Written and Produced by Sue Wallingford
Written and Produced by Sue Wallingford
Blog by Sue Wallingford
It’s been several weeks since our return from Cambodia. I can no longer blame jet lag for my foggy mind, memory lags and that abiding sense of malaise that sticks to me like the sticky film of dusty sweat caused by the sweltering heat of the south asian sun. The scenes of Cambodia visit me daily and have become a familiar place in my psychic landscape. Memory fragments, holding emotions of every flavor and texture, haunt me, relentlessly whispering again and again, “Always remember, never forget.”
Following our work at CWCC (Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center) and the trips to the Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum our team met in an attempt to “process” all the stories of trauma we had heard and seen. The need to make sense, put words to the sensory overload, was just too much to bear. Even the daily meditations and response art couldn’t touch into the immensity of the experiences we shared in just a few days. And then, confused even more by fits of shopping, bolts of spontaneous laughter, genuine connections and toasts of celebrations! It was like trying to talk about the impossible.
In my attempt to bring some sort of peaceful lid to the vicarious trauma and suffering our group was feeling I offered what I know about the brain and the way it processes new information. “Of course we couldn’t make sense of it all, or articulate what was happening because our brains were working overtime to just merely assimilate and sort into categories the constant barrage of new stimulus!” The new sights, sounds, taste, smells of being in a foreign country alone was keeping our brains too busy to even begin to make meaning out of all the emotions that had been unleashed. So, to not have the ability to speak of it made sense, right? Nice try. I convinced my self of this too.
And while the above may be true, it should not become a convenient excuse. The words need to be spoken – if not then, then now. At least a beginning attempt…
As a way to put words to what feels unspeakable, the impossible story, I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of the girls at CWCC.
Maly, a girl just entering her teen years, had been at CWCC for over a year. Her mother and father had moved her and her sister to Thailand because they needed to find work or else starve. When away at work, sometimes for 12 hours shifts, they had to leave her and her sister alone at home. One day as Maly wandered to her favorite play place in the woods, a neighbor followed her there and then raped her. This raping ritual went on for weeks before her parents found out. The neighborhood boy expecting her to show up in this “special spot” everyday threatened her life and her sisters if she told.
Before being brought to Thailand Maly had lived in a small province near Battambang with her grandparents were she recalled happy and abundant times. Her grandparents she describes were caring, wealthy and loved her very much. But now, because she was “soiled,” her grandparents didn’t want her, and her parents couldn’t care for her either.
When I saw Maly in the crowd of children gathered to greet us upon our arrival I was comforted by my remembrance of her from our last year’s visit. Our mutual smiles of recognition instantly brought a sense of trust and eased the anxiety we both felt. This glance of recollection was all it took to not be perceived as a threat; rather it initiated a memory of something good, bathing our brains in feel good endorphins. For me the remembering was simple, mostly comforting. For Maly, I imagine, it was complicated, marred by her history of trauma and heart wrenching abandonment.
After we had made our introductions and we were making our transition to the community room where we would make art together for the next two weeks, Maly approached me. She looked at me so expectedly, fearlessly even, as if I were an apparition able to ease her mind in some essential way.
She asserted, in fairly good English. “You remembered me, and you came back, but when you left before, I miss you so much.”
My heart open, cracked a little bit. Tears filled both our eyes. I told her I missed her very much too and shared how happy I was to see her again. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of telling her that our stay was short, risking the probable possibility that she would be mad at me for leaving again. My little-bit cracked heart couldn’t open anymore. Not now. My tear filled eyes dried up and I went about the business of setting up the space. Maly, went off with her friends.
The 2 weeks flew by and the groups’ fears of “not helping”, “not making a difference”, and “not making authentic connections” dissipated quickly as the art space was filled with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers, ribboned wands, mandala drawings, circling pin-wheels, string webs, clay figures, and lit hope-filled lanterns. Art literally filled the space; the sound of laughter, song, and lullabies of Khmer mixed with English lingered. The completed wall mural of three young Cambodian girls protectively holding hands around a freshly bloomed lotus seemed to say it all.
On the last day, amid the testament and remnants of the days past, Maly came to me again, tears spilling over this time.
“Mommy,” she said (she had started to call me this, even though she knew it wasn’t the correct way to address me), “Always remember me, don’t forget me.”
With great conviction and strength I had only seen glimmers of before, she grabbed my hands and gaze, and stopped me in my steps, demanding my full attention.
Pointing to my heart first she began her chant,
then putting her hands over her heart,
and pointing to herself,
Three times we did this routine, me mirroring her, and never once averting our gaze.
The last thing I said was this chant through the window of the van, as we drove away.
“I PROMISE MALY, I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU,”
This message from Maly, though so relevant to our personal relationship and the love we risked despite all that separated us, has a much deeper and profound meaning. Her message, her request, is a message that reaches far beyond our relationship. Her hand held, unwavering gaze repeated plea to me to NEVER FORGET is the call of the Cambodian people, and the relentless whisper that haunts me daily.
On April 17, 1975 until January 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodian people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge from massive executions, torture, starvation, disease and over-exhaustion. Referred to as Year Zero, people of all ages; families, doctors, lawyers, teachers, monks and artists were systematically purged out of the society to be replaced by a classless, purely agrarian civilization. The Cambodian culture and traditions overnight came to an abrupt halt. People were to answer only to one ruler, a faceless concept called, “Angkor.”
Just a few years prior to this on March 18, 1969, the US began a 14-month secret carpet-bombing campaign that reigned over the skies and countryside of Cambodia, in order to cut off supply routes and base camps of the Viet Cong forces. In these fourteen months it is estimated that nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped, exceeding the amount of bombs dropped on Japan during WWII by almost a million. As many as 300,000 Cambodians were killed and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. The Khmer Rouge, which previously had been an insignificant threat, hiding out in the jungles saw this as a ripe opportunity to exploit the U.S. aerial bombardment as a means of propaganda. Seemingly overnight the regime quickly grew in numbers and power enlisting many teenage boys and girls angry about the devastation of their once peaceful land.
It is not hard to deduce from this chain of events that our animosity toward Vietnam Soviet backers, our new alliance with China and our clandestine bombing operation literally helped lay the ground for one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century.
So when Maly asked me to never forget her, I hear generations of Cambodian voices behind her. Voices from those I have seen and not seen. Voices I heard when I walked within the claustrophobic stone-stark blood stained walls of S21. I hear it from Arn Chorn Pond, who lives each day proclaiming this message in his every breath, as if paying penitence for the tremendous trauma he experienced. I felt it in the dance, the performances, the music and the soul of the Cambodian collective expressed in every art form. I saw it in the painted landscapes and sculptures of traditional and contemporary art. I saw it in the mud encased bones and clothe remnants surfacing from the pits at the Killing Fields. Reminders are everywhere, but no more so than in the faces of the Cambodian people I passed everyday.
The trauma is not over. A large portion of the Cambodian people still struggle with the demons of their past very present in their lives today. Struggling to survive each day, far to many Cambodians suffer from deep emotional and spiritual wounds due to what happen during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the worlds decision to look away. In a society that was nearly exterminated, the people of Cambodia are barely scraping by, holding on to threads of hope that some day they might regain all they lost. The kingdom of Cambodia was once a place of plenty, a utopian, prosperous society. The people were gentle, kind and at peace. And surprisingly, for the most part, despite their horrendous history, this is still true.
We have turned our backs too long, conveniently forgotten, or given in to the malaise and confusion of not being able to form our words. The cry of the Cambodian people is a cry to all people… and all beings that share this place we call our earth-home. Because it is still happening.
Open your mind,
soften your heart, and
peer deep into the bones of lives lost.
Unearth the history, and trauma past.
Listen to the cry of generations before you,
that lay bare in the unspeakable pain.
Reach out your hand,
look into the gaze of your sister and brother,
and pay close attention.
Never turn away,
this could be you,
this is you.
Names and part of the story have been changed to protect the privacy of “Maly.”
By Emma Ehrenthal
The trip we spent a year planning has come and gone already, leaving me wondering: What now? What can I take away from these intense three weeks? One intention I had for this trip was to create meaningful personal connections, in order to contribute to the larger global web of women. On this trip we worked on a small personal level by connecting one-on-one with clients and building relationships with staff members, while also stepping back and putting issues into a larger context by visiting the Killing Fields, and learning about social justice and NGO networks. In this blog I am going to focus my gaze on one meaningful interaction with a woman who looks at the health of our global community and works on both a small and large scale to contribute in a meaningful way.
I met Sam Sokha in Siem Reap our first week when we stayed at Soria Moria. Every morning I waited excitedly for Sokha to come to the hotel because she always pointed our explorations in the right direction. It’s comforting when you are in a new country to have such a knowledgeable hostess. It wasn’t until the last day while I was waiting for the bus that I sat with her long enough to meet her. While we exchanged language lessons, I began to ask Sokha to share her story with me.Sam Sokha works as the Community Outreach Program Organizer at the Soria Moria hotel (Michelle wrote early on the blog about the hotel’s efforts to be socially conscious in their local community). Talking to Sokha I saw the passion that she shared with her employer for social justice. Sokha’s hope to create a better world has fueled her work to empower women in her community. Helen Keller said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.” I was inspired seeing Sokha glow when she talked about her work, which was full of struggle and obstacles caused by social norms and life’s daily challenges. These daily struggles are what get in most people’s way of fulfilling their dreams. But Sokha sees the bigger picture. As a working single mom helping to support her older parents she has every excuse to not have extra energy to spend on organizing local community support groups for women, finishing her education, or traveling to conferences to make global connections for working Cambodia women. But Sokha does all of this. She is doing the work and in return all she is asking for is for people to show up.
Sam Sokha is a single mother with a son. She explained to me how she had seen many women commit suicide after getting divorced because they felt so desperate. Kuch Naren and Samantha Melamed write about this issue in The Cambodian Daily, explaining that when woman choice to divorce in Cambodia they lose all their rights to remarry, for property ownership, and for child custody. She made a hard choice to fight against the social norms and not see her life as over when her marriage ended, Sokha worked hard to get an education and career in order to provide for her family.
Sokha met Kristin Holdon Hansen, the founder of Soria Moria, while Hansen was first traveling in Cambodia. The women shared a passion for women’s rights, social justice, and Cambodia. When Hansen decided to open a socially conscious hotel in Cambodia she asked Sam Sokha to come work with her. Sokha began working at Soria Moria in 2007. The hotel funded Sokha’s education, and she received a degree in tourism and hospitality at Build Bright University. In 2012 Sokha took on the role of Community Outreach Program Manager, involving her in many exciting social justice programs and allowing her to share these responsible tourism approaches with other hotels. Some of these programs involve employee ownership, local employment, employee training programs, teaming up with local NGOs in skills and training programs, employee higher education programs (currently supporting 9 bachelors level and 3 masters level employee students), language and literacy classes, educational staff training trips, helping guests support ethically run local organizations, raising environmental consciousness, and providing insurance for employees. As a local Cambodian in Siem Reap, Sokha knows what the community needs and helps make the social justice programs at Soria Moria relevant to the community.
Sam Sokha was invited to represent Soria Moria at the 2013 Social Enterprise for Youth and Community Organization Conference. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Professor Yunus also spoke at the conference about socially conscious ways to generate employment and grow the local economy. Sokha glowed while talking about the conference and I could see how powerful it was for her to be surrounded by people who shared her dream. Knowing that we are not alone in our goals and our struggles creates a unity that provides energy and hope when we need support.
Recently Sokha has been organizing a support group for women in her local community to help educate them about how to build their own careers so they can be financially independent. When Sokha talked about the women’s group she sighed and looked tired, explaining her frustration with the group. Often the women didn’t show up offering excuses about making dinner, cleaning, and feeling rundown and tired. Sokha knows these challenges are real and exhausting, but she explained that she has them also and is still able to show up. Sokha is able to see the bigger picture in her life and in the lives of women around her. She also sees the cycle they are caught in, and that she can only do so much. Seiyon discuses the traditional gender roles in Cambodia and who they are changing in her blog. These women have to join her in the work in order to make their community a better place.
Sokha has built a strong support system around her at Soria Moria and she is working to extend that support system globally. She has helped build an exchange program with Quality Hotel Expo in Norway called the Cambodia-Norway Exchange for Sustainable Tourism. Two employees from Soria Moria will change places for a year with two employees from Quality Hotels. The program’s goals are for the employees to experience and learn about other cultures in the hope of developing the employee’s global justice leadership skills. This program that Sokha helped create looks at social justice on a global level.
Women in Cambodia are coming together to support each other and make their voices heard. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights is starting a program called, The Empowering Cloghers Project, the program provides women the tools and training for them to voice there thoughts global through blogs, (Wight, 2014). Like Sam Sokha, this program’s goal is to change the social norms for women in Cambodia and they are reaching out to our global community for support.
NCASI also wants to build and strengthen female global support. NCASI is helping our Women’s Handicraft and Development Association (WHADA) partners build financial connections in the United States so they can independently sell here. WHADA was formed in 2008, it is a women’s cooperative that produces beautiful coconut jewelry, scarves, bracelets, headbands, and more. We found businesses that share our interests in supporting fair trade and brought these WHADA products back to be marketed here in Boulder. You can find these products at Umba, Boulder Art and Beyond, and Posh. Check them out!
Naren, K. and Melamed, S. (2014) Divorce System Gives Many Women Few Options. The Cambodia Daily.http://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/land-title-owners-likelier-to-escape-poverty-50797/
Seiyon (2013) The Changing Role of Women in Cambodian Society. Retrieved from http://www.visit-angkor.org/blog/2013/01/19/the-changing-role-of-women-in-cambodian-society/
Wight, E. (2014) Rural Women Encouraged to Boost Online Presence. The Phnom Penh Post. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/lifestyle/rural-women-encouraged-boost-online-presence
By Michelle Bosco
It’s been two weeks since our NCAS-I team returned from Cambodia. Upon my return, I was flooded with questions such as, “How was it?” “Are you still jetlagged?” “What was your favorite part?” Although I appreciated my loved ones’ interest, I was overwhelmed by the vagueness and overly general questions and it felt difficult to answer them. I noticed my hesitation and resistance to offering any details. I’m not exactly sure why; maybe I wasn’t ready yet, or maybe it felt easier to put my experience in a little box that I could revisit later.
However, my choice to withhold information didn’t last too long. I began to share little pieces of my experience here and there. I realized this isn’t just something I can store away. It’s something that needs to be shared, needs to be heard, and needs to continue to live and be passed along. It’s clear this project has depth, passion, and heart and it’s filled with of a ton of stories. Stories filled with beauty, stories filled with fear and hurt, and even some stories filled with a little bit of magic.
Each member of NCAS-I has their own unique experience and I feel so fortunate to be able to share with you not only my story, but theirs as well. Although I’m sure I could ramble on and on (If you know me well, then you definitely know this to be true) and give you a very detailed report of our experience from each day, I feel it’s best for you to hear about it through the different rites of passage we encountered. I also want to reveal stories about the guides we met and the demons we faced along the way.
Before I do so, I’ll briefly explain what rites of passage mean. Rites of passage are a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage through another over time, and from one role or social position to another (Campbell, 1949). These rituals have taken place in all cultures over the world, integrating human and cultural experiences with biological destiny: birth, reproduction, and death. This concept was originally articulated by Arnold van Gennep. In 1907, he outlined a form inherent in all rites of passage: separation, transition, and incorporation (Gennep, 1960). Van Gennep stated that a person had to be separated from one role before he or she could be incorporated into a new one. The ceremonies and rituals allow people to move forward and let go of the pre-existing roles. They can also support people to embrace transitions with acceptance and gratitude.
One of NCAS-I’s first rites of passage ceremonies occurred on May 12th (2 days before we left for Cambodia). One of our supervisor’s, Katie, led a “letting go” ceremony. We were instructed to write down on a small scrap of paper, something we wanted to let go of, or something we wanted to leave rather than take to Cambodia. After we completed this part, we walked outside and began the actual ceremony. With snow still on the ground, we shivered as we huddled close together. Katie set her charcoal incense burner on a rock, and one by one we placed our tiny scraps of paper inside of the burner.
As we inhaled the smell of sandalwood and frankincense and watched the smoke rise, Megan read the poem, In Black Water Woods by Mary Oliver. The last line reads, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things; to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” These words struck me because I knew it was time to leave behind that which no longer served me, and embark on a journey filled with a realm of unknowns. As I watched my words burn and disintegrate, I felt fear creep up inside me.
I was afraid and resistant to leave my comfort for discomfort, yet I knew relief would come from making the choice to let go. This rite of passage was parallel to Van Gennep’s first stage, separation. This stage is characterized by separating from the existing awareness of all that is familiar and secure (Gennep, 1960). I assumed I would remain in this stage early on in our trip. Even though I was well-informed of our travel details and schedule, I knew the comfort and familiarity I had in the states would be stripped away as soon as I landed in Cambodia. Not only was I facing challenges in adjusting to a new environment, I was also grieving the losses from my old role that I recently let go of.
There were others that felt similarly; anchored in the separation stage, and preparing to explore fears and expectations brought on by this new change. It was difficult for some of us to adjust and arrive, and due to our vastly different histories, we had to cross the threshold and officially “arrive” in our own ways.
For Liz, she officially “arrived” in Cambodia when she decided to return to Angkor Wat all by herself. She was able to leave the group and travel solo because she faced fears that she still carried from nine years ago when she backpacked through India and Nepal alone. Liz said, “I had endured some pretty scary, unsafe, and ongoing situations on that trip related to being vulnerable, naive, female, and not in control of where I went and with whom. Setting out at dawn with my art supplies, a cell phone, and a tuk tuk driver was an affirmation that now, nine years later, I am possessed of far greater resources. I can trust my instincts of what feels safe and unsafe, and have the assertiveness and autonomy to be 100 percent responsible for where I go, and with whom. This sense of safety allowed me greater flexibility and openness to explore on my own terms.”
Artwork by Liz Maher
Liz’s example of arriving is part of Gennep’s transition stage. The transition stage is when the grip of the old period merges with the new period. (Gennep, 1960). Liz merged the two periods by facing her fears head on. She was also in full flight of the adventure and ready for what was to come next. There were other members of NCAS-I that had profound experiences in this stage.
For part of this Service-Learning Practicum, we studied Cambodian culture and spent a great deal of time learning about the Khmer Rouge. We also attended a circus performance in Battambang, Cambodia before visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh. The performance beautifully portrayed the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and it also left an imprint on our team, knowing that the arts were allowing a way for the Cambodian people to tell their story and express themselves, and help combat trauma that so many of them faced. Emma was deeply moved and did her own response art around this subject. Her artwork depicts how the Cambodian culture handles tragedy and how they have the strength to carry on.
Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal
When I look at her painting, I see resiliency and hope. Perhaps it’s the color palette she used, or perhaps it reminds me of how I felt on that night. Either way, I know I felt completely different after attending the Killing Fields, S21, and while I was reading Arn Chorn Pond’s book, Never Fall Down. I felt defeated, depressed, and sick to my stomach.
I struggled as I tried to process my feelings around the Khmer Rouge, and I realized my discomfort wasn’t going to vanish just yet. I had to face my own demons during this transition stage. I was disoriented and felt out of control. I watched my doubts about my performance working with clients constantly pop up like some sort of annoying snooze button that never turned off. I even questioned how I was showing up in our NCAS-I group and I repeatedly wondered if what I was offering was enough. On top of this, I felt guilty for having these concerns, especially when I was reminded about what the people of the Khmer Rouge had to endure. My problems seemed trivial and I tried to conceal them.
With some time and space, I gained clarity and understood what this highly uncomfortable place was. It was my way of being in the transition stage. When I finally realized this, I no longer brushed away my feelings and made them seem small or unimportant. I also had the support of a few amazing women who served as my guides. They allowed me to recognize my innate power and reclaim what I forgotten; to trust myself. I will be forever grateful for their patience, guidance, and love.
Artwork by Michelle Bosco
I moved forward and continued consuming, ingesting, absorbing, all around me, and when it was time, purged and released what I needed to. I realized the doubts I once had about myself were merely a result of trying to meet everyone’s expectations (an impossible task by the way), so I freed myself and made a decision to take in only what I wanted and needed to.
This realization brought relief and left me feeling liberated and excited about the possibilities of growth that a new beginning holds. Gennep describes this as the incorporation stage (Gennep, 1960). In this stage, people emerge from the pain and struggle and see that the wait was well worth it. I felt as though I resurrected my creative and powerful energy and as though I had so much more to offer others. Each member of NCAS-I gained something different. For example, Krystel gained the gift companionship. She viewed each close relationship as an opportunity for growth and vowed to bring this gift back home, especially to her fiancé, Andrew, who she will marry in less than two months. Others gained clarity, wisdom, confidence, hope, the list goes on! To mark this transition, each member of the group made their own necklaces to symbolize self-recognition and deep understanding.
Artwork by Michelle Bosco
Our last night in Cambodia ended with magic. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to forget about it) We took a boat ride down the river and stopped as soon as we saw a tree that appeared to have white Christmas lights on it. As we moved closer we were amazed and delighted to find that it was fireflies. It was pure magic, like nothing I’ve ever seen before! My gaze was locked on the tree until I realized it was time for one last ritual before returning home. Each of us were given candles and one by one we placed them in little boats made from leaves and released them in the water. As I watched each one float away, some burning out, and some still flickering, I was reminded of another gift I gained. Joseph Campbell describes these gifts as boons, or jewels that one carries after a voyage. (Campbell, 1949) One of my great boons is my awareness; there can be no light without entering the darkness, and with each descent into darkness, the light shines ever more brightly. I know the next transition may pull me into the darkness, but this time I will be able to navigate the journey more gracefully. I can trust that I am exactly where I need to be.
Artwork by Sue Wallingford
Author/artist note: Please do not use the images without permission. Thank you.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Foundation (1st edition).
Gennep, A. v. (1960). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago.
by Krystel Chamberlain
After visiting the solemn and heart-breaking sites of the Killing Fields and S-21 prison while in Phnom Penh, we spent our last day there meeting a most charismatic and inspirational survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. We went to Cambodian Living Arts which is a non-profit organization promoting the traditional arts of Cambodia. Arn Chorn Pond, who describes his complex past as a child soldier turned killer turned politician turned musician and spokesperson, shared with us how music saved his life. Arn was separated from his family at the age of eleven and forced into labor by the Khmer Rouge. One day he raised his hand when asked if anyone could play an instrument. Most musicians, intellectuals, doctors, and teachers were killed when admitting to their skills. Arn was lucky. He survived execution and starvation only by pleasing Khmer Rouge officers by playing propaganda music. He was the quickest learner. The slower children were killed. He learned techniques from a master musician before the old man was killed. Music saved his life. He played propaganda music until he was forced to be a child soldier and eventually escaped to Thailand at the end of the war. He was adopted by an American family and was sent to the United States where he attended school. The book “Never Fall Down” tells his story during the war. Please see my blog post from April 2014 for more detail on this, and Megan’s previous post about the Killing Fields.
In 1998, Arn returned to Cambodia in search of any surviving master musicians who could teach the traditional music and performing arts to the younger generation. It was not easy. Out of the two million people the Khmer Rouge exterminated, 90% were educated artists, musicians, doctors, etc. Arn founded Cambodian Living Arts to provide an avenue for traditional Khmer arts to live on. Old Masters are supported and earn a living by teaching their art forms to impoverished students who then can earn a living by performing rather than turning to the streets. Students are even given a scholarship to attend college in whatever they would like to study such as computers, medicine, or education. Either way, the arts will be an important force in their lives.
Cambodian Living Arts also creates an opportunity for the world to witness these art forms. They put on performances and festivals and allow the public to tour their studio and observe a class in action. That’s what we did. We were welcomed into the studio by Taro (promoter, and also a guitar player in his free time) and met a class made up of one female teacher, two female students, one male student, and two male musicians. Taro translated for us and explained that they were practicing Yike Opera which is a traditional Khmer performance with dance, singing, Khmer violin, and drum. It is not known exactly when and where Yike originated but is guessed to be influenced by the many different people who occupied Cambodia over the ages. Arn soon joined us in the classroom. It was clear he had a lot of pride about his students. The actors shared with us their usual practice which involved flexibility stretches, dancing, and singing while musicians played the drum and Khmer violin. In Yike Opera, all actors must be able to sing, dance, and act. They performed a short song from the Opera they were practicing and it was so beautiful! My heart swelled and I could not stop smiling. I had hoped to see a performance while on this trip and here it was! Such delicate and graceful movements! These students were very talented. They demonstrated several of the intricate hand gestures and we gasped at how their fingers could curl backward. That explains all the stretching! There are over 2,500 different gestures, each one with a unique meaning. We witnessed hand gestures that symbolized “to plant”, “grow”, “flower”, “fruit”, and “ripen” to name a few. More involved gestures stood for “shy”, “angry”, and “to love someone”.
Just when I thought this couldn’t get any more interesting, we were invited to try some! The Master teacher and her students tried to help us force our joints into directions they just wouldn’t go! Amidst laughter and groans we gained even more respect for what these performers could do. We were then invited to learn some dance moves (which came easier or harder to some of us compared to the stretching)!
Afterwards, we all sat down for a snack and to talk with Arn. We asked him why he started the Cambodian Living Arts Center. He shared how music saved his life over and over again when playing the flute allowed him to cope with memories and flashbacks from his traumatic past. He said that witnessing the beautiful music played by his students and the Masters he has found has brought him to tears. Tears that had so desperately needed to be shed, but could not as a child because to cry would mean death. As art therapy students, we could understand how powerful and therapeutic it is to show emotion through art, music, dance, etc.
Arn reminded us that we are all connected, even when we return to the United States. “We are all the same. We laugh the same. We cry the same”. We affect each other. The U.S. affected Cambodia when they dropped bombs there in the 1960’s. As an American and Cambodian, Arn feels deeply conflicted about this. Artists must be a strong voice in the world to communicate human emotion. Then maybe we can all remember this connection. Then maybe we can help to stop bombings, killings, and mass genocides.
I want to thank Arn Chorn Pond and his class at Cambodian Living Arts for sharing such a special afternoon with us. It was truly a hi-light of the trip for me and I will forever remember this example of resiliency and devotion to the arts and human expression.
By Megan Nemire
It took almost three weeks on this trip to Cambodia, but I became sick. Maybe I ate something questionable, or assumed safety in a glass of ice tainted with bacteria my Western body system cannot process. However it happened, I was incapacitated for a day, traveling only to the restroom and bed, as well as the recesses of my fearful feelings I hadn’t acknowledged previously.
Though it was clearly a physical reaction, my body’s natural response fighting something foreign or dangerous, I became quite curious about the relevance of this timely… (how do I say it politely…) purging of the system.
I had taken in a lot over the past three weeks. We all had. Our clients and many strangers we passed on the streets had experienced the depths of human experience. Trauma. Domestic abuse. Sexual exploitation. Aftermath of genocide and political upheaval. So which of the many hardships was too much for me to digest?
Oh yes. I had finished reading Never Fall Down (2012) the day before the sharp pains seized my stomach. In this book, McCormick tells the story of Arn Chorn Pond‘s life*, a haunting journey through the terrors of the extremist group, the Khmer Rouge, led in shadow by Pol Pot. The following provides historical context according to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (2004) and McCormick et al. Writing this section helped me address my deep need to make a shred of sense about something truly incomprehensible. Liking clarity for myself, at first I wondered if this was the coping strategy of intellectualization, using thought to override anxiety of emotion (Vaillant, 1977). However, no. I am attempting to align the cognitive with the emotional. I want to understand at least a sense of why these atrocities took place. I wanted to know the Khmer Rouge’s goals when waging this genocide. This historical piece is a practice of acceptance. It also provides essential context for the personal sharing afterward, about my experience walking through the Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge Genocide
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a group of peasants throughout the country of Cambodia, intentionally selected for their status as “base people” or working class, seized all of the major cities and marched the people out. Led by Pol Pot who mostly hid safely in Thailand, the Khmer Rouge was created as a group of former teachers, many influenced by the French Communist party. They were people who were themselves educated, and with social privilege.
Under the guise of evacuating homes to escape attacks from the Americans or Vietnamese, and with threat of immediate death by gunshot or bayonet slashing from these black-cloaked Khmer Rouge soldiers, the people of the cities gathered their essential belongings and marched out into the countryside. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the crowds, many starving and dying along the way, every step forward was given the promise of care from Angka, a new word to them at the time, which means, the organization.
Those that were forced to march were the educated people, those with land or wealth, they were the artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, anyone with special training. I began to consider the psychology of cutting off shadow parts—educated people leading the uneducated to kill the educated. Deep breath, and I continue my descent into history. The Khmer Rouge was guided by “four interrelated principles: (1) total independence and self-reliance, (2) preservation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) total and immediate economic revolution, and (4) complete transformation of Khmer social values.” (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, 2004). They set out to “rusticate the cities”, to return Cambodia to a completely agrarian society, to strip away the classes and restore ‘equality’ to the people. They prohibited money, the free market, religion, education, and anything that contested their mission. Schools, churches, temples, and hospitals were shut down, and changed into prisons, granaries, and “reeducation camps”.
My stomach surges as I type, because the truth of the history fades to darkness. The people were forced into labor of growing rice on overworked soil, tasked with impossible yield goals. Many died as they worked. Many were killed mercilessly, accused of being traitors, pit against their family members and forced between condemning themself or their brother to death. Some went to the prisons, where they were tortured. Those that survived were sent to the killing fields, where they were murdered, and buried in mass graves. Families were separated into work camps for men, women, and children. Growing rice all day and night, many died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, and broken hearts. The Khmer Rouge continually restricted their criteria to let a person live, and many of the soldiers ordered to murder others were then killed themselves, declared as traitors.
It is estimated that 2 to 3 million people were murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime, approximately 30% of the Khmer population. They were murdered by their own people.
It is important– actually, essential– to acknowledge, to discuss, to let the heart break even if for a moment when reading these truths. Choeung Ek’s mission of education and sharing what happened is held in hopes that if we talk about these horrors, we can prevent them from repeating. Or at least we can try. Perhaps, dear reader, you might take a moment of silence in honor the souls whose lives were taken during this time.
“A little life amongst the death”
Response art, Megan Nemire
I have yet to find a way to honor and submit to the horror of these truths. And it seems, this lack of ability to cope with genocide and murder is quite a natural response. For me, reading a personal account of one man’s survival in a terrifying time built up in my gut like a strain of mutated human genetics. It was too much for my system to handle. So I vomited it up, let it all pour out. My body was rebelling against the truth.
Yet, after that day of somatic release, my system regulated enough for me to stand up again. My stomach restored a working balance, while still carrying a dull pain, and the moments of relief extended. My own was a parallel process of what I had read, only I was given the time and space to heal. The children I read about, children that Arn Chorn Pond knew during his own life, would have been taken for their ‘rest’ by death in a pile of bodies in a mango grove. This realization was horrifying and humbling. Since I get to live, I have the responsibility to share their story.
Visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Carrying a coconut for hydration and a stash of Cipro and bread, I walked the next day through the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of the large, busy city of Phnom Penh. This was one of at least 300 killing fields across the country, and is now an area of remembrance, education, and honoring.
The van ride there was stirring to me, realizing the close proximity of this field of death, barely outside a city that is once again sprawling. At that time, it was a ghost town, completely evacuated.
Photo by Megan Nemire
Though I am a person who feels very deeply all across the emotional spectrum, and ordinarily expresses herself with conviction and passion, this morning I found myself silent. I heard Arn’s words, you feel, you die. You cry only in your mind. This is how he survived.
So I walked the sites, which without marking might appear as any ordinary field, with clusters of trees, a small lake, and small mounds of dirt that stir the ground. I stood in silence at the mass graves. Bowed in reverence at the piles of bones and torn cloth. Listened to the audio player given from the staff that shares personal stories of struggle from survivors. All along I heard the words, and the feelings made themselves known, but they were trapped somewhere within myself.
Photo by Megan Nemire
At the end of walking my lap around the lake, I approached a tree covered in bracelets of all colors, hanging from the bark. The sign read both in Khmer and English, “Killing tree against which executioners beat children”. Deep sigh and my stomach drops yet again. This tree had been used as a death machine for women and children, its own sturdy nature twisted into a weapon cheaper than bullets. They were smashed into its trunk, head first.
I stood close to this tree, oscillating my attention between inward and outward focus. I was sensing what was there. There was my own profound sadness, still trapped behind a wall; there was my disbelief, fear, horror, relentless questioning, and futile need to make sense of this atrocity. However, I didn’t sense that trapped feeling outside of myself. It occurred to me that perhaps, in this place of reverence where bones and clothing are moved to a stupa, and honored in a Khmer death ritual, that the spirits of those who died here have left this land.
Standing close to the trunk of the tree, the bark that stayed firm against broken skulls, I looked up. There were leaves. This tree, sentenced as the tool for taking hundreds of innocent lives, was still growing itself.
I had a moment of outrage, on behalf of the tree, for being transformed into a killer. I quickly found my outrage to be misplaced. My outrage was for the people, for the thousands that died at Choeung Ek, the two or three million people killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide, for the young Khmer men and women used as disposable soldiers, made to execute their own people through brainwashing, lies, and threats of their own death.
The outrage led to sadness, the sadness to hopelessness. Hopelessness to a series of deep breaths. There is horror in the world, and I am still here, standing. There can be death and life within the same being. A tree can murder and grow. A country can destroy itself, and its people can still heal. A person like me can witness, fall apart, break down, and keep walking, keep writing, keep feeling, keep honoring.
Photo by Megan Nemire
One man I met here implored me, “Thank you for visiting my home. When you go back to yours, tell people about us. Tell people about Cambodia.” For today, I have told you about these deaths. And soon, I will tell you about the life.
Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.
Author/artist note: Please do not use the images without permission. Thank you.
*Stay tuned for a blog post from Krystel in a couple days, sharing more about Arn Chorn Pond’s life, and our experience meeting him.
McCormick, P. (2012). Never fall down. New York: Harper Collins.
Unknown author. (2004). The Killing Fields Museum – Learn from Cambodia. Retrieved from: http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/genocide1.html
Vaillant, George E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.
By Aiya B. Staller
”How do you fall in love with being alive? Be willing to glimpse the end of everything you hold dear.” ~Stephen Jenkins
Sitting in the far back of our travel van, held firmly in place by a large backpack against my body on one side and my bent knees curled towards my chest as to make room for the storage beneath my feet, I find a balance as my hips straddle the edges of two seats. For this moment, it feels luxurious as I relax into the air-conditioned van ride and play a recording of singing humpback whales that I have on my ipod. I have a little over five hours to process the experience at Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC). I feel happy-sad as I let myself cry. Endings are often emotional, sweet, and sad for me. I saw this reflected in others’ tear-streaked faces during our final group. I begin to dream as I think about the people I worked closely with at CWCC.
Last Friday was our closing group at CWCC. Our work with the residents and staff focused on art therapy within Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics and Trauma (Perry, 2006). This approach can help the nervous system calm down, especially after trauma, and can allow people to more fully open to their own creative process with its innate capacity to heal. It also allowed me to drop into the creative process with the group. We laughed, played, cried, heard stories of struggle, and learned about each other through creating art together. The simplest connections were often the ones that stood out the most to me: passing scissors to help a girl cut her shadow puppet just right, laughing in surprise as a woman teases me because she knew English all along, gently taping the art on the walls of the building as I think of the person who created it, and sitting with a traumatized woman as she watched the group in silence. The small moments flash through my thoughts as I sit in our ritual circle to share our ”Shining moments” with the group. The framework of our relationship was clearly structured, and this will likely be the last time that I see these women and children, even if I am able to return. I’ve long since forgotten about the heat and discomfort, as all that matters to me right now are the people I’m sitting with. The tears flow on many of our faces as I listen to the staff, residents, and children, “I will always remember you . . . I want to see you again . . . thank you for coming here . . . don’t forget us . . . please tell people about us. . . I love you . . . you are our friends . . . thank you for bringing all of this art.”
It is time to leave.
I wake up from my dream-remembering to the reality that l am in the back of a van heading to Phnom Penh. The whales have stopped singing on my ipod. A recording from Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, begins instead (1997). She speaks about the practice of Tonglen and its relationship to Bodhicitta, or the “Awakened Heart.” Tonglen is a practice of cultivating compassion through allowing space for feelings that arise in ourselves and others. In simple terms, it involves breathing in the suffering of others, and breathing out relief, or good intentions, directed towards them. It can also be used for ourselves to aid in staying close to our feelings and experiences, even if they are difficult. It is a practice of not turning away and staying present with self, others, and reality. This can allow us to sit with people in whatever emotional state they are in, as we recognize it as part of the whole experience of being alive. It is also closely related to Bodhiccitta, and the “Awakened Heart” which is correlated with the experience of sweet sadness (Trungpa, 2007).
I cry as I recall the stories that I heard, remembering sitting with the women and children, and imagine what they are doing right now. Even though our time was brief; it had depth. I feel a tender ache in my chest when I think of them. They have touched me and I will always remember this.
I wrote previously about the alchemical element of change that happens in therapeutic relationships. Through creating art together and experiencing each other in a therapeutic context, which allowed safe connection, I was touched deeply. As I saw their faces and heard their words, I could see that they were as well.
My heart hurts.
I wanted to leave with you a part of a translated poem from from ”Sokha”, which was a Cambodian performance art piece from a partner organization of CWCC’s called Phare Ponleu Selpak. It speaks of grief and endings, reading as follows:
”Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it……do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness….beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. Keep peace in your soul. With all the shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it [life] is still beautiful…” ~ Phare Ponleu Selpak, Social Justice Performing Arts Circus School & Theater
Chodron, P. (1997). When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Perry, B. (2006). Working with traumatized youth in child welfare. New York: The Guilford Press.
Trungpa, C. (2007). Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
We are now halfway through our trip, with five days of work at Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center behind us, and only two more to go. The work days have been physically and emotionally exhausting, and I admit I am challenged to synthesize my thoughts. Organizing a written reflection for public consumption is difficult when the experience is still so fresh, especially when my instinct is to focus on giving myself the care I need to replentish my energy for the coming day. But this is an important piece in the training, navigating the transitions between the several roles we play as professionals: being empathically attuned and available to clients, turning inward for self-care rituals at the end of the day, accessing the logical academic brain. So today after work I did my best to create a compressed version of the wind-down ritual. Pre-supervision chocolate soymilk, post-supervision shower to wash the humidity and sad stories down the drain, excellent barbeque chicken and peanut sauce from the stand across the street, a half hour of practicing ukulele on the balcony until the ants started biting, and now, sigh, the laptop.
Before I describe the past week, I would like to acknowledge our team’s debt to the two groups of NCAS-I students who came before us. It is because of their efforts that we are able to reap the benefits of this fruitful relationship with CWCC, and because of the strong bonds they formed last year, the staff and clients at CWCC anticipated our arrival and were prepared to engage with the materials and processes with open mind and heart.
CWCC’s mission is to provide comprehensive one stop service to victims of domestic violence, labor trafficking, and sex trafficking. The NGO provides a safe shelter for women and their children, legal services, counseling services, and occupational training. They also hold anger management trainings for perpetrators of domestic violence, citing that to help the women is not enough; if the cycle of violence is to be disrupted, men must have access to services as well. I found that to be quite culturally progressive, and applaud the scope of CWCC’s vision. Our work with the NGO is broken up into several parts. In the morning we work with the staff, doing trainings in Art therapy, Trauma-specific therapy, and Art based self care for mental health workers. In the afternoons, we work with clients in the relatively cool and breezy counseling room, which has been transformed into a vibrant, chaotic open studio. Each NCAS-I student has prepared an art intervention to present to the group, and several art making stations are set up at tables around the room. Because CWCC also provides services to so many young children, we students take turns running activities outside to keep the little guys entertained so that their mothers can focus on art making. Lastly, we are conducting individual art based assessments with clients in a separate counseling room. After being debriefed on a client’s history, we decide one of three assessments, and conduct a 50 minute individual session under the supportive gaze of a NCAS-I supervisor, a CWCC therapist, and our translator. This is not only an important learning tool for us students, but a source of unique insight for staff in terms of new possibilities for the direction of therapy.
Staff training is an integral aspect of our work here. We are only working with CWCC for ten days, our visit is a blip on the radar. We are not here long enough to establish the trust necessary for the work of trauma therapy. In fact, it would be unethical to attempt to go into such deep territory with a client under these time limitations. Our work here is to help staff access important tools that can empower them to be more fully present to their clients, to endure the weight of their work, and to not suffer overwhelm and burnout. I will share a story from Friday, when a few of our team members introduced a Yoga based activity. Our superstar translator, Panchena, explained the directive in Khmer, “When we work with clients, we feel it in our bodies and we carry it with us. When we don’t work on that energy, it becomes trapped, and can hurt us.” Participants were lead in a twenty minute Yoga routine, and were asked to create two drawings; one to represent how they felt before yoga, and one to represent how they felt afterward. One staff member depicted a figure whose chest was full of blue dots. In the second drawing, the figure was surrounded by blue dots, with only a few remaining inside his silhuette. When asked to describe the difference between the two drawings, he responded, “Before, I was very anxious inside. Now, that worry is outside of me. There are some worries that I will always have with me, but those are just a part of me.” This was a simple but profound example of how a combination of somatic experience and art making can be used to both inform and alleviate vicarious traumatization.
In Transpersonal Psychology, there is the idea that the client directs the content of the therapy, while the therapist holds the context. That is to say, the therapist provides a safe container of walls and a roof, and the client fills the house with life. For the past two years, we have been learning the foundations and practical applications of Art Therapy. We come with an understanding of which art materials bring about certain emotional and physiological responses. We understand how image can serve as a metaphor for things which cannot be spoken, and how as images change, the internal experience can be transformed. We consider developmental trauma and Post-traumatic stress disorder. We also consider how socioeconomic status, the intergenerational trauma which exists in this Cambodian culture, and gender inequality might effect the way a client relates to the therapist and art materials. We consider the mission of CWCC, and what circumstances may have brought clients there. All of these elements factor into the context that we hold as student therapists.
Milieu therapy is another important aspect of our work and learning here. This refers to the more informal interactions that take place with and amongst clients in public group space. Clients are often at their most relaxed and natural, and tremendous interpersonal and intrapersonal shifts can unfold here, particularly with the nonverbal medium of art at their disposal. While it often the picture of meditative absorbsion, at times the studio is a flurry of glitter and tissue paper, brandished brushes and peals of laughter. This calls to question, where is the line between therapy and playing? When we are having fun and getting to know each other over a language divide and a table full of clay, it looks very different from a traditional clinical practicum. Is this valid clinical practicum work? To address this, we carefully consider the way we construct these interactions in the context of transpersonal psychology. We are playing with children, yes, but we are viewing these interactions through the lens of developmental psychology and attachment theory. I keep a sketchbook dictionary, adding pencil drawings and asking clients for the Khmer translation. I repeat incorrectly several times amidst hysterical laughter, my American tongue unable to maneuver the nasal subtleties and near-silent consonants of the language. I piece together crude sentences such as, “Red is nice, I like cat” with great pride, and hold up a snakeskin triumphantly and declare “Bwoh!” The clients double over in laughter, as I have mispronounced and said the word for “stomach”. In our first two days of work, CWCC’s clinical team was away on retreat, and our primary objective was to build rapport with the clients, set ground rules for the studio, and help clients become more comfortable using the materials. I have introduced this collaborative vocabulary sketchbook as a personal intervention for creating connection, which will facilitate a greater degree of trust and communication for the coming week. It began quite spontaneously, I was sitting on the floor with a group of children, and an 8 year old boy handed me a stack of the mandala pages he’d colored. After marveling over his attention to detail and color choices, I picked a blank page and drew a star. On his page, he drew a star. I drew a monkey, and with a furrowed brow he copied my lines. for a half hour, we say and drew dozens of animals, mirroring each other’s movements, until we ran out of paper. Already knowing the word for “cat”, I pointed at my drawing and said, “Ch-mah”. “Chmah!” he nodded in approval. I pointed at the drawing of an elephant and asked, “A nee how ay? (How do you say?)”
Boy: “Dom brey”
Me: “Bom dry?”
Boy: “Dom Brey!”
Me: “Bom Prayb??”
Boy: (sigh) “DOM….. BREY!!!”
Me: “Dom brey???”
Boy: “Bah” ***
This interaction snowballed into a frenzied dance of pointing, drawing, gesturing, and repeating. We were joined by a few other children, but the boy was clearly the leader of this game. There was an urgency to the exchange, the sense that everything hung on our ability to meet somewhere in the middle of the verbal chasm. It was giddy, breathless, and fun. The creation of this book became an important therapeutic tool for me. It allows for a shift in the power dynamic, letting the client be the teacher and I the student. I am modeling behavior by entering an uncomfortable process and recovering again and again from small failures. And with each drawing recognized and word correctly pronounced, we celebrate a small victory. It bonds us, we have struggled together over a small hurtle and succeeded. We are establishing an element of teamwork and interdependence. We are engaging the client’s sense of autonomy and agency, that their input and effort are essential and invaluable. Through this book, I am communicating a desire to enter the client’s world, to connect and understand. The boy later said to our translator, Panchena, “I feel happy. When I draw a dog, she says dog, and she understands.”
Does drawing pictures of objects and enlisting clients as translators count as Art Therapy? When viewed from a Relational or Feminist perspective, I believe it does. As therapists, one of the greatest gifts we can offer clients is our presence, our relationship. We communicate that they are seen, heard, recognized, and appreciated. Only in the context of trust, safety, and relationship can true healing begin.
*** It was later confirmed that the correct pronunciation is “Dom Rye” , and that when I was chasing children around the yard waving my arm like a trunk and making trumpeting noises, yelling “Jom riep sour, khnom chmouh Don Brey! ( Pleasure to make your aquaintence,I am elephant) ” it was very confusing for everyone.
by Chelsey Langlinais
As we continue our journey in Cambodia we have now arrived in Sisophon, which is nothing like Siem Reap. There are dirt roads, lots of small stands, and locals that seem like they do not have foreigners visit very often. Most of the first day was spent hanging out at the hotel and getting used to the new environment. The next morning it was off to start our first day of work.
As we drove up to CWCC, I did not know what to expect. I knew there would be women and children, I knew we would have a space for making art, and I knew it would be hot. I could have never anticipated such a wonderful oasis like the one we were greeted with. The gated yard we pulled up to is clean, bright, and full of trees and flowers. This space felt safe from my first interaction in it. There are a few buildings on the grounds, some which are community areas, and some living quarters. There are 12 staff members normally there, except for the first two days of our visit there were only 4, because most of them are on a retreat and will return after the weekend. Which was a wonderful opportunity for us to get to know the participants more closely and to spend quality time together before the rest of the staff returns.
Each day, we will spend three hours in the morning working with staff, teaching them self care techniques, and also how they can incorporate art therapy into their client’s treatment plans in the future. Then, after lunch we spend three hours working with the clients in an open studio model with several different interventions planned for the day that the participants can move from one to the next however they choose. Each student in our group has planned an art therapy intervention to do with either the staff members or the participants. Each student will also complete an art based assessment with one client during our time as well.
On the first day we pulled up to hesitant faces, watching us as we piled out of the van, curious about us, but unfamiliar with our group. We would smile as we walked around for the tour and were given broad introductions of one another. But, what took place in the art room really changed the dynamic between us and allowed for a deeper connection despite the initial nervousness and language barrier, but I’ll get to that later. First let me introduce the wonderful organization we have the privilege of working with.
CWCC (Cambodia women’s crisis center) is an NGO (non-government organization) that provides everything from “social assistance to legal protection, economic empowerment through skills training and small business loans, community’s organizing for prevention of gender-based violence and advocacy work at national and international levels” according to their website. But from what I can see, their biggest goal is to empower these women and children and to protect them from further physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
On our first day at this organization, we spent the morning working with the few staff members that are still on the grounds. We played a name game, and asked lots of questions about how this week would look for us and for the clients. I think we had more questions for them, because this is the second year NCAS-I has worked here, they seemed fully ready and prepared for us, and for the creative processes in which we were bringing to share with them. As the morning of our first day came to an end we left to go back to the hotel for lunch and would return to start working with clients in the afternoon. For the afternoon we had three stations set up, tissue paper flowers, stained glass, using contact paper and tissue paper, and decorating mandalas. The goal for the first day was to introduce ourselves and to begin creating a safe and comfortable space for art making.
We introduced the concepts and invited the art making process to begin. I never could have imagined it would end up with everyone having tissue paper flowers in their hair, tissue paper jewelry, and some of the most beautiful handmade decorations strung around the room I’ve ever seen! Butterflies were hung in front of the windows, flowers on the back of every chair, and mandalas hung around the room filling the walls. By the end of the day, we were all decorated and the room was full of color and laughter. I left that day feeling thankful for the opportunity to do this work, anticipating how wonderful the rest of our time together would be.
On the second day we arrived, we were greeted with smiles and bows of appreciation. Some of the flowers were once again beautifully decorating the heads of participants. As we were setting up, the children gathered in excitement by the door, anxious to once again be invited into the art space, although they had to wait until the afternoon, they curiously watched as we set up and prepared. On that day in the morning, we offered a yoga intervention for the staff members as a self care technique, which we will continue in the morning with all of the staff members when they return.
The interventions for this day included water colors and outdoor games for the little bitty kiddos, (which allowed their mothers time to make art, as well as invited developmental exploration) decoupage tissue paper bowls, pinwheel making, and a free drawing table. Once again the pinwheels became decorations for hair, and as people would walk by a fan they would twirl on tops of heads. Children would stand in front of the fans and watch the pinwheels spin and giggle in amusement.
Along with creating art with the participants we are also creating a joint mural in the art room with them. I am on the committee for that project, and the second day at CWCC we began that process. We mapped out a mandala of Cambodian women holding hands around a lotus flower in the center. We invited a few people at a time to begin the background colors. They worked so carefully and precisely alongside us, directing color choices and placements of colors along the way. We smiled and thanked one another constantly for the beautiful job we were all doing. The picture below shows what we have completed so far.
At the end of the second day I could tell that we are truly special to these people and that they are special to us as well. The amount of pictures they wanted us to pose for with them, and the amount of excitement and love that filled the air was truly breathtaking and I am so glad we still have a week left to experience more with this amazing group.
As I write this, I can’t help but to think about how different these interactions would have been without the art making process. The art has a way of allowing us to communicate even though we do not speak the same language. We are creating a bond with this group that is bound by paint and glue and needle and thread. Creating relationships through the creation of art, that is powerful, that is real connection.
Photo #1 taken by Michelle Bosco
We arrived at the gates of Anjali House to find a large, cream-colored, two story house, and a deserted yard and sports court. The children were all still in class, though the space outside the house buzzed with potential for play and exploration. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Anjali’ means offerings. We were introduced to Melanie, the Young Adult Program coordinator, who explained some of these offerings Anjali House provides to its students and their families. The children come to Anjali House for half days, during the time they aren’t attending public school. During this half day, they take classes, learn English, and are given numerous opportunities to exercise their creativity. Since the children have to forego a job in order to spend their non-school time at Anjali, their families are given weekly rice allowances to make up for the money the children would have made for their families by working.
Anjali’s dedication to the arts is what makes it a particularly good match for a partnership with NCAS-I. On the website, they describe the arts as “increasingly being recognized as a way to improve cognitive learning, increase right side brain development, and build self esteem among disenfranchised children.” They could have taken those words right off a Naropa art therapy syllabus! I was encouraged to see the power of art utilized in such an intentional way as one of their main modalities for growth and learning. In fact, the seed for Anjali House itself began as a week-long photography class for street children offered by the Ankgor Photo Association.
In previous years, our NCAS-I team has made a puppet theatre and a sand tray with the children at Anjali. This year our task was to design and paint a mural on the walls surrounding a small plot of land reserved for a future vegetable garden. This endeavor began as activities involving 20 young children often do: with some chaos and a leap of faith. This is not to mention the language barrier and a very loud buzz saw next door, drowning out any attempt at making introductions and setting ground rules. Sue forged through these distractions to rein in everyone’s attention and explain our design–each child was to paint a mandala flower of their own on the wall. Even as we seemed to dive in willy nilly, mixing blue paint and covering the dull concrete walls with sky, a natural creative rhythm emerged. These kiddos had obviously painted before, showing very little hesitancy in covering the wall–and some leaves and their shirts and each other’s hair…—with gusto and creative ambition.
As a team, we all intuitively moved into and out of the hubbub as needed, and I have to say I was impressed by our ability to take action with such flexibility and grace. The frenzied mix of children, paintbrushes, and volunteers was disorienting at first, and I found myself more comfortably settling into the periphery, mixing paint and containing the situation. I was nervous to interact with the kids, too. What would we talk about during the very short time we were to spend together? I felt like by the time I drew a breath to speak, we’d be bidding each other thank you and goodbye, or ‘ah-kun, lea hai’. I felt awkward using my limited Khmer, but I also noticed that some of the kids, especially the teenagers, were having a similar hesitance using what little English they knew. However, in all this we seemed to all share a common feeling of curiosity and excitement. In the midst of this experience, the smaller children fluttered about like little dragonflies with paintbrushes, and pretty soon we filled the four drab concrete walls with a blue sky that matched the one above us.
Emma demonstrated the first mandala flower, showing the kids how to build their mandala from the inside out. Perhaps a pink heart in the middle, with orange lines radiating, surrounded by green squiggly snakes, then purple triangles for petals. The kids caught on quickly, and round balls of color began appearing against the light blue backdrop. Some of our group members worked with specific children throughout the couple hours we painted. Michelle guided what we came to call the ‘girls’ wall.’ Four or so young women huddled in the corner, quietly giggling and and painting beautiful flowers with tiny hearts and stars, swirls and zigzags. Michelle made sure they had all the colors they needed while engaging them in conversation. I was struck by their attention to detail, and got the sense that these flowers actually were extensions of themselves, as the directive originally suggested.
Many of the boys showed up as rambunctious and bold, purposefully painting on each other and other non-wall surfaces. To the left of the girls’ wall was a gathering of teenage boys who painted their flowers accompanied by short graffiti messages written in English, cryptically speaking of missing someone and being in love. The other students laughed at these painted lines of prose, which seemed to hint at an inside joke among the group. They reminded me of a teenage boy band as they stood posturing with masculine gestures, while writing lyrics of love and heartache.
The morning drew to a close as suddenly as it had started, and the kids readied themselves for lunch as we began to clean up and say our goodbyes. Though we hadn’t expected to finish the mural in those three short hours, the wall had quickly been transformed by dozens of painted flowers, mirroring the garden it would soon protect. Our time spent at Anjali house did feel much like an offering, as the name suggests. We and these children came together briefly to bring beauty to their space, both visually and relationally, through the means of art. Though I would have loved to spend a month with them learning Khmer and building more lasting relationships, our offering was more like burning a stick of incense: short, sweet, and representative of a greater devotion.