During the time we spent in Cambodia, I arranged visits to childrens' hospitals, movies on Cambodian history, Handicap International (an NGO dedicated to helping handicapped Cambodians), and various restaurants that either supported rural educational initiatives or were part of vocational training themselves. I was recently asked by Lisa L, our diligent and able business manager, to provide an article for the blog explaining why I chose to do so.
Answering her question requires stepping back almost six years ago to a small country in Central America - Panama. I was travelling with a Baha'i friend of mine and his parents, one of whom was a physician, the other a Ph.D. in education. We were making our way through the indigenous areas of the Chiriqui region, assisting the native teachers with lesson plans and helping out at the occasional clinic. Of the many experiences on that trip that I continue to cherish, one sticks out in my mind that relates directly to Cambodia - the girl in the jungle we met one day on our way back from the clinic.
To be honest, we met more than just the girl-we met her entire extended family as well. They had brought her down from their small subsistence farming village in the mountains on a palm frond stretcher that day, only to find the clinic closed by the time they made it down. Helpless, they turned to the foreign doctor rumored to be staying at the cultural center in the heart of Soloy, the large town of zirconium huts that was our central base.
My friend's father, Dr. Steve Gottlieb, agreed to see her. After talking with her and her family for several minutes and examining her for another ten, he dispatched us to the local store, where we bought food supplies to feed the family for the night, and then said our goodbyes. It was only later, as we continued to walk back, that Dr. Gottlieb explained the sad injustices of the situation; the girl, who was 17, only a little older than me, had less than three hours to live. She had a bacterial infection that could have been cured had her family gotten treatment for her earlier, but because losing a day of work was so costly, they waited until it was impossible to ignore her condition to seek aid.
At the time, this experience shook me to the core of my being. Not only had I never been that close to human death before, but in many ways, seeing the girl dying before me I saw myself in her eyes-the only difference between us two, after all, was where we were born and what opportunities we were raised with. This was the beginning of my desire to become a medical doctor and strive to address these injustices.
Fast forwarding to Pac Rim, I have seen the same problem in many of the underdeveloped countries we've visited-Mongolia, Vietnam, China, and Cambodia especially. Cambodia was different from the others, however. New as it is in establishing stability and nationhood (if my memory serves, the Khmer Rouge was disbanded only in the late 1990's), the people around Siem Reap rely almost entirely on foreign aid to fuel its developing social services. This, coupled with the extremely high amount of tourism in and around Angkor Wat, led to a variety of opportunities for us to work with Cambodians to directly encourage the revival of cultural arts and foster the well being of the people.
There were many stories to be told about each of the places we visited. One restaurant, the Butterfly Garden, paid rural children to collect butterflies (released in their garden twice a week) to keep them from resorting to begging, stealing, or prostitution. Another, the Siam Reap Children's Hospital, was financed by Friends Without Borders, a non-profit created by a Japanese-American photographer who witnessed a 12 year old child pass away in one of the wards that reminded him of his own daughter. Dr. Beat Richner, a pediatrician and professional cello player, also deserves mention for the massive hospital he runs in Siam Reap. He holds weekly cello concerts to help finance the hospital, which receives approximately $2 million from the government annually, but requires $60 million a year to stay open.
As we travel through the different countries on Pac Rim, an ongoing struggle for us all has been contrasting where our identity as Pacrimmers overlaps with those of tourists, foreigners, and students in the ongoing struggle to be respectful of the people whose country we visit. Understanding the realities (some harsh, some not) of the local people in each country is one such aspect of treating them with dignity and respect. Donating blood to help with the Dengue fever outbreak was as much a part of visiting Cambodia as seeing the beauty of the high-classic period of Khmer civilization on the walls of Angkor Wat was. While I did not expect my fellow Pacrimmers to come to the same conclusions I did in Panama when approaching these aspects of life in Cambodia, I do hope that they left Cambodia with a sense of perspective tempered by an understanding of the vast differences and detailed discussions addressed in the homes, hospitals, offices, and restaurants of the Cambodians we visited.
(Article and Photos by Safa)