cambodia, it's hard to imagine how we live our lives without such drive and passion for something meaningful. It's the very thing that energizes her and allows her to live so fully. It's enviable.
We head onto the property for a tour and the first thing we see is a couple of rows of houses where families who have HIV/AIDS are able to live together and receive treatment and support. It's an incredible ministry because it allows families to stay together and for children to have access to school and support, instead of having to go out and figure out ways to provide income for their families. If families lose both parents, the children are integrated into the homes at the orphanage and continue to live in stability with familiarity around them. They are already known and loved and so the grieving process is not complicated by the uncertainty of new surroundings, unstable living conditions or loss of basic necessities.
|A row of homes where families with HIV/AIDS live|
Place of Rescue has lovely homes, in groups of 10 around an inner grassy courtyard, lined with trees and flowers. Each home has a housemother who is responsible for the family of children entrusted to her. Children from pre-school to high school age live together as a family. Having dinner in the homes, we see first hand how it really is a family environment...a beautiful departure from the institutional approach to orphan care. Finding the right women to be housemothers remains a huge challenge for Marie and her team...it's not easy to find women who are willing to live with a household of children that are not their own, but to love them as if they were. The housemothers have strong faith, compassion and love to give. When you meet these mothers, you realize that they really do love the life they are living, it's not just a job to them. And thankfully so, because they are in it for the long haul, raising children to become successful adults is no easy task.
|We're greeted by these two little guys...always happy to see Marie or Makyeay (grandma)|
as they call her.
|Three sweet girls that now live together with 7 others and a house mother at|
Place of Rescue were proud to show us their home.
|We had dinner with this beautiful household of girls from age 3 to 13.|
|As we shared dinner with the girls, we learned bits and pieces about their lives before|
they came to Place of Rescue.
|This family of girls and their housemother (far left) were so sweet.|
One of the beautiful components of Place of Rescue is their commitment to Cambodia as a country and a culture. Children are raised by Cambodian house mothers, taught by Cambodian teachers (with the only exception being English teachers) and taught Cambodian traditions and dances so that they can integrate back into Cambodian society as adults. This is definitely not an easy mandate to uphold but the community ownership component of it is the kind of benchmark that many NGO's fail to recognize and it becomes their undoing. Instead of "importing" housemothers and teachers, volunteers from other more developed countries...which could be financially advantageous to an NGO, Place of Rescue sets a high standard and doesn't compromise the care or teaching given to the children. This is one of the reasons that I love the model of care that they are providing for these kids. It's evident in the community that Place of Rescue is a community of loving homes. Children here are very fortunate, even in light of their harrowing stories of early life. They are loved, they are cared for and they are being given the chance to grow into educated, compassionate, confident adults that really and truly can change the Kingdom of Cambodia for the better.
|After dinner, we gathered everyone together and the kids sang and danced for us.|
Children are taught traditional Cambodian dances in an effort to preserve their culture
so that one day, they will integrate as seamlessly as possible into Cambodian life.
|The boys and girls practice their dances and love to perform|
for their peers and any visitors.
Monday, December 2, 2013
|The view from the Tuk Tuk|
|The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh|
|The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh|
|A small boat along the Tonlesap River where it meets the Mekong River|
|A street vendor sells lotus flowers as offerings for Buddha|
|A child holds to a large balloon overhead on the lawn of the palace|
|A small boy pulls and releases the tether of a large balloon, making it dance overhead|
|Construction workers on the street pass materials from window to window|
So happy this morning. Maybe that's the wrong word. Content. Sometimes the biggest luxury of travel is feeling like you're right where you're meant to be in the world, even if it's somewhere you never imagined.
The voices of Cambodia outside my window. Builders working nearby. Housemaids in the hallway. Tuktuk drivers calling out to those on the street.Cambodia is beautiful. The city is filled with details. Bouganvillea and candles floating in pots of water are fragrant homages to artistry and beauty. Intricate carvings, statues, and wood totems embellish even the most humble of dwellings and businesses. Even the very language, printed out, is a beautiful script, involving artistry to undertake.
Walking along the waterfront at the Mekong, colonialism and asian artistry coincide. We walk along the sea wall and there are people in droves coming out into the cooling evening. Incense fragrances the very air, interrupted at intervals by the wafting smells of street food and garbage, sewage and sea air, mixing to assault the senses.
Golds and reds, greens and yellows, mahogany and metal make up the city. Elaborate artistry in the form of metal gates and pagodas. Rooflines run every which way and jolt the eyes seeking to find a skyline. Clouds are billowing and darkening in the humidity but the wind is cooling and the large, oversized balloons tied to the lawn in front of the King’s Palace have children pulling their tethers, causing them to bob and weave in a dance on the expansive lawns. Families and friends gather and it would all be idyllic if not for the sight of middle aged, men strolling with heavily made up women in tow, teetering on their high heels and short skirts, trying to look confident in their vocation but somehow still emanating the aura of childlikeness and victim.
I seeth at these men, in their middle aged baldness and high waisted jeans. Those who somehow believe that they are entitled to the rape of these women simply because they have the means to pay for it. I find it hard to mask my disgust as I watch a man, who by western standards would be considered averagely unattractive, wield his power over a heavily made up young woman. Even the way he holds her hand is assertive, not affectionate. Leading her away without speaking to her, purposefully, her purse in his other hand as if she would have to give up the rights to it to even change her mind. Her heels are high. Her hair is lacquered into a tall, french roll. Her dress and tights are made for a dance floor not an evening on the river walk.
They walk past a shrine to Buddha and the street vendors selling flowers, incense, and caged birds. Offerings to earn merit with Buddha. Golden snakes line the sidewalk and as I watch this couple walk decidedly past, I wonder what this young woman has to tell herself to reconcile selling herself in sight of the Buddha. How many
caged birds would she need to free to build merit back up for what she has to do to survive. Who will free her?
I know many are working in the country to do just that. NGO's (non government organizations) made up of ex-pats and Cambodians alike, working so hard to give families options that will prevent them from selling their daughters, their very flesh and blood, and their futures out from under them. I watch this young woman teeter away and she is very still within herself, only her feet move, not her eyes, not her face, not her hands. She walks beside the one who has paid for the rights to her as if she's hidden somewhere inside herself, or not even there at all.
Returning to our hotel,I get ready for bed, cool and content in an air-conditioned room. Laying in the dark, I feel blessed. Cambodia is already conflicting for me. It’s jarring. It’s comforting. It’s welcoming and yet alien. I don’t love the western attitudes I represent when I walk through the streets, approached by beggars, one man so burnt and disfigured, I wonder how he can see me to ask for change. Grandmothers with betel nut stained teeth carry tin cups and smile, trying to beguile but only revealing the distress of a life lived out in difficulty and humiliating poverty. On the way home from a beautiful dinner, our group is approached by a mother carrying a small, sleeping child over her shoulder. Dirty and disheveled, using English words between her chant-like entreaties for money, words like “family” and “sisters”, “children” and “hunger”. I look her in the eyes and apologize, having no cash on me. I want to be respectful and treat her well. I want her to see compassion but I wonder if empty hands and bellies preclude it. I never know what to do with poverty that boldly encroaches on my space when I'm unprepared. I'm only walking by. I haven't any money but I feel I'm cheating her. I feel challenged again and again and I’ve never come to a comfortable agreement with my conscience on any of it.
I feel Cambodia stretching into my heart, the glimpses of history opening my mind in ways I didn't expect. I'm learning as I go and for every observation, there are hundreds of questions attached as well. Peeking into a country and a culture is an absolute privilege but I am the first to admit that for all that I've seen and learned and shared in these notes, it's only a simple snapshot. I can't speak on Cambodia. I don't know Cambodia. I haven't slept in her communities or shared meals with her people. Until then, these are just observations from an outsider, much the same way someone who was invited into your home would have just a glimpse of your life as opposed to someone in the family who stays regularly and sees the ins and outs of your daily life, eats your food and hears your family argue around the dinner table. I'm hoping to be invited into life here. Share meals with her people and hear the family arguments. Just like a welcomed guest in a hospitable home, I'm hoping to return and be welcomed into deeper relationship with those that live here.
|A lotus flower, peeled and folded, an artful offering on our table.|
Friday, November 29, 2013
|A small seating area along the marsh|
|Living with history - a small rice farm alongside the killing fields|
|Making a living - alongside the killing fields, |
men fish to provide a living for their families.
|Rising above - a small traditional house on stilts above the river provides|
a home for those making a living on the water.
|Once filled with death and horror, there are glimpses of beauty retaking the landscape.|
During our first days in Cambodia, we jumped into the deep end of this kingdom's history. The Killing Field that we visited just on the outskirts of Pnomh Penh. A short ride from Teol Slung Prison by bus, for us, was the end of a long and fearful ride for those whose lives ended here.
One of the things that struck me about Teol Slung Prison was the sheer amount of time that prisoners were kept there and tortured. Months and months of unimaginable terror and pain, starvation and fear, that only prolonged the inevitable. Many prisoners died at Teol Slung but many, incredibly, survived only to be woken in the dark of night, stripped naked, tied together with fellow prisoners and escorted into the back of a truck. They had to be silent, for the Khmer Rouge didn't want anyone to catch on to what they were doing behind the walls of the school yard turned torture chambers.
Standing, naked, packed into the back of the truck, the prisoners were unloaded into a small building that was basically a holding pen. There, they waited until summoned and then were made to stand at the edge of a mass grave, dug into a field, where perhaps bodies were already layered where they fell. They were attacked with farm implements, rudimentary hoes and bamboo pipes, axes and awls...not even worthy of the quick death of a bullet to the head. All the while, revolutionary music played from speakers in a nearby tree, driven by a generator, to drown out the sounds of death. Neighbours living around the fields believed that the place had become a military training ground and thus explained away the revolutionary songs and rumble of trucks in the night.
Years later, the horror of what happened here in this killing field, still made my stomach turn. Walking alone through the fields and along the marsh, listening to stories of prisoners and Khmer Rouge soldiers on a taped recording, I couldn't help but feel that I was walking the route of a horror novel. Particularly haunting was the tree where mothers stood and watched their babies tortured and flung against the trunk to their deaths. I can't imagine what breaks inside of someone to see such a thing happen ... never mind to your own child. Helpless to protect them, mothers then faced their own deaths. It may only have been minutes but I can't even stand to muster the thought of it without my stomach dropping and tears coming.
Needless to say, the first days in Cambodia were heavy but I believe that carrying the weight of that knowledge was integral to understanding who Cambodians are and what they have endured. Standing next to you in the market place may be the very Khmer Rouge soldier who loaded trucks in the night...or the mother of young sons who watched as they were marched to their deaths in the jails, never knowing for certain where their bodies lay. Everyone in Cambodia has a story to tell and woven into the very fabric of the country is the stained fabric of the years of the Pol Pot regime. Displacement, fear, starvation and grief have left none untouched in Cambodia. The very kingdom is made up of people who have survived, one way or the other, this incredible history. Living together again, there is peace but underneath the surface, the traumatic stresses of having to put history to rest without justice undermines many lives here.
|Recovered skulls, unidentifiable, rest among other recovered body parts as|
evidence of the horrors that took place here.
|Skulls are broken and teeth are missing, as those who died were beaten mercilessly|
for months preceding their deaths. Deaths carried out not by shooting but by blunt farm
implements as bullets were too expensive to be spared.
|Just one of many mass graves uncovered in this killing field, this one with 450 victims.|
|At first glance, a beautiful monument, but upon closer attention, it houses the fragments of life.|
Skulls, thigh bones, teeth and arms of those who died here.
|Even now, when the heavy rains come, more bone fragments and teeth rise to the surface of|
the killing fields.
|A small lantern and incense where you can offer prayers for those who died here.|
When I was preparing for my time in Cambodia, I wasn't sure whether I should read as much as I could about the country in advance, or just learn as I go. I had heard a little bit about a civil war and regime that had caused much damage to the country in the 70's but in my mind, at the time, it was a vague and short history that didn't really hit home until I found myself standing in Cambodia, in what was once a high school yard turned torture camp. On the plane ride over to Cambodia, I had a used copy of The Killing Fields, an edition nearly as old as I am, and I read it in one sitting on the plane. What I read only touched the surface but it was an incredible story of survival and pain, friendship and loyalties. Standing within the gates of Tuol Slang Genocide Museum, I was still surprised by the use of the word "genocide" as I wasn't really understanding the full scale of the atrocities that happened.
When I was a young girl, in the early 70's, my parents took our family on a whirlwind 30 country in 30 days type tour of Europe. By bus. I was only about 6 when we went, and I admit that most of my memories revolve around good food, pretty dolls I picked up along the way, and strange occurrences like losing my Dad at the Sisteen Chapel (which I swear was called the 16th Chapel for years afterwards.) One day I do remember clearly, was the day we passed into Berlin, wall still intact, and the soldiers came aboard our bus with huge machine guns and sullen faces, scrutinizing our passports and hassling the tourists on our bus that were of Indian or Jewish descent. I didn't understand at all. I also remember the heavy silences that somehow my brother and I observed without misbehaving, in the yard of a concentration camp where Jews were exterminated.
Standing in the yard at Teol Slung, I felt that same heaviness. This time in the heat and humidity, I could understand the torture and the injustice that took place here, and it came to me that it had occurred while I was a girl, 6 years old, standing in the yard of a concentration camp, hearing that the world would never allow such a thing to happen again.
The Khmer Rouge marched into Pnomh Penh as saviours of the Cambodian people. Unfortunately, the regime was about to unleash years of horror so incredible, that the imaginations of the Cambodians could not even perceive it. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police and former military were told to report to an office to receive new training and positions to uphold. They rushed to report, eager to rebuild Cambodia, and were summarily exterminated. The Khmer Rouge also told everyone in Pnomh Penh to take 3 days worth of food and clothing and leave the city for the countryside so that they would be safe from incoming American bombs. A densely populated city, migrated, mostly on foot, into the countryside. The sick from hospitals and elderly were pushed in their very hospital beds. Unfortunately, they too were duped and those that were strong were relocated into rural settings to begin life again at what the leader, Pol Pot, called "Year 0" - trying to restart Cambodia as a communist country at year 0 of development. The sick, the weak, the young were exterminated. Those that disobeyed or even gave a hint of reluctance or emotion, were either killed immediately, or were sent to Teol Slung to be tortured, for months on end, until they were sent in the middle of the night, in the back of a truck, to be killed and buried.
The torture rooms and cells of those incarcerated speak volumes in their silent witness to the horrors they saw. When at last, the Khmer Rouge were finally overcome and forced to retreat, they burned as much evidence as possible but this place stands as evidence. Thousands of photos of victims were burnt but the negatives were recovered and perhaps the most haunting thing about the museum, is the sheer number of faces, young, old, beaten and scarred...staring out from the photographs. Mothers with young babies nursing or alongside them, forced to watch as their babies were tortured. Young men hung and beaten, nearly drowned and then revived to endure more beatings, old men incapable of uprising and young boys too young to know what they were accused of.
|The rules of "Duch" - the lead torturer and interrogator at Teol Slung Prison|
|Women young and old were brought to be tortured and raped for any imagined infraction.|
After suffering months of torture, both physical and mental, they were taken to the Killing Fields by
night and killed at the edge of a mass grave.
|Some of the collected clothing of victims of the torture|
|A woman is photographed with her toddler clinging to her|
|A young woman, maybe a mother or sister, has a small boy behind her |
on the metal bed, as she is photographed.
And then we stood in that place, quietly, waiting to leave and someone said it. "How could the world let this happen ever again?" and while most agreed, I heard the whispers of Syria and Rwanda, of Bosnia and of Sudan and the DRC, and even of our own First Nations people in the formation of a country as beautiful as Canada and I can't imagine that I live in a world where this happens and we are so desensitized that we would change the channel when the news of it comes on.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Often when I am preparing to travel, it comes up in conversation and people have various reactions. Obviously, it's always interesting when you hear of someone travelling to a foreign place and whether or not you're a traveller by nature, there is something inherent in us that makes us curious. The world has grown significantly smaller over the years and almost everyone knows someone that has done something "like that" "over there" and returned with stories that shape peoples' image of the world we live in.
As I've been getting ready for this trip to Cambodia, I hear again all the reasons why I should or shouldn't go, like a litany of lawyers making their case in my head. I'm excited and nervous, as I think is normal for any traveller heading to a new place for the first time.
There are a few rituals I go through in getting ready for a trip overseas, some practical, others not so.
I realize that I have to verbally process the fact that I'm leaving to my family exactly 1.3 million times before it sinks in that I am leaving. I have said, "I'm going to Cambodia" in as many situations as there are languages in the world. With toothbrush mid-stroke, while scraping a frosty windshield, while walking the dog, while making dinner. While folding laundry, while watching TV, while surfing the internet, while working. Standing in an elevator, or a restaurant lobby, while drinking coffee and while tucking my son into his bed. It becomes part of the language of our home for weeks preceding a trip and this time is no exception.
But this morning, sitting in my office, a picture comes across the ocean ~ two tiny babies in their newborn toques and blankets. Twins. Born to a single mom, who passed away during childbirth. And then suddenly, I'm not just going to Cambodia. I'm going to them. To see their new home first hand and meet those that will become their family. And meanwhile, there are tears for a single mom, who carried these sweet little ones in her body for months, only to pass away giving them life. I wonder about the mother who thought of names for her babies, only to have them called orphans. I wonder too, if she knew, that as she passed life on to them and left her own, that there would be a home already prepared to receive them and care for them as they grow.