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.

Art as a Language

By Kelsey Butler


You may know quite well the tune “It’s a Small World” (sorry to get it stuck in your head…again), but it’s not only smiles and tears that are a universal human language. Art has a way of cutting through language barriers to form an intimate connection between people of entirely different cultures. Not only that, but “the use of art for healing and mastery is at least as old as the drawings on the walls of caves,” (Rubin, 2005, p. 6). Throughout time and history mankind has attempted to share their internal experience with their community. Art ranges in styles and media depending on the culture, but it is consistently seen as a source of releasing, processing, and understanding. That’s what makes art so special – it crosses gaps in conversation in a way that few other things can.

As an art instructor at a children’s art studio in town, I’ve witnessed how preverbal children are able to communicate through markers or paint even when they can’t form words. It is instinctual to our human nature to create, to share, to sublimate. What is sublimation in art, you may ask? That’s an extremely important part of why art is such an instinct for people of all ages. In the most basic definition, to sublimate through art is to formally externalize the internal world. As humans we have a drive to create an external representation of our internal experience, to create formal expressions through art media as a way to process our lives. In doing this, we allow ourselves to psychologically and physically act out our impulses in a socially accepted way. For more on sublimation check out Edith Kramer’s works, particularly the chapter called Art Therapy and Sublimation in Art as Therapy (Kramer, 2000).

When working with a client from another culture, utilizing art therapy can feel more effortless and safe than other Western psychotherapeutic orientations. Marxen (2003) found that one advantage of art therapy for multicultural populations is the client’s ability to use their own symbolization without the pressure of having to adjust or adapt to the therapist or host country’s culture. Her research also shows that “art therapy reduces the importance of verbalization so the [client] does not have to know well the therapist’s language,” (p. 1). Malchiodi (2003) agrees with Marxen’s findings, adding that “creativity and nonverbal imagery is inherent in all people…art therapy seems a logical choice in serving individuals and families of diverse populations,” (p. 384).

ImageArt History is Not Linear by Ryan McGinness


Not only is art a language that bridges people of different tongues, but it also offers a language for a universal yet incomprehensible human experience – trauma. When an individual experiences trauma they go into a fight, flight, or freeze response, regressing into their youngest preverbal self activated by the brain stem. This is an important and useful defense in the midst of a traumatic moment because it allows our psychological world to be put on hold in order to make it through the experience as sanely as possible. 

Once the trauma is over and the individual is safe and ready to process the event, it can be hard to recall exactly what happened. As you read in Chelsey’s post last week, the survivor can feel unpredictable and unstable. They might feel confused, like the experience happened in a blur or on a chaotic timeline that doesn’t make any sense. There are no words to explain their experience, but the trauma is pent up inside of them aching to be seen, validated, and released. 

When you think about it, of course these memories are hard to access – the individual was in a regressed and extreme state during the trauma. There was no way for their memory to be intact because the primary concern was staying alive. There’s no time to take in anything concrete, the only focus is on making it through this experience. That’s where art comes in.

Many times traumatic experiences are recalled primarily through images. Art allows space to bypass vocabulary that can sometimes taint or hinder parts of the exact experience. When a survivor of trauma is allowed to simply draw, mold, or paint their experience versus articulate the events, there is much more room for the true story to be told. It allows for the reconnection of implicit images and explicit memories of the experience, bridging the sensory and the narrative of what happened. In allowing for the release of the trauma into a formed expression, “the sensory-based qualities of art and expressive arts are key to helping individuals communicate traumatic memories, repair, and recover,” (Malchiodi, 2012). 

A few days after the flood in Boulder last Fall I was teaching an Open Studio class for children ages 1 – 12. Kids have the creative freedom to move from station to station to work on different art projects and materials. I stopped by the clay station and spoke with a 5 year old boy who was a regular at Open Studio.

“Will you tell me about your creation?” I asked curiously.

The child looked at me and simply stated “This is the mud that came down the mountain behind our house. See the rocks? These are the people driving away looking at it. That one is me.”

I was in awe. Without even being directed, this child instinctually was processing the trauma of watching a mudslide take down his house. As I moved through the stations, story after story was told through each child’s artwork. A flooded basement with floating legos at the painting table, a family dog wading through a backyard at the paper arts station, a demolished school covered with blue marks of “water” at the next table…everywhere I turned were more and more stories of the children’s experiences of the flood. I was in awe at the automatic response to recreate their stories, but in reality it made total sense. A traumatic event had occurred in these kids’ daily lives and they needed some way to sublimate and share.


My own art therapy – processing around the Boulder Flood


I want to be clear – Art Therapy is not solely for kids. People of all ages can benefit from finding their artistic language. The instinct is inside of all of us waiting to be let free. This language that transcends cultures and experiences can heal the most wounded of us all. Imagine if one’s life was consumed by traumatic experiences. Think about the drive to create for those populations, and how much can be done to support this. That’s my hope for our trip to Cambodia this Spring. I want to open up space to allow this artistic language to be explored. By creating a safe atmosphere and the materials to support this exploration, my hope is that the resilient survivors of human trafficking and poverty in Cambodia can look inside themselves and release the language that has been there all along.



Kramer, E. (2000). Art therapy and sublimation. Art as therapy (39-46). Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Rubin, J. (2005) Roots. Child Art Therapy (3-18). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Malchiodi, C. (2013, March 06).Retrieved from

Malchiodi, C. (2003). Handbook of art therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Marxen, E. (2003). The benefits of art therapy in the immigration field. Migra-salut-mental. Retrieved from

McGiness, R. (2009). Art history is not linear, panel 7 [Painting]. Retrieved from


Individual and Intergenerational Trauma

ImageBy Chelsey Langlinais 

What does trauma look like on an individual and cultural level?

While preparing for our Service Learning trip there are many different things that as a group and individually we need to be aware of before we leave, and while we are in Cambodia. An important and central factor in the work we will be doing is trauma. But trauma does not only mean that we will be working with people who have experienced trauma themselves, there is also transgenerational trauma, which the Cambodian people hold as a nation, inflicted on their ancestors by the Khmer Rouge. 

According to the American Psychological Association trauma is defined as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”.

Transgenerational trauma is defined as trauma that was transferred from the first generation of survivors that have experienced or witnessed it directly in the past to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors.  Steinberg states that survivors can directly and indirectly share their feelings of anxiety with their offspring (1989).

What types of art therapy could be useful for working with trauma survivors in Cambodia?

For survivors, Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy (Malchiodi, 2013) is useful in 4 main ways including, the mind and body respond to traumatic events; 2.recognition that symptoms are adaptive coping strategies rather than pathology; 3.emphasis on cultural sensitivity and empowerment; 4.helping to move individuals from being not only survivors, but ultimately to becoming “thrivers” through skill building, support networks, and resilience enhancement.

According to Tan, art therapy has been proven to improve the mental health of women who have been trafficked by giving them purpose and empowering them. Using art can allow for difficult emotions to be felt and expressed in a safe environment (pp. 296).

While in Cambodia we will be using art interventions to assist and teach these skills through group work and experiential opportunities. We will be working closely with the staff members at our partner organizations, to best assist the clientele in appropriate ways. Mainly we will be working with women who have been sex-trafficked, children who have been orphaned, and poverty stricken nation in general, using art therapy to assist in these healing processes.  

Examples of possible art interventions will include a puppet theater, and handmade puppets, mask making, creating dream catchers, etc. These interventions are directly helpful in working with trafficking because of the ability of metaphor to happen, and also for re-authoring of their stories to empower these women and children. In doing these interventions we hope to leave behind the tools and skills for the participants to continue the work of art therapy after we leave. “The power of art is its potential to express metaphorical life experiences of the conscious and unconscious, the individual and collective, through the creative process”(Essame, pp.  99).  

Also in the case of transgenerational trauma the“…arts provide a reference for individual and collective cultural identity… (and)…play a key role in empowering Cambodian people, who suffered a loss of cultural dignity during and after the Khmer Rouge Holocaust…”(Herbert, pp. 220).  Individual trauma could also be directly related to, or more deeply rooted within someone, because of the transgenerational trauma that Cambodian people already suffer with.  This is why it is vital for this trip to be aware of the multiple kinds of trauma that could be affecting the work we will be doing.

Examples of the art therapy techniques we will be practicing include group work, and utilizing an open studio model using art as therapy. We will provide stations with pre-planned art directives, providing opportunities to create together as a group or individually in the group setting. The goal for this kind of open studio model will be for connection to happen, a sense of community and fun, but also to create objects with sustainable materials (bracelets, scarves, eye pillows) that will be sold so they can better provide for their families.

What is my goal on this trip?

My goal on this trip is not to try and “fix” anything, because who am I to say what needs fixing, I only wish to offer what I can to people who may benefit from it. I want to share my passion for creating and the therapeutic power that art holds. I also wish to extend my heart and my hands to the people we will be working with, feel the heaviness, see the resiliency, and make a connection by using art as a meeting ground and communication tool. I also hope to gain a deeper awareness of the power art can have for myself by creating my own empathy art throughout this trip.



Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal (2014).

Essame, C. (2012). Collective versus individualist societies and the impact of Asian values on art therapy in Singapore. In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.91-101). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Herbert, C. (2012). The integration of arts therapy and traditional Cambodian arts and rituals in recovery from political-societal trauma. In In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.209-220). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Malchiodi, C.(2013, March 06).Retrieved from

Steinberg, A. (1989). Holocaust survivors and their children: A review of the clinical literature. In P. Marcus & A. Rosenberg (Eds.), Healing their wounds: Psychotherapy with Holocaust survivors and their families (pp.24-48). New York: Praegar

Tan,L. (2012). Surviving Shame: Engaging art therapy with trafficked survivors in south East Asia. In D. Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.283-296). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Response Art, and the Art of Listening Well

By Liz Maher       March 5th, 2014

As we prepare for the experience of traveling across the globe to sit with strangers, my biggest concern is my ability to be a good listener and witness. Our time together will be brief, so it is essential that when we sit with our Cambodian clients, we are fully present. Training to become Art Therapists, a big focus is on honing the ability to connect empathically to someone else’s experience while managing one’s own emotional reactions. This entails negotiating a balance between the head and the heart, being neither emotionally hijacked to the point of overwhelm, nor clamoring to the safe highground of the intellectual realm, but being able to share in the qualitative experience of the other while maintaining objective neutrality, understanding where one’s experience ends and the other’s begins.

Recently I shared something personal with a friend, and was unhappy about the way my story was received. What upset me was that our interaction felt familiar, a communication pattern often played out between men and women. As I spent a few days processing through art, I realized this is part of a pattern enacted all the time when there is a power imbalance, and realized the high likelihood of it being played out during the course of our work in Cambodia.

When someone in a position of privilege listens to a story told by someone of lesser privilege, there exists a vulnerable power dynamic. The sharer of the story places a great deal of hope in the story as a vessel for being understood. Perhaps the receiver of the story is in a position to effect change on a systemic level. Sharing a story of trauma is inherently re-traumatizing, the sharer of the story is re-living the event under the gaze of another. How that story is received can be the difference between deepening the groove of the trauma pattern, or having a transformative corrective experience.

I will share with you an example of how it might feel when a story is received incorrectly, specifically when it whisked away into the sterile realm of rationality. You have been handed a precious beating heart, something that has been the lived experience of this person for years, and has informed all of their decisions, colored their perceptions, inhabited their dreams and nightmares. Then you take it away from them, take that beating heart out of context. You intellectualize it, explain it, make it manageable. You cut it off from the organism in which it lives, and you kill that beating heart, so it becomes a dry shriveled relic, something to be viewed behind glass, easily understood and digested and forgotten. You fulfill what you view as your moral obligation, and you chose the moment where you get to walk away. This is not listening. It is holding a hot potato and tossing it before you get burned. It is the discomfort with our own feelings around that beating heart that compel us to fold it up into a neat package as quickly as possible. We tend to call something “resolved” when we are ready to put it on a shelf and not deal with it anymore.

Having their experience minimized makes the sharer of the story feel profoundly dismissed and devalued. A verbal response is not always the most appropriate response. Being a witness is what matters. Being seen, heard, and accurately reflected back to is what matters. That is where validation occurs, and where healing can begin. If the receiver begins to work out a solution before the sharer has finished speaking, the sharer feels even more alienated, disconnected, and misunderstood than before. It reinforces the message that this story is not palatable and not to be shared, and that she must bury it and be alone. This furthers the sense of isolation, hopelessness and withdrawal.

Here is some artwork I made around that communication experience.


Earlier this year, I watched the documentary “Half the Sky”, which features incredible women in developing countries who are doing advocacy work for oppressed women and girls. Several vignettes in this documentary were upsetting for what I saw as an offensive degree of cultural insensitivity in the condescending interactions between local women and the visiting celebrities. I’d like to preface the following story by saying that I do not mean to undercut the work that celebrities do when they visit an impoverished country. The celebrities who starred in “Half the Sky” do a tremendous service by bringing media awareness to painful topics that would otherwise be overlooked by Western audiences. To paraphrase a friend’s comment following this fall’s Video Music Awards, “Perhaps we should Photoshop GIFs of Miley Cyrus twerking next to Syria, that being the only way we can get Americans to pay attention to world events.”  It is an unfortunate truth about our particular culture, that we tend to pay attention to international issues only when a beautiful blonde light shines next to it. But I digress.

In this segment of the documentary, Meg Ryan is visiting with young Cambodian girls who have been rescued from brothels. One of the girls asks Meg, “Now that you have heard our stories, how do you feel?” Meg responds, “Stories have such power. When you tell your story, it has dignity, it transforms the experience…” As she speaks, the faces of the little girls glaze over. They have been vulnerable, they have shared their stories of being kidnapped and raped and sold into slavery, and then one girl asked Meg Ryan to be vulnerable and share how she felt. “Has my story made an impact?” is perhaps her underlying question. But instead, Meg Ryan begins to wax poetic about the power of narrative, taking the conversation to the philosophical realm, and far away from the table where she sits with the girls. In doing so, she effectively says “I have not listened with my heart to your story, only with my head.” It would have been much better to answer the question directly and honestly. “Hearing your story, I feel sad. It has touched my heart.”

Empathy is about sharing in the quality of someone’s emotional experience, but not it’s quantity. This evening, I turned to empathy art in attempts to sort out my feelings in regards to someone else’s experience. This week’s class readings have been all about the psychological impact of prostitution and sexual slavery. The case studies have been based on interviews from women working in the sex industry, and reading these accounts, I feel overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness. I had the good fortune of being born into a world of privilege, so I cannot relate to the external factors of their stories. But what slowed my heart and made my bones heavy was that there is qualitatively something there that I relate to. The women speak about how they feel about their experiences, their PTSD symptoms and the psychological responses and I think, “This feels familiar.” And that connection feels terrifying. From here, I can choose to either fall into a pit of agony and be derailed for the next few hours, or dissociate and allow my feelings to be extinguished and suffocated by compartmentalizing and moving on to the next task.  To stay with that feeling and explore exactly what about it resonates for me, is a difficult but necessary task.

The reason I create empathy art is to put myself in the experience of the other. I set out to depict her story, but furnish it with elements consistent with my own experience, and it becomes a hybrid. That is the amazing thing about art. It translates experience into symbols and metaphors which other people can personally connect to. Being specific and literal makes it hard for someone to enter your experience. Archetypes, however, are big enough to contain everyone’s experience. We all have a personal context from which to understand how it feels to be hurt and betrayed, vulnerable, not in control. Art making is an escape from normal consciousness, and a place to blur the boundaries between individual and universal experience. It is an opportunity to try on someone else’s experience, to feel it in our own skin, and develop more accurate empathy.

I have not been raped by strangers and held in captivity, but I have experienced frightening situations of sexual inequality. I do not share the experience of the women whose stories I have read, but I do share in their anger, pain, and shame.

When I sit with a client, I cannot say, “I know how you feel.” But perhaps I can say, “Here is how hearing your story feels for me.” It is not an interpretation. It is not a solution. It does not take the experience away from the person who has lived it. It is witnessing, reflecting back, and letting the sharer of the story know that she has been seen and heard.

NCAS-I is proud to introduce our newest members to the 2014 team, Katherine Hanczaryk and Chatti Phal Brown!

Blog by Sue Wallingford

Katie and Chatti will accompany the 2014 team to Cambodia this May as mentors and supervisors to the students.  Both bring a wealth of experience to the team and NCAS-I is very excited to have them!


Katie, a graduate of the Art Therapy program in 2012, was on the first team that went to Cambodia of May 2012.  She was instrumental in the creation of NCAS-I offering endless volunteer hours researching and implementing the program in the beginning stages.  Katie brought so much enthusiasm to the project from the very start and continued to show support even after she graduated by her participation in the annual Painting Marathons, and Small Resources = Big Possibilities Gala and other NCAS-I events. Katie co-presented along with 3 other alumni and myself on a panel that described our work with trafficked girls in Phnom Penh, Seeds Sown from the Killing Fields: Tending to the Lotus Flower at the 2013 Expressive Arts Therapy Conference in Berkely California.

NCAS-I is very excited for what she brings to this years team.  Katie is a long time practitioner of mindfulness meditation.  As a Buddhist herself she understands deeply the traditions inherent in this religious practice. Since Cambodia is 95% Buddhist Katie will an invaluable resource to the team in helping us to understand religious traditions practiced there and she will lead us in our sitting practices.  As well, Katie is a textile artist with tremendous skill in working with fabrics and many of the materials we use in our art therapy groups in Cambodia.  She is coordinating our work with WHADA, helping to create designs along with the students that can then be replicated by the women at WHADA and then sold in the US through fair trade.  Katie also brings a great sense of curiosity, creativity, love of life, and compassion.  Thanks Katie for joining our team!


Chatti graduated from Naropa’s Art Therapy program in 2010.  After graduation she moved to Cambodia, her native country to work as an Art Therapist at an NGO in Phnom Penh.  Chatti was born in a Thai refugee camp after her mother and father escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.  She spent the first 3 years of her life in the refuge camp before moving to California with her family.  Even though she did not grow up in Cambodia many of the traditions of the Cambodian people were instilled in her by her family and Cambodian community surrounding her in California.  Chatti spent two years in Phnom Penh working at Ragamuffin, an organization that utilizes the expressive arts for healing the multitude of suffering that exists among the Cambodian people.

Chatti, besides her obvious contributions to the team is also helping us all to learn the Khmer language so we can communicate with the Cambodian people to a small degree.  She also understands the Cambodian culture, the trauma endemic in their culture and the social graces that are needed to form respectful relationships.  Being that Chatti lived in Phnom Penh for two years the resources she has to bring will be an added bonus.  Chatti as a professional photographer will help us to highlight many of the meaningful moments we will have through the lens of her camera.  Chatti as a person brings wisdom, humility, gracefulness, and playfulness. Thank you Chatti for joining our team!

We are looking forward to a great trip this year because of these two AND the great team of students that are preparing for this trip.  Please stay tuned for their introduction!



By Emma Ehrenthal Naropa Art Therapy Master Student

While diving deeper into preparation for our service learning trip to Cambodia I have been thinking a lot about how my actions here in the United States effect Cambodia.  Currently, Cambodian garment workers who were protesting for higher wages to meet reasonable cost of living expenses were met with violence on January 3rd, 2014.  Security opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing five and injuring many more.  (IPSNEWS)

It brings up some familiar issues, countries outsourcing labor to the cheapest factory they can find, while not feeling connected or responsible to the people working for them.  The United States is this country. We are the ones buying these products and disconnecting from the people who make them.  As a student traveling to Cambodia for my service learning trip I grapple with this feeling of consumer guilt.  I can see the connections and impact I have on supporting the need for women to work in the sex trafficking industry.  The majority of garment workers are women, and if they cannot support themselves, much less their families with their wages, their options for careers are limited.  

It is a huge problem that is far away from us, but we can make a positive impact from the Untied States by making small changes in our daily lives.  Supporting companies that are providing workers with fair wages and safe working environments not only means your money is going to them, but your support is helping to raise the bar for workers rights throughout the world.  I wanted to look at companies who are using fair trade ethics to create meaningful jobs in Cambodia.

Daughter’s of Cambodia is creating alternative ways for woman to make a sustainable living in Cambodia outside of the sex industry.  They provide women with career building opportunities including skill building classes, counseling services, and medical treatment. If you are in Cambodia you can visit their shop, hotel, spa, and café, but you can also support them from the United States by buying their products from Better Way Imports

 Cambodian Threads is an organization creating sustainable job opportunities for Cambodians, and bringing the products over to the United States so that we can support them from our home.  They are raising the bar for working environments in Cambodia and supporting education by donating proceeds to local schools.

Rajana is working to provide Cambodian artisans fair wages and healthy working environments.  By developing professional opportunities for these workers to market themselves Rajana is making it possible for Cambodians to lead successful careers in the handicraft market.

When I heard about people being treated inhumanely I used to disconnect and shut down, it felt like too terrible and large of a problem for me to handle.  But now I am learning to face these parts of our world and see my own impact.  I see hope now, knowing that I can be more aware of my actions.  When I go to the store and buy fair trade items I feel accomplished, I know I am spending an extra few dollars to make a significant difference for our global community.  

Sex Trafficking in Cambodia Documentary: How Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) works to support women and girls


This BBC documentary takes a look at the child-slavery involved in sex-trafficking. Poverty, is the main reason girls become trapped in the cycle of sex-trafficking and prostitution. Families will often sell their children in order to survive. Girls, themselves, may then enter the sex-industry as a way to support themselves, while enduring the abuse that is involved. Often, they do not have many options, or choices, that would allow them to escape the cycle of trafficking and poverty. Because of this, they are vulnerable to continued abuse and mistreatment. CWCC, our partner organization, works to provide support and resources for women and girls who are coming out of the sex-trafficking industry. In the last section of this BBC documentary, CWCC is featured. They provide scholarships to the young women in the documentary who are seeking a different path. The CWCC handles around 300 trafficking cases each year (Phnom Penh Post). Their work is pivotal in providing choice, as their mission states, they are “Helping Women Help Themselves” by providing resources and financial aid to women and girls coming out of the sex-trafficking industry.

I Am the Mother Too: Reflections on The Women Who Sold Their Daughters


A neighborhood in Cambodia is a global hotspot for the child sex trade. The people selling the children? Too often, their parents. CNN Freedom Project and Mira Sorvino, award-winning actress and human rights activist, investigate.
By Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen and Mira Sorvino
Photography by Jeremie Montessuis for CNN

Blog By Sue Wallingford

From all the stories that I have read about the trafficking industry and the selling of children for sex in Cambodia, I think this one by CNN, The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into Sex Slavery struck me most.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a mother myself, so to even imagine the idea of selling my daughter to someone as a means toward their sexual gratification makes me ill.  But instead of turning away, I am transfixed.  There is so much I can’t imagine about this industry, as a human being, much less a mother.  And despite the horrific and unbelievable nature of this crime, the selling of sex is one of the fastest growing industries, both at home and abroad, even by mothers, causing me deep reflection about the moral fiber of humankind and my place in it.

It would be, and has been, easy for me to respond to such atrocities as a mother selling her own child to the sex trade with utter disbelief, disgust and epic amounts of judgment.  I would rather separate myself from “these people,” the pimps, the johns, the brothel owners, and these mothers, and claim myself as someone better than that.  But the truth is, I am as much a part of the problem as I am the solution.  My privilege alone affords me the opportunity to separate myself from “them,” because I have no idea what it is like to be “them.”  Oh so convenient.

One thing I have learned from the many visits to Cambodia that I have made, working with our partners, the study and research of the history and culture, and the many conversations I have had with the Cambodian people, is that the Cambodian people are complex.  Their history of trauma, that has become endemic to their culture, the corrupt political system that has for decades oppressed and victimized them, poor treatment from neighboring countries, a near absence of healthcare and education, and the extreme poverty that more that 90% of the population knows creates a system that breeds fear, mistrust, hatred, and the most primitive of survivor skills.  To just live from one day to the next without starving, having your home taken, or being physically harmed is the reality for far to many Cambodian people.  And yet, I would characterize the Cambodian people as some of the dearest and kindest peoples I have ever encountered.  They are a paradox to me for sure. It is hard for me to understand because unlike them, I am well above Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  I have never wanted or needed like my South-Asian friends.

But this story made it different for me. When I gaze upon the faces of the mothers in this story my heart breaks, and I don’t feel so removed or so separate, because I don’t see monsters. I see fellow women, mothers, their faces etched with deep fear, unbearable shame and despair, having bared years and generations of inexplicable trauma. I can’t avoid the pain because I know they are victims too.  And there is something in their faces, despite our apparent differences that is familiar.

As stated before the Cambodian people are complex, made from their long-standing history of trauma and we can see it being played out in this story by CNN.  The parents today, the mothers and fathers, were the children of the Khmer Rouge, who watched their families being brutally murdered, along with the monks, teachers, healers and artists, before they were forced to fight for the cause.  The parents they had are gone, the grandparents aunts and uncles who are supposed to guide them are all dead. The political system today, the children too, instead of coming to the aid of the people, continues to violate and oppress, forcing families in deep debt, taking homes and demanding people work for $2 a day in a garment factory that clothes me and you.  There is little direction coming from the elder population about the way to live in peace in harmony, or what is right and good in bringing up children.

So why not prostitute your child when it could feed your whole family?  Which is worse, a whole family starving or a whole family surviving at the sacrifice of one?   And a body is not expendable and can be used over and over again, yielding a lot of money.  So why work in garment factory for 2$ a day when you can make $50 a day or more servicing men, especially if you can save your whole family.  Why not?  What is the moral obligation?  What would you do if you had been brought up in the same situation?

There is a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh about a young girl, a pirate and himself.  The poem came to him after a meditation about the problem of piracy off the coast of Siam, where many boat people, women and children were being raped and killed while seeking refuge in camps along the Southeast Asia border.  I think it relevant for this story.

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow

because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

We are inter-connected, I believe this is true.  I am both the victim and the perpetrator and in this story – I am the child being raped, the pimp who abuses and holds the child hostage, the John who rapes the child and the mother who sells the child.  I am responsible, I have to see the truth, and I have to do something about it to make things better.  You?

“The Teachings of the Elders”: Precept Day in Cambodia by Nathan Thompson

An Expat Joins ‘Precept Day’ in Cambodia

By Nathan Thompson

Article obtained from

I first became aware of Precept Day when I was awoken from sleep by the sound of 20 ancient Khmers chanting outside my bedroom door. The old people were sat on the tiled floor of the head monk’s residence chanting some mystical language.

The males sat on one side and the females on the other while the head monk sat fanning himself on a throne-like wooden chair. It took me seven months to work out what they were doing and one more month to try it myself.

In Cambodia religion is inextricably tied to everyday life. Most people practice Theravaden Buddhism which means “The Teachings of the Elders,” and is the oldest version of the Buddhist faith dating back 2300 years.

It is has lasted so long because of a sacred agreement between the monks and the lay people. The lay people support the monks and in return the monks preserve the Buddha’s teachings and work to free themselves of imperfections such as selfishness and desire so they can be of service to the community.

In order to be of maximum benefit Cambodian monks observe 227 rules. Indeed, one of their first tasks after ordaining is to learn all of them by heart. Buddhist laypeople are expected to keep five rules also known as precepts. They are: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct and no taking of intoxicants.

If you are wondering why not many Cambodian’s stick to them it is because that, in Buddhism, there is no God, no permanent “you” and no afterlife. The absence of a vengeful deity idly twirling the keys to the gates of Hell waiting for you when you die seems to make the necessity of living an ethical life lose its force.

Precept Day falls on new, half and quarter moons. On this day laypeople can choose to follow an upgraded precept system and take eight precepts. As well as the usual five three more are added. They are: no eating between 12pm and 6am, no entertainments and no sitting or sleeping on comfy beds and chairs.

I class myself as a practicing Buddhist having begun in the Western Vipassana movement which is purely based on meditation and then learning the sacred practices of Cambodian and Thai Buddhism while living here.

So there I was on Precept Day sitting on the floor with the old people having twisted myself into the traditional posture with both feet swept to one side just about tolerating the pain it was causing in my right hip. In my hands was my Kindle with the relevant religious chants showing in romanised form.

I joined in with two chants in Pali – the ancient language of the Buddha. The first was the “Three Refuges” which is something like the Christian profession of faith. It confirms you are a Buddhist by “going for refuge in the teaching of the Buddha”. The second chant involved vowing to observe the eight precepts for the day. Then I handed over 1000Riel, did various bows and received approving nods and smiles from the old people who were sat around me.

Cambodian people love their religion and I have found my own attempts to practice it have been met with encouragement and pleasure. Indeed, when a woman in the village found out I would be joining in on Precept Day she walked 3km barefoot to deliver lunch to me to make sure I ate enough given that I would be observing the precept not to eat between 12pm and 6am. By supporting my spiritual practice the woman was practising generosity which one of Buddhism cardinal virtues. She was also making merit for herself.

The idea of making merit has to do with the concept of rebirth. There is a debate about whether or not the Buddha taught rebirth. Those who believe he did preach the concept of merit: that if you give gifts (especially gifts to the monks) you will get a good rebirth in the next life. While those reformists of the 20th Century argued that the Buddha never taught reincarnation and the idea of “making merit” was something of a racket. They raised the question that if people began to believe that their gifts got them no reward in a future life would they still give them?

Leaving aside the ability of my actions to affect any future rebirth, there was plenty of benefit to be found practicing the eight precepts on this day. It gave me an excuse to turn off my phone, laptop and Kindle and free myself from the glittering screens of the internet with its exciting stories and videos. I didn’t find myself bored in their absence; instead a mellow feeling of relaxation pervaded. In this respect, Precept Day is similar to the Jewish Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews will not allow themselves to drive or even operate a light switch.

Giving myself this respite from the trappings of modernity resulted in a kind of psychic renewal of the kind you might feel after returning from a relaxing beach break.

The effect of all this was to bring myself more into the present moment which, as anyone with who has had the vaguest brush with Eastern spirituality will tell you, is an important part of realizing the sacredness of life.

I felt more connected to my village community. The Cambodian’s have such a great affection for their religion that by practicing it with them I was able to more to integrate my Barang self.

The hunger of not eating past 12pm was not as bad as you would expect but I did find it difficult to sleep, thinking as I was, of those delicious dumplings served by Chinese Noodle on Monivong.

And now, as the temple gears up for the latest in what seems like weekly religious festivals, I find myself looking forward to sitting again with the ancient Khmers on Precept Day so I can remove myself from the pressures of work and modernity and experience a more idle and peaceful life.

If you want to join in Precept Day talk to your local temple. Relevant chants can be found here:


The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into Sex Slavery

If you took the Slavery Footprint survey yesterday you may have felt overwhelmed, angry, or even embarrassed about your contribution to modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Let’s take a step back and see how our global society has created an atmosphere that enables people to be treated and sold as objects.

Please click on the link below to hear the story of a Cambodian mother who sold her daughter to the sex trafficking industry. This article was written by Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen, and Mira Sorvino and published by CNN.