The Khmer Rouge, Trauma, and Resilience

By Krystel Chamberlain

I can hardly believe my eyes as I flip each calendar page forward and realize it is now a matter of weeks till we go on our Service Learning trip to Cambodia. Soon it will be a matter of days. Many things come up for me as I think about this quickly approaching date. My mind is often filled with thoughts such as: “What, oh what do I pack?”, “Still need to get travel insurance”, and “I’m going to miss my fiancé and my dog so much!” Not to mention my fear of the unknown in a drastically different culture and worries over whether or not I will represent my profession, my school, and my country in the best possible way.

Friends who have been to Cambodia reassure me: “the people are so nice! They are friendly and helpful, and they smile a lot!” This is probably because it is a collectivistic culture. Cambodians may try to please us in order to save face. It is not appropriate to show negative emotion in public either. In many Asian cultures there is a tendency to smile even when one is unhappy or upset. Knowing this, and being a friendly, smiley person myself, I feel relieved.  This will be much different from Europe, where I was the weird one for smiling.

Then I think, really? This does not mesh with another version I have learned of Cambodia. We are going over there to work with women and children who are victims of abuse and sex trafficking. Mothers have sold their own virgin daughters to the highest bidder. Domestic abuse runs rampant. Poverty is the norm and many children must make money for their families by digging in landfills or selling their bodies. Victims of land mines beg in the street. How can this be amongst a people of smiling and kind hosts? Obviously, not everyone is the same, and there is a big difference between the high and low socioeconomic statuses. But I would also like to look at the roles that survival, trauma, and resilience all play.

I recently read two books about survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. I highly recommend them both: “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick. Their accounts paint the picture of the horrible atrocities that Cambodians suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. Loung Ung and Arn Chorn Pond share how they witnessed brutal violence and torture of Cambodian men, women, and children, the deaths of family members, starvation and disease suffered by everyone in sight, including themselves. What they survived is enough to drive anyone mad.

Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her out of her home. She quickly grew to hate them after witnessing their cruelty. At the age of eight she was forced to train as a child soldier and she writes “My skin vibrates with hate and rage…I hate Pol Pot for murdering Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak [sisters]. I stab my wooden stake high into the dummy’s chest, feeling it puncture the body and hit the tree. Hard and fast, I stab it, each time envisioning…Pol Pot.” (Ung, 2000, p. 164).

Arn Chorn Pond was eleven when he was separated from his family and forced to work for the Khmer Rouge. In order to survive he had to follow their every order. He was made to watch a Khmer Rouge soldier kill a group of men by bashing in their heads with an axe. Then Arn had to roll the bodies into a ditch- even if they were still alive. The soldier checks for his reaction and Arn recounts “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” (McCormick, 2012, p.53).


Close to two million people out of a population of seven million died during the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot (Spooner, 2012). William Shawcross describes the environment “where toil was unending, where respite and rewards were non-existent, where families were abolished and where murder was used as a tool of social discipline. The manner of execution was often brutal.” (In Spooner, 2012, p.93). The Khmer Rouge used terror to keep everyone in line.

These are a few examples to give you an idea of the type of trauma the Cambodian people lived through. The adults of Cambodia today were children who lived in a heightened fight, flight or freeze response for four years while the Khmer Rouge were in power.   Most were on the verge of starving to death the entire time as well. Many lost parents, aunts, uncles and other adults who could care for them and guide them after it was all over. This may lend to some understanding of why sex trafficking, abuse, and poverty are so prevalent in Cambodia right now. We know from trauma research that “short- and long-term outcomes of these childhood [traumatic] exposures include a multitude of health and social problems including… alcoholism, drug abuse, fetal death, and interpersonal violence (CDC, 2011, in Steele & Malchiodi, 2012, p. 3). See the blog post by Chelsey Langlinais from March about individual and intergenerational trauma and how we use art therapy to work with it.

It’s actually quite amazing that every Cambodian is not now violent and damaged because of the trauma they went through. Far from it. Human beings are extremely resilient and I believe Cambodians are an example that demonstrates this and I look forward to witnessing it first hand. When I wonder about how people (any group, even in the U.S., and more recently groups involved in sex trafficking) can live in violence and betray the innocence of their own family members, I think it’s helpful to wonder about the kind of trauma they may have gone through. It helps me to try to make sense out of a seemingly senseless thing. I am privileged and lucky enough to not have to know what it is like to put survival (of body and spirit) before everything else.

Loung Ung and Arn Chorn Pond are shining examples of resilience. Ung lives in the U.S. and is an author and spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. Pond lives in Cambodia and has founded Cambodian Living Arts, which strives to preserve traditional arts of Cambodia. We may even get to meet him while we are there! They both have witnessed horrors that I cannot even comprehend, and they are devoting their lives to repair the damage that was done by the Khmer Rouge.

Learning about the genocide that Cambodia suffered puts things into perspective for me. My worries, fears, and expectations about this trip are nothing when I think about how I will witness a people who are so resilient. My heart has hurt for them as I read these books. And I will think about what I have learned when I see beggars, prostitutes, and injured children. And I will think about it when I see smiling people who are trying to make me happy. And I will think about it as I make art beside them.



 Steele, W. & Malchiodi, C. (2012). Trauma-informed practices with children and

            Adolescents. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

 McCormick, P. (2012). Never fall down. New York: Harper Collins.

 Spooner, A. (2012). Cambodia: Footprint Focus. Bath, UK: Footprint Handbooks.

 Ung, L. (2000). First they killed my father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers. New

            York: Harper Collins.



Intentional, Responsible Volunteering Abroad

By Jessica Sabo

Google “Short term volunteer,” and chances are you’ll find dozens of sites offering trips lasting from two weeks to several months where you can pay to volunteer with initiatives in countries from Tanzania to Romania.  You may come across the buzz word “voluntourism”—a controversial new term I learned while researching for this blog post (Deo, 2013).  This trend specifically has turned many orphanages, including those in Cambodia, into businesses driven by tourist needs rather than the children’s needs (Aljazeera, 2012).   Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll also find a number of blogs and articles arguing the positives and negatives of going on overseas volunteer trips (Morgan, 2010).


Negatives? Until recently, I was naively not aware that there could be drawbacks to volunteering abroad.  Raised on volunteer/aid organizations like Habitat for Humanity and World Vision, as a teen I was strongly driven by the sincere desire to “help.”  My church and other organizations gave me numerous opportunities to volunteer and our intent was to spread love, skills and/or service to partnerships they’d made with established NGOs in developing countries.  These trips also emphasized life-changing experiences—ones that opened my eyes to the conditions in developing countries and the visible extent of poverty rarely seen so blatantly in the US.  What could be negative about helping, expanding my perspectives, and seeing the world in the process?

Well, potentially nothing.  But then, potentially a number of things.

I’m not here to perpetuate guilt by slamming this blog post with all the ways well-meaning Westerners can do more harm than good when visiting developing countries. Though if you plan on taking a service gap year or likewise dedicating your time overseas, it’s worth researching.  Actually, PLEASE research it.  There is a list of sites at the bottom of this post to start you off.  You can even go a step further and start a conversation with the organization you’ll be working with, through email or phone, about what is REALLY needed (Jessionka, 2013).  Because the reality is that the desire to “help,” without cultural education and a good hard look at Western privilege, really can do more harm than good. 

As a part of an educational Service-Learning team that plans on bringing our education and skills to several NGOs in Cambodia this May, it is important to me that we approach our trip with as much respect and awareness as possible.  How can we avoid making ethnocentric judgments and assumptions steeped in our Western privilege?  How can our presence be one based in collaboration, sustainability, and mutual benefit?

I consolidated the blogs I read into three brief points that I found to be helpful.  I also found that, thanks to the sincere curiosity and consideration of this year and past years’ NCAS-I teams, we have already started and continue to wrestle with these important conversations:


1. Arrive with some knowledge of local history and culture, the language, and social norms.

Many volunteer and educational groups and individuals visit countries without first educating themselves about how to…well, not stick out like a sore, American thumb.  At best, cultural ignorance can lead to annoyance. At worst, our presence and behavior can potentially insult, disrespect, and disrupt the very people whose hospitality we’re depending on.

We are so fortunate as a team to have Chatti, a woman who lived and worked at an NGO in Cambodia, who has been teaching us basic Khmer and educating us in the social norms and nuances of Cambodian culture.  We may not be able to totally avoid awkward situations, but our goal is to be guests who can actively participate in the culture with grace, respect, and sensitivity.

2. Consider the developmental priorities of the host community before making any projects or plans.

 This one may sound like a no-brainer.  Who of us would appreciate someone coming into our home and telling us what THEY think needs to be done without asking us what our priorities are first?  But believe it or not, this happens all the time.  Volunteer groups often bring ideas for big projects that are not in line with the host site’s priorities, or they bring suitcases of gifts that are not sustainable with the local resources.  This fosters disempowerment and reliance on foreign aid.  Rather, emphasis should be on collaborative projects that lead to continuity and ownership within the host community. 

NCAS-I has received feedback that the art therapy training and interventions we share with the sites are needed, appreciated, and are being used after we leave.  As the program expands and changes, it will be of utmost importance that we continue to communicate with the sites to make sure we’re on the same page.  Our current group is discussing this weekly and weighing ways to realistically utilize local resources and offer interventions that are easily adapted between cultures and available supplies.

3. Be realistic about what can be achieve in the short term.

We will be in Cambodia for three and a half weeks.  It will take at least at least a week to recover from jet lag and adjust to the heat and food and transportation and general culture shock.  Due to the nature of our own learning curves as students, we likely will not drastically change the lives of the clients we meet.  Support and encouragement for our Cambodian colleagues–the local art therapists and counsellors “on the ground”–may be one of our most valuable contributions, and this impact will slowly unfold in the long-term. 

NCAS-I Service-Learning

As a team, we have discussed our goal for this to be a Service (big S) – Learning (big L) project, where the emphasis is on both terms equally.  Our trip has helped to raise awareness in our Boulder community about the trafficking industry and cultural issues in Cambodia.  However, the heart of our actions on the ground is based in a continuous, mutual exchange of knowledge, experience, and opportunity.  We come to Serve by facilitating art therapy education and groups, and we are Served by the NGOs’ accommodation and feedback.  The Cambodian therapists and clients will Learn from the presentations we bring, and we as students will Learn cultural sensitivity, how to administer an assessment, and how art therapy is utilized in another culture. 

The intentional, mutually benefitting nature of this trip is one of its strengths, and I look forward to being a part of growing the relationship between Naropa art therapists and our Cambodian colleagues abroad. 



Aljazeera. (2012, June 27). Cambodia’s orphan business. Aljazeera. Retrieved from

Coles, D. (2012, November 14). A rant about overseas volunteering. Retrieved from

Deo, Ritwik. (2013, January 30). The tragic rise of gap year voluntourism. The Independent. Retrieved from

Jesionka, N. (2013, October 18). How to make a real impact on your volunteer trip. The Muse. Retrieved from

Morgan, J (2010) Volunteer tourism: What are the benefits for international development?. The Voluntourist Newsletter, 6 (2) n.d., Retrieved from

Zakaria, R. (2014, April 21). The white tourist’s burden. Aljazeera. Retrieved from

Art Therapy with Adults and Aging Populations

By Danielle Swaser

Art therapy involves making one’s internal states, thoughts, and feelings external and tangible using various art media, which can be very healing and self-informative.  Children do this almost automatically.  Kelsey talked about this concept in her recent blog post.  She mentioned how amazing it was to witness children in her open studio instinctually process traumatic events they went through using various art materials, sublimating all on their own.  Children have such great imaginations and creativity that spouts out of their ears!  It is no wonder that art therapy works so well children.

Recently I have had conversations with older adults about art therapy and it has been interesting to find similar thoughts among them.  They told me that when they think about art therapy, and who would benefit from it, children are who come to mind.  One woman explained that, at least here in the U.S., most children already draw and paint and are excited to do any kind of art, so using art as a means for therapy seems logical and very beneficial for this population.  But what about adults?  Because this topic has been brought up so much in my life recently, I wondered if maybe there are many other people out there who share this association with art therapy and children, and perhaps that it warrants some further explanation and exposure of how art therapy can be introduced to, and beneficial for the adult and elderly populations.

As mentioned earlier, it can be more common among children to take part in art activities.  When we grow up and become adults and go further into the aging process, art can be lost and can become a foreign activity, maybe even scary and intimidating.  As I train to become an art therapist, I wonder just how I will introduce the idea of doing art as therapy with the aging population, some of whom may not have engaged in art in a very long time, if at all.  As we set out for our trip to Cambodia, I think of when we will visit the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC).  There will be more adult and elderly women and I envision different scenarios of working with them and incorporating art.  Just how is art therapy beneficial for adults?

As adults, we tend to intellectualize things more than children.  It may be difficult for some adults to take that first step and pick up a paintbrush or chalk and make a mark.  Some may wonder how smearing green paint on a canvas is going to be therapeutic for them (just as an example).  I have recently learned about gerontology.  It is the study of the social, psychological, and biological aspects of aging.  Some of these common aspects of aging need to be considered and addressed when working specifically with the aging population, they are different than when working with children.  According to the Area Agency on Aging (2013), “the aging process happens during an individual’s lifespan and is associated with growth, maturation, and discovery.”  No matter what the age of a client, the art therapist must strive to stay curious and learn about them as much as the client is willing.  As an art therapist when working with the aging population, it may be beneficial to familiarize yourself as to where the client is at in regards to their life stage and how they view the concept of their own aging.  These insights could help in using art as therapy. 

Some therapeutic issues that may bring aging clients into art therapy may have to do with biological aging, the physical changes that reduce the efficiency of organ systems (Hooyman, 2011) such as stroke, cancer, and pain or disability (MHAMD, 2014).  Other therapeutic issues could have to do with social aging, which could involve an individual’s changing roles and relationships with family, friends, and other informal supports, productive roles, and within organizations (Hooyman, 2011).  As well as involving therapeutic issues that have to do with psychological aging.  These could be changes that occur in sensory and perceptual processes, cognitive abilities, adaptive capacity, and personality (Hooyman, 2011).

Keeping all of this in mind, here are a few benefits that art therapy can have with the aging population:

  • The creative process can rekindle new energy and reawaken potential in older adults.
  • Specifically, art therapy can help to increase and sharpen cognitive and perceptual skills, stimulate the senses, and regenerate social interaction.
  • Art can assist in the exploration of legacy and what individuals are leaving behind, such as creating and writing a memoir book.
  • Art can help manifest a sense of self-worth and foster reflection on life.

(Wald, 2003)

  • From a systems approach, art therapy can enhance relationships between the elderly and their families by bringing everyone together and helping to establish better understanding.
  • Art can cultivate humor and allow for expression of fear, anger, and grief surrounding the concept of death and dying.
  • Focusing on creating can transport clients into art and experience relief from illness related to stress and medical conditions.

(Wadeson, 2010)

Recently my mom has gotten back into art.  She has been exploring watercolors and different watercolor paper.  She meets quite regularly and paints with another watercolor artist who has been teaching her some techniques.  Since my mom has started painting I have noticed positive changes in her and her outlook on life.  She explains that “when I paint it is similar to a meditative experience. It feels freeing and allows me to let go of my thoughts and stressors of everyday life.   I am transported into a different state where I can be totally absorbed in my art process.  I can concentrate on color and the composition of my artwork.  It is so soothing.”  Although my mom is not in art therapy, this is a wonderful example of how art can have beneficial effects on an adult.  Here is one of her artworks.




Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. (2013). What is normal aging? Retreived February 3, 2014, from

Artwork by Rasma Swaser (2014).

Hooyman, N.R.; Kiyak, H.A. (2011). Social gerontology: A multidisciplinary perspective (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education. ISBN 0205763138.

Mental Health Association of Maryland. Mental health and aging: Physical changes. Retreived February 3, 2014, from

Wadeson, H. (2010). Art Psychotherapy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Wald, J. (2003). Clinical art therapy with older adults. in C. Malchiodi (Ed.), Handbook of art therapy (294-307). New York, NY, Guilford Press.


NCAS-I 2013-2014 TEAM


NCAS-I 2013-2014 TEAM

Please meet this year’s team! We have been preparing for our trip to Cambodia since August 2013. With only one month left until we depart, we are looking forward to learning more about international social justice organizations and service, as well as witnessing the healing power of Art Therapy.

Please click on the link below to learn more about the team.