Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center: a mid-week reflection

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.



Creating Connections

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.Image

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. image

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

The House of Offerings

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.


Angkor Temples

10360561_714047481992393_1623925664002388595_n[2]by Kelsey Butler

We began our second full day in Cambodia bright and early at 5am, heading to the ancient temples of Angkor for a sunrise meditation and day of exploring. Although it was still dark when we awoke, the almost-full moon brightened up the streets of Siem Reap and we were about as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we could be given the hour. We arrived at the first temple, Ankgor Wat, with some time to spare, snapped a few group pictures, and found a quiet secluded area to begin our day with a group sit.

A little history lesson for you… The region of Angkor is on the outskirts of Siem Reap. It is filled with ancestral temples spanning miles across the breathtaking landscape. The Angkor Era began in 802 AD and fell in 1431, leaving a timeless mark on history with the many temples left behind. The era began with Jayavarman II subjugating an area of land the size of Cambodia and crowning himself chakravartin – universal monarch. He became the founder of the Khmer empire and chose an area 8 miles outside of Siem Reap as the empire’s first capital. Under his rule, Preah Ko and Bakong were the first temples built in Angkor. In the decades following, the kings built many more temples to continue the tradition of their predecessors. These temples were originally for the Hindu religion, but after the empire fell they became inhabited by Buddhist monks and are now regarded as Buddhist temples. Ankgor Wat, the most famous temple, is arguably the largest religious monument in the world. (Ranges, 2009)

 photo 2  photo 1 1688248_752913848017_3057875128008876870_n[1]

(explore the temples interactively here)

As we began our time in Angkor Wat with a group meditation, my mindfulness was put to the test. Never before had I meditated in this kind of environment. Sure, I had done my share of sitting outdoors, but this was different. Cambodia is the epitome of humid and hot, especially during May (one of their hottest months of the year). It’s equivalent to a Bikram Yoga class – you sweat so continuously that eventually you forgo wiping the drips away because it’s just not worth it. Even before the sun was fully up, as we sat on the stones and focused on our breathing I couldn’t help but notice the slow drops making their way down my face, back, arms…you name it. The flies were drawn to our group as well, causing my mind dance between the ticklish fly landings and the steady drops of perspiration. My ability to let be and let go was definitely tested.

 Even so, there was an energy in the air that made everything not only bearable, but pleasant. That’s something I have learned in the past week of being in this beautiful country – even within the discomfort and suffering, there is so much beauty and joy. I find myself exhausted due to my disrupted jet-lagged sleep and constantly drenched from the heat, yet still I can’t help but smile. I’m so happy to be with this group of incredible women, working and growing together. As Jessica shared during our initiation ritual the first night, we each have our own intention and reason for being here but we can rely on each other’s support in order to fulfill our personal, and the group’s, intentions.

Back to Angkor Wat…our meditation was truly beautiful, even amdist all of the distractions. It set the tone for the day. As I continued exploring the ancient ruins, I felt as if I was on a walking meditation journey – present, reflective, and aware. We took group pictures and then split off, sometimes with a partner and other times off on our own.

One of my (many) favorite parts of the day happened early on. Throughout the temples were altars and shrines set up with incense, statues of gods and goddesses, and intricate decorations. At one of these temples, Sue encountered a monk and, having some experience at Angkor Wat, motioned toward a book that he was holding. He graciously began to offer blessings to nearby onlookers. One at a time, someone would sit down on the small carpet with the monk. As he tied a red braided bracelet onto their wrist, carefully knotting it five times, he offered Khmer blessings. After rubbing the bracelet back and forth on their wrist and tapping it a few times, he reached for his book. The guest held the book on top of their head, took a sort of nail-shaped-pen-pointer object, and poked it into one of the pages. The man would take the book off their head, open it to the page they had blindly indicated, and read their fortune. Chatti translated whenever one of the members of our NCAS-I group went so that we could understand what he said. As I watched, I thought “Oh this is pretty cool,” thinking it was like a fortune cookie or some random tidbit of knowledge that could potentially work for anyone. And then I decided to give it a go.


When I sat down, I immediately felt a change in my energy. I suddenly had the urge to cry and the air around me become more dense. It was as if this tiny carpet we sat on together created a sacred boundary between us and the rest of the world. The crowd of people melted into the background and I was focused on what was happening between the monk and me. It was truly a transpersonal experience. I can’t speak for everyone, but my fortune was unique to my situation and could not have fit more perfectly. It was what I needed to hear in that moment, and allowed me to relax once more into being. What a special reminder that these deep interconnected moments happen when we least expect them.

I separated from the group after this experience, feeling a desire to have some space and to trust where my feet took me. I headed to a new area that was more hidden, away from the ancient temples. Here, I found young orange-robed monks-in-training inhabiting temples and buildings. One structure resembled a school, with a chalkboard and children reciting after the teacher. Another was a beautiful temple painted with bright colors, large statues, and a very out-of-place Hello Kitty clock. I made my way to a rock under a tree with a nice view of a few different buildings and pulled out my watercolors and pencils. Sketching the lively scene and the characters that inhabited it, I felt happy and a deep sense of comfort even in this strange atmosphere.

A couple of young boys dressed in jeans and plaid shirts looked like they were doing chores for the monks. I watched them attempt to maneuver a gigantic wagon full of baskets, laughing and goofing off when (who I assume was) their supervisor turned his back. One of them noticed me and walked over, hesitant yet curious. I invited him to look as I added color to the sketches, and pointed out the wagon and his green shirt on my page. He smiled bashfully and sat by my side as I finished the painting, double-checking with each stroke that my color choices were accurate. When I finished, I looked at him, smiled, and a thought crossed my mind. I wonder if my new little buddy would like to keep this painting? This was the first painting I’d done in Cambodia, and I noticed a small pang of possession. Taking a deep breath, I tore the picture out gently and held it out to him. He accepted it, nodding approval. All of my hesitations melted away at this instant, and I was filled instead with a deep sense of connection and warmth. THIS is a big part of what art therapy is all about – communicating through images, being in contact, and taking risks at different behaviors. In a small way, I was able to let be and let go.


The rest of the day we explored the temples at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, our experiences filled with other amazing stories along the way. A small group of us ended the day creating more watercolor images at Ta Prohm, once again sharing some beautiful moments of connection with passerbyers. Something I realized today is probably pretty obvious, but it blew my mind – people are interested in art! They find it fascinating and frightening at the same time. If given an opening, more times than not a stranger will approach and open up to you. Today I observed, once again, that the artistic language is an opening for connection and growth if allowed the space to just be. In the comfort of art’s familiar language, I can navigate this world of the unknown.


Ranges, T. (2009). Angkor. In National geographic traveler: Cambodia. Washington, D.C.:National Geographic Society.

Photographs by Chatti Phal Brown, a friendly Cambodian who went by “Starbucks” and myself 🙂

Arriving in Cambodia

Blog post by Michelle Bosco

What does it mean to arrive somewhere? There is so much to be said about this experience. Physically, you journey through countless hours of waiting, landing, and taxing. You endure the not so great airplane food, the crying baby, and the uncomfortable middle seat just so you can arrive and experience something new. Then there is the push and pull of mentally arriving. Sometimes jetlag can be a significant factor. But, at some point, you arrive and you ingest the sights, smells, and sounds of a new environment. I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia on May 15th, 2014, along with the other members of the NCAS-I team.

My first step off of the plane and onto Cambodian soil was filled with relief, excitement, and a lot of humidity. I felt even more at ease once we reached our hotel, Soria Moria. This quaint and hospitable hotel strives to positively impact the local community and help facilitate long-term economic development in areas of Siem Reap. Since NCAS-I strives to be a social justice organization, it seemed fitting that we decided to stay at an establishment that supports multiple causes for social justice.

One organization in partnership with Soria Moria is called Friends International. Friends-International is a social enterprise dedicated to protecting marginalized children and youth, their families, and their communities in South East Asia and across the world. The primary focus is to offer people an opportunity to build better futures. Friends-International sustains their vision by developing various partnerships and businesses, including managing restaurants and shops. These businesses offer job-training programs for marginalized young people to work behind the scenes and gain hands-on learning. They also provide income to further support the mission.

The NCAS-I team and I ate at Marum, a premier dining spot in Siem Reap, and also a non-government organization (NGO) within the Friends-International network. We were welcomed in a similar manner to how we were welcomed at the Soria Moria Hotel: with warmth and kindness. The staff members were committed to giving us the best possible experience and we gratefully accepted their kindheartedness. The Soria Moria is partnered with the Anjali House, which is also one of NCAS-I’s partner organizations. Anjali House is a non-profit organization that provides food, healthcare, and education to under-privileged kids and families in Siem Reap. The Soria Moria currently provides trainee placement for three young adults from the Anjali House. The hotel also sells products from the Anjali House and Friends-International. Here is a photo of all of the products that are sold!


Photo credit: Jessica Sabo

We will also be working with people at the Anjali House, collaborating and painting a joint mural with them! Please stay tuned to hear more about our time there. Although I mentioned these two incredible partners, there are several other organizations that Soria Moria is affiliated with. To learn more about the others, please see their website.

Earlier I spoke to the nature of physically and mentally arriving, but one piece I didn’t mention was about emotionally arriving. Just saying it feels heavier and more complex to me. It requires more, but also rewards more. For me, connecting to several Cambodian people wasn’t difficult, but beautiful. I’ve had small moments of connection with the staff members at our hotel and at restaurants I’ve visited, but the one memory that stands out to me is when I met a Cambodian family at the temples of Angkor Wat. I stood behind a woman and exchanged several glances and gestures with the baby on her shoulder. She turned around and we began talking, which was more like a dance between understanding words and using facial expressions and hand gestures to make up for any confusion. We were separated by the crowd, but somehow we found each other a bit later and reconnected. I was so glad to see her sweet family again and she was excited as well, as she asked to be my Facebook friend. She has already reached out to me and even invited me to her home in Phnom Penh.


Photo credit: Megan Nemire

The conversation and little glances we shared were enough to make a meaningful impact on my journey. I may still be adjusting to the physical discomfort of 100 degree heat and the mental disorientation of jetlag, but I feel comfort in the fact that I experienced true connection. Through this emotional experience, I feel like I have arrived.

Blind Spots, Fear, Anger, Connection, and Whole Human-ness

Image(Aiya Leah Staller, 2013)

By Aiya Leah Staller

As an individual with a history of working with various social justice organizations while committing to studying power dynamics, oppression, and how systems affect communities, I felt at a loss entering this Service-Learning Trip. The preparation has proved to be a shadow-illuminating process as I confront my own guilt and shame around owning the unearned privileges that I have. I’ve made this type of journey before, but this time I re-visited things that I thought I had “moved past” so-to-speak. I don’t know that I will ever truly move past them. Instead, I will live with them and do what I must to reconcile this within myself. Being stuck with guilt and shame will not serve me.  Instead, I seek a way to stay connected and continue to work towards what helps heal the inequalities in the world.


Part of the reason that human trafficking happens, is because of systems that benefit a few.  Systems, such as unlivable wages for garment workers, objectification of women, or the false orphanages that profit off of uninformed volunteers, anger me (Barry, 1994; Zakaria, 2014). This is just a piece of the multi-faceted issue of human/sex-trafficking’s relationship to poverty and systemic oppression. I didn’t want to accept my own privileges, as it feels uncomfortable to know that I simultaneously benefit and am hurt by the inequalities in the world. Also, knowing that people may see me as part of the problem, even as I strive to not be, is a difficult path to walk. A part of me wondered, “Maybe it is true, I am just part of the problem and it would be better if I just leave them alone.” I feared not being enough, or knowing enough, to be of service.


At the beginning of the year, a rising desire to drop out of the trip was related to fear of working with my own blind spots and anger, especially since I have held such passion for social justice work. I wanted to question other peoples’ role in contributing to systems of oppression, not my own relationship to it in the context of a service-learning trip. Acknowledging developing an international relationship as a dance of needed ambiguity and unknowns is uncomfortable. Even though I have some powerful teachers in the form of supervisors, NGO therapists, clients, a personal therapist, and peers, sitting with the truths of disconnection and violence is still difficult. I wanted to do things the comfortable known way, not the messy way, where my own relationship with these forces is brought to light. I’m realizing that working with things as they are is the best that I can do right now.

Image (Aiya Leah Staller, 2014) What do I do with what I see? 

In art therapy, we speak of the alchemical elements of the creative process (Kalmanowitz, Potash, & Chan, 2012, p. 318). Through becoming absorbed in a process, all elements are transformed. The preparation for this Service-Learning trip has been an alchemical process for me. It has challenged me to explore hard questions and look at my own cultural edges. By staying with this, I notice my excitement grow as I sit with my art materials while imagining meeting people and creating art together. This process is not complete. When I do meet the people of Cambodia, we will truly enter the container of cultural learning and transformation. This is the parallel experience of healing in a therapeutic relationship that transpersonal psychology speaks of (Cortright, 1997).


As part of the process of developing international community, I have been interested in how an individual shows up in the world. A quote by Parker Palmer comes to mind, “Community cannot take root in a divided life. Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must be present as a seed in the undivided self: only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.” (Hooks, 2000, p. 128). I am doing the work on this side of the world to prepare for meeting the women at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), where I will be presenting a self-care art process. Acknowledging, being gentle with, and accepting all that comes up in myself is part of the work that I need to do in order to be present there.


One day, during this learning process, I found myself crying, upset, and wanting to destroy something out of my frustration with feeling powerless in relationship to these systems. My sister, who has been an inspirational devotee to social and environmental justice for me, shared an article about the practice of service. In it, there was written, “Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude” (Remen, 1999). I’m so grateful for this trip preparation process. I’ve learned to stop more and connect to the beauty and resilience there is in this world as well. I don’t need to fix systems right now. I can strive to show up as my whole self with the people in front of me.   Maybe that is part of the secret to systemic healing all along; acknowledging our inter-connection and practicing not turning away. The learning will continue from here.


Many of the original critical questions I held have dropped away in the final 6 days before leaving for Cambodia. I’m beyond excited to serve and learn there, as we have been invited and welcomed. I find myself, instead of being filled with guilt, overwhelmed with gratitude for the privilege that I have to go on this trip, practice art therapy in Cambodia with the people there, and be given the opportunity to embrace and be confronted by my own human-ness.


Image (Aiya Leah Staller, 2013)



Barry, K. (1994). Female sexual slavery. New York University Press.

Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.

Hooks, B. (2000). All about love: new visions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Kalmanowitz, D., Potash, J., & Chan, S. M. (2012). Art therapy in Asia: to the bone or wrapped in silk. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Remen, N. (1999). Helping, fixing, or serving? Shambbhala sun.

Zakaria, R. (2014). Poverty is not a spectacle. The New York Times (May 1).





Carrying the Brush: Reconnecting to the Ally of Imagination

By: Megan Nemire

Welcome to my imagination, in the days before embarking on this journey to Cambodia.

I imagine a part of myself as an archetypal warrior of justice, in my own way. Privy to the tragedy and suffering of the masses I’ll soon encounter, there I stand, silhouetted shield and weapon in hand, survival belt across my waist. There is a flash of light, and with a further look, the sword is rather dull, with fanned bristles, rising triumphantly over my head toward the sky. A drop of paint slowly sinks down from it toward the earth and me. I’m not here for a fight. Rather than round to deflect bullets, my shield is flat with rectangular geometry, penetrable canvas stretched across wooden framed edges, absorbing the atmosphere. Survival kit at the base of my spine has a travel watercolor kit, pack of colored pencils, the wisdom to breathe, the courage to create. Not to mention, there’s my band of imaginal allies. My imagination muses a little more and I let out my cry: “I COME WITH AAAAAAART!” I shout atop painted mountains, surrounded by still-life drawings and abstract expressions of nature.

And then I feel ridiculous. There it goes, that imagination of mine. Part archetype, part reality, part humor, what is that? I mean really, as lovely and colorful as that is… it sounds trivial, right? Warrior Art Therapist of my imagination, are you a humorous application of my career as an archetype, or is there validity to you? How do you fight a war with a paintbrush? How do you claim to support your self, your work, your clients— with a canvas? How on earth can you say that art can be healing in the wake of generational disaster, genocide, and evil?

Thank goodness for the wisdom of mentors. The words of Pat Allen ring so true: “[the art therapist] must be willing to be in the paradox that, on one hand, making art is ridiculously inadequate, and on the other, making art in service to the pain of the world is necessary” (Allen, 2007, p. 75).

With a deep breath and sigh of relief, I lower the brush onto the canvas shield, guide my awareness through my body, and exhale a shaky but strong dark blue line. It’s an image of the internal sensation of what is true for my shaky breath and overfilled heart as I approach the threshold of this Service Learning quest. Yes, I feel hopeless and devastated at the suffering of traumatized and exploited women, men, and children. And yes, with that same gestural painted line, I savor the tremendous somatic relief and existential realization: I can have art and suffering. And when I have art, I have something more than materials. I have an ally.

It is true, we cannot expect to transform the world with a paintbrush alone. The acts of art require attention, and care, for which some people and systems do not have patience, time, or necessity. So, what can a group of budding art therapists really do in a broken situation, the inescapable realities of our clients? According to Allen et al, we must bare witness to the world, and “midwife the images that the soul of the world sends to [us]” (73). We can “[offer] art as a respite, a momentary pause in an awful reality” (74). Of course, many people we will encounter will not have awful realities. Some will. Perhaps for some, a momentary pause doesn’t sound like much. However, we cannot deny the opportunities for another being to be seen, just as they are. We cannot know if it is the first time a person is witnessed and treated with respect; the first time they are seen, and not touched.

No, we cannot change the dominant negative paradigms that oppress and silence. We can do something else. Bit (1991) writes, “Cambodian culture is endowed with unlimited human potential to see the inner world of imagination to find new truths” (152). We can support them in remembering this ally they have known all along. We must sit and acknowledge the pain that is reality for so many, with humility, and mirror-like grace. And when we feel triggered or called to action, we can take down the brush and give shape and color to the truth of our own feelings, and own them. If attacked by painful experience, hold up the canvas shield and collect the spray. In this way, art can be an intermediary, a filter, a comrade.

In my own life, art has been a savior, a rival, a mirror, and an adrenaline shot of reality. When the pain of past or present grows too strong to hold inside myself, art has been there to hold it for me. I can hide the images, burn them, hang them as inspiration, give them as gifts. This is a profound privilege, and coping skill.

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, art and expression were specifically targeted for eradication from the culture. This particular aggression (one of many horrors of the genocide) was an attack on hope, internal resources, and the notion of freedom and expression. It is enraging to consider. My Warrior Art Therapist self raises her needles and thread for this one, and creates gowns from old clothing, repurposing scraps that was used and torn, into a completely unique and intricate garment, standing for voice, and justice. I cannot remedy these ills of humankind, but I can witness them, and create art in honor of justice and social change. I can show others, and tell them what is happening.

“Images of hope are potent and necessary: they shape our goals and give us impetus for reaching them… Many of us are….groping in the dark with shattered beliefs and faltering hopes, and we need images for that time if we are to work through it” (Macy, 1991, p. 25). This is what we can do. Sure, it may begin on a micro level, which seems small for systems thinkers. It takes a bit of faith to believe there is power in reminding people of the value of images. In the words of Allen et al, “these tools [of art] are [our] passage to the place of all possibilities. These are our paths to the imagination and hope. Here we can fall apart over and over, dissolving our resistance to our grief and strengthening our ability to say yes to life again and again- not merely on behalf of our designated client but on behalf of the institution and, most importantly, on our own behalf” (75). We have the privilege to walk these paths with others.




Allen, P. (2007). Wielding the shield: The Art therapist as conscious witness in the realm  of social action. In Kaplan, F. (Ed.), Art therapy and social action (40-55). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Bit, S. (Ed.) (1991) The Warrior heritage. A Psychological perspective of Cambodian Trauma. Le  Cerrito, CA: Seanglim Bit.

Macy, J. (1991). World as lover, World as self. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.Image