Just before midnight we’re met at Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh by Chamroeurn Sok, one of the excellent Program Directors for The World Assistance for Cambodia (WAFC) who has organized our school dedication and accompanies us on the adventure.
February 15: Day one
Half the group goes to observe the public hearing of Ieng Thirth, wife of Ieng Sary, who is on trial as part of the current Khmer Rouge Tribunals.
Brilliant translator for the tribunals, Nareth Muong, joins us later for dinner and fascinating conversations about the proceedings.
The other half of the group ventures by boat into the countryside to Koh Dach (“Silk Island”) to watch traditional weavers make silk and cotton fabric.
We all meet up for lunch at Lotus Blanc restaurant near the Stung Meanchey Dump in southweast Phnom Penh. Lotus Blanc is a vocational training restaurant operated by Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), a comprehensive non-profit organization benefiting the social welfare and education of children who formerly worked at the dump, picking through refuse. http://pse.asso.fr/index.php
After lunch we stop in at the Handicrafts Gift Shop run by PSE trainees, on our way to see the Stung Meanchey Dump. The dump was recently closed to migrant workers and the children who worked in these dangerous environs have now moved to a different dump in Phnom Penh to work. We were expecting to see children at work as they have for many years. (Photo courtesy of Maciej Dakowicz)
Thanks to the efforts of organizations like PSE, The Cambodian Childrens’ Fund www.cambodianchildrensfund.org and The People Improvement Organization www.peopleimprovement.org, the welfare of many of these children has improved and this dump is now only inhabited by goats.
Our guide lived and worked at the dump as a child. He now goes to school at Pour Sourire d’Enfant.
Near the entrance to the dump is a school built by the People Improvement Organization that was started by CNN Hero, Phymean Noun.
In the afternoon, the older students toured The Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope in Phnom Penh, a free medical facility built by Bernie Krisher and team. (Bernie is the Chairman of The World Assistance for Cambodia, the NGO that built our school and 600+ other schools in Cambodia.) We brought ten duffle bags of medical supplies that were generously donated by the Mass. General Hospital in Boston and gave them to the hospital staff. The hospital is very impressive and treats 90,000 Cambodian patients each year, free of charge. www.sihosp.org
Before dinner we were treated to a stunning performance by traditional dance and music students at Cambodia Living Arts (CLA). Many of the students at CLA are rescued from living on the streets and are at risk for human trafficking. It was a great honor that Arn Chorn-Pond, founder of CLA joined us for this special rehearsal and for dinner.www.cambodianlivingarts.org Arn is the subject of the documentary, “The Flute Player,” a moving story of survival during the Khmer Rouge regime; this film can be viewed online and was seen by all our students before the trip:
Following the CLA performance, it was an evening graced by heroic leaders: dinner with Arn Chorn-Pond, as well as, Somaly Mam and Sina, a woman rescued from slavery who speaks on behalf of the Voices for Change program at The Somaly Mam Foundation.
Somaly Mam and her team www.somaly.org have allegedly rescued more than 4000 Cambodian children from sexual slavery. Our students had read Somaly’s story of her own liberation inThe Road of Lost Innocence and were very much looking forward to meeting both Somaly and Sina. In 2014 we learned that Somaly’s work on behalf of rescued girls was discredited when it was revealed that her own story and several of her girls’ stories were based on lies. www.somaly.org/programs/voices-for-change
February 16: Day two
We ventured early in the morning to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh for a historical perspective on the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Mass grave sites, a monument to those who died there, and a historical video are on view at Choeung Ek.
From Choeung Ek, the older students went to visit Tuol Sleng Prison, otherwise known as “S21.” Families were imprisoned at S21 (a former girls’ school) before the ride out to Choeung Ek. The head of Tuol Sleng, known as “Duch” is currently awaiting the verdict of his recent trial.
Cambridge students were fortunate to meet Mr. Chun Mey, one of three living survivors of S21.
We all met up at Friend’s Restaurant, a vocational training restaurant next door to Friends International Street Children’s NGO, an organization that helps street children at risk.
We were met by Summer Twyman, a former Cambridge Youth Soccer coach, who now lives in Phnom Penh and works with Transitions Global, an aftercare shelter for adolescent survivors of human trafficking. www.transitionsglobal.org
We were honored by Somaly Mam with a spontaneous invitation to meet more girls who are spokeswomen for The Voice for Change program to learn more about the work that The Somaly Mam Foundation is doing in Cambodia on human trafficking issues.
Afterwards we set off to visit two other organizations started by Bernie Krisher, founder of our parent organization, The World Assistance for Cambodia (WAFC): Bright Future Kids, a boarding school for the talented students from the more than 600 WAFC schools in Cambodia and The New Life Orphanage for children whose parents have died of AIDS. These organizations are next door to each other and located 30 minutes from downtown Phnom Penh. www.brightfuturekids.org and www.tinyurl.com/yesy46t.
The Cambridge students played wiffle ball, soccer and made friendship bracelets with the students at The Bright Future Kids boarding school, making new friends they would talk about for the rest of the trip.
We walked next door and met the children from The New Life Orphanage. We were greeted with songs, personal introductions, and lovely dance performances. Afterwards the group moved outside where the Cambridge kids danced the macarena and played duck, duck, goose with the youngsters.
As the sun sets, we head back to Phnom Penh for a lively dinner with Thero Noun, the Country Director for WAFC and his wife Phatsoda Sarun, Nareth Muong and his wife Selia. Nareth is a simultaneous English translator for the current Khmer Rouge Tribunals and offers the perspective of those born post 1979. Thero miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge and has accomplished many great things in his lifetime.