February 24, 2009
Magic, Joy, Horror, Disbelief, Resilience and Hope - the perfect expression of the duality that is Cambodia and of our life changing journey over the past 10 days.
Our experience began with an essential education and immersion into the recent, dark history of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge (1975 - 1979) - at Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison and the killing fields. To really embrace the Cambodian culture and its people - you must understand the trauma experienced by young and old alike. But, as difficult as it is to absorb the violence and contemplate what is possible when a perfect storm of violent conditions exist, it teaches you to look with empathy on a people who are trying to recover and thrive.
We also got a glimpse into the true spirit of the Cambodian people when we met Mr Nat at S-21 - one of 7 survivors of the 16,000 massacred at Tuol Sleng. The grace and gentleness he embodies as he shared his story of suffering and loss from the very prison cell (2ft x 4ft) where he was held - gave us all hope and reassurance in the power of the human spirit to endure and the ability of the Cambodian people to recover. We were blessed to be given the opportunity to bear witness to his story and to provide to him the reassurance that we would go forward and share the truth of the genocide with our communities, just as he will share his story with the world via the UN tribunal beginning February 17th in Phnom Penh.
The next stage of our journey was to visit the CCF community center and Steung Meanchey garbage dump. To appreciate fully the miraculous work that Scott Neeson has accomplished here in Cambodia a trip to the dump and surrounding community is essential. The CCF center is a place of warmth, and joy amidst the "Hell on Earth" that is Steung Meanchey. The children are joyful, happy and run carefree under the watchful eye of the hardworking, kind staff of the CCF. But, once you leave the safety of the community center, to step out into the dump, the heat, smells and smoke were overwhelming and watching pregnant women, the elderly and children working away in these conditions is horrifying. But, the myriad of emotions we experienced; disbelief, horror and anger quickly evaporates as you watch Scott Neeson in action - his warmth, strength and kindness are a natural draw for all the local community. He makes time for everyone with a smile or a touch - always checking in with the families to make sure that they are ok.
The next few days of our journey took us to meet the children at the other CCF facilities. The CCF facilities are nothing short of miraculous - they are immaculately clean, efficiently run centers - but it is the warmth and love you feel from the moment you walk through the doors - it warms your heart and touches your soul. And, as you enter their "home", these children shower you with unconditional love. Their generosity, curiosity and sense of pride are striking, as is their insatiable hunger for learning (a group of children began a late night study group - with the older students teaching the younger ones from 9pm - 11pm).
Operationally, Scott has instilled a rigor and discipline reminiscent of his corporate background, but the real beauty is the balance he strikes bringing compassion, love and generous spirit that he imparts to his staff and all the children at CCF. To experience what Scott has accomplished is a privilege that is awe-inspiring - to embrace the possibility of our own potential to effect change in the world is life changing.
The final stop on our journey was to the CCF village in Kampong Chan province. We once again bore witness to the power of possibility as we worked out in the village - side by side with the families - planting crops and fertilizing rice fields. The village that Scott created is an oasis where former families from Steung Meanchey live and work. And, once again displaying the ingenuity that he brings to all aspects of this project - Scott is creating a model of sustainability.
The final miracle of our journey was the opportunity to meet and hear Loung Ung (author of "First They Killed My Father") speak in a very informal setting, telling us a little of her story of suffering, courageous survival and inspiring humanitarian work of today.
Loung is undoubtedly the embodiment of the Cambodian people - she is joyful, resilient, warm and strong as she recounts her story with eloquence and grace. Her indomitable spirit truly embodies the quote by Marianne Williamson that she loves so much "... We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world..."
We are all grateful for the gifts we have received on this journey; friendship, love, generosity of spirit and the possibility within each of us to build and realize dreams - we shall take all of these gifts and so much more home with us as we continue the work that has begun here.
February 23, 2009
Signing up for the Seva Challenge, I knew it would be a life changing experience, but little did I know how much my life would change in the process. The term Seva means selfless service and I have decided there is nothing selfless about my experience, as I have perhaps gained more than I have given.
We witnessed endless tragedy and poverty. The after math of the Khmer Rouge Regime 30 years later, the Toul Sleng (S-21) genocide museum, the Killing Fields, and countless stories from survivors. Each person we spoke with lost at least one family member by torture, starvation or disease during this time. It is estimated that 80% of the population has PTSD. Despite all of this trauma, the Cambodian people are happy. They are warm and generous and the children of CCF are so appreciative and filled with hope. They find the beauty in everyday moments. I witnessed small miracles everyday, or perhaps I was just present enough to notice them. This is one of the many lessons I will take with me.
The highlight of the trip was meeting the 12 year old girl I am now sponsoring. I came with the intention of sponsoring a child, but was unsure how I would decide which child to sponsor. Walking into the CCF facilities, you are literally bombarded with children of all ages. My girl came up to me immediately and asked me if I would be her sponsor. How could I say no? She has been at CCF for only 2 weeks and is still not able to communicate well in English. After spending more time with her, I realized that we were able to communicate just fine without words. She has a story like all of the children at CCF. Going weeks without eating, suffering from physical abuse, and most recently losing her mother in a moto accident. Again, I am amazed at how trusting and loving these children are. Having worked with abused children in the United States, I am in awe of the resilience I see in the children at CCF. Supportive of one another, celebrating each other's victories. No sense of competition, only cooperation.
Our farewell party with the CCF kids was almost too good to be true! As we arrrived, the kids hung handmade paper chain necklaces and the most beautiful leis made of sweet smelling jasmine and roses around our necks. First class treatment all the way! The CCF children put on a show filled with traditional Khmer dance, live music, elaborate costumes and make up, and 5 emcees! In the background of the stage was a hand painted mural thanking us and saying "We love you." (The CCF curriculum includes traditional arts and dance because this was all lost during the KR regime.) The dancers took pride in their performances and the children in the audience cheered them on.
As if the performance was not enough, once the "official show" was complete, we had the dance party of the century! The DJ played everything from American rap music to Cambodian pop music and we rocked it out for hours! We danced holding 5 year olds in our arms, surrounded by groups of teenagers, dripping sweat and smiling the whole time! My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It was a truly magical night!
Leaving CCF was the most difficult goodbye, not knowing when we may see these children again. Today, I leave Cambodia a changed person, filled with new awareness, an appreciation for the small things, and a softer heart. I set out to change the lives of others, and perhaps I am the one who gained the most. I will be forever grateful to the people of Cambodia, especially the children of CCF for their infinite gifts of unconditional love and unbridled joy...and the best dance party ever!
February 22, 2009
Our trip is coming to a close, but I feel as if our adventure is just beginning. There is a sense of peace and ease within myself. My monkey mind has slowed and I am much more present than I have been in a long time. I'm not sure what did it, practicing yoga everyday, perhaps the joy of being around these wonderful children, maybe being surrounded by such an inspiring group of women or perhaps just knowing that I have been living fully and completely doing something that I love. There is such a sense of connection. A feeling of oneness with the people of Cambodia, the women in our group and even the nature surrounding us.
For once in my life, I am letting go. Putting my complete faith and trust that the Universe will open up to exactly the place that I should be. There is no planning, no over-analyzing, no attachment to the end result. Just allowing my intuition to lead the way. Just sit, close my eyes and breathe. The opportunities will present themselves as they should. I have already begun to see this happen in my own life. Small opportunities, chance meetings, little miracles popping up everywhere. Where will be my next stop? I truly have no idea but for now I will stop planning and instead live fully present in every moment and let the pieces fall into place.
My intention is to head forward to a place that feels good in my heart and fills up my soul. Knowing that this is exactly where I am meant to be.
February 22, 2009
I awoke to the Phnom Penh morning paper. The headline "Three Decades After" marked a historic day in Cambodian history: The beginning of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal; an attempt to begin to bring some sense of justice upon the surviving leaders of the deadly regime some 30 years after it's reign.
With our time here nearing close, I reflected on our journey; attempting to grasp the events of the genocide and the present day PTSD era that permeates this country, to then witness the hope of the future of Cambodia in the eyes of the CCF children. It has been quite an emotional journey.
Last night the universe granted us the miraculous encounter with Loung Ung. We heard of her personal tragedies, and the story of her survival while she radiated hope and joy like almost no one I've ever met. That experience has forever changed me. To sit with her on the eve of the tribunal was like bearing witness to this journey nearly coming full circle. While it is very clear that there will never be true justice for the atrocities that occurred, the Cambodian people will finally be heard, and there will finally be some acknowledgement of what occurred during those tragic years. How potent that we should be in the energy of this city on this very day. I sat with the significance of this revelation, and what it might mean forLoung, and the people of Cambodia throughout our nearly silent Yoga practice.
Our adventure of the day would take us once again to the countryside haven of CCF. Our mission was to help the community members fertilize their rice paddies. Calf deep in water, Cambodian earth between my toes, I couldn't help recalling the stories of Khmer Rouge's children working countless hours in these rice paddies. Simultaneously, I looked into the faces of the future of Cambodia. A once destitute people from the dumps of Phnom Penh, now an empowered farm community.
We herded the communities two water buffalo back to the residences, and before returning to the city, we visited a local Buddhist Pagoda where we were granted access to the temples, and received a gracious blessing from a monk. One of the temples was still being built, but halted for a lack of funds. I didn't look like much from the outside, so much so that I almost didn't go in. As I climbed up the rickety ladder into the temple, I could not believe the beauty inside. What a perfect metaphor for a day of such contradictions. In a country whose eyes have seen so much, hope resides around every corner.
February 21, 2009
"Inhale to the father, exhale to the mother..."
As the words flowed from Seane's mouth, I could feel my breath expanding as greater awareness guided each of my movements. Each breath I took and movement I made became a liquid expression of prayer and intention. The room seemed to move as one and breathe as one as different voices spoke their truth while the rest of us listened and received. Leaving the room, I felt different than when I first entered - my body was grounded, mind present and spirit connected.
For me, morning yoga practice seemed to be the needle that threaded the day together. We left Phnom Penh late morning and drove out to the countryside. It was fun getting out of the city and witnessing a different scene - the rice paddies were of a vibrant green, colorful pagodas dotted the fields, and half clothed children continuously waved beneath their stilted huts. When we finally arrived to our destination, we were warmly greeted by the families that occupied the land. These men, women and children, had been relocated from the Steung Meanchey landfill to this beautiful countryside retreat. Some were single moms who had the courage to leave their abusive husbands, while others were families who embodied an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to a life free from abuse.
Our job for the day was to create a vegetable and flower garden for the families that live in the community. Kicking off my shoes, I immediately sunk my feet into the rich soil and noticed how my own Asian roots penetrated the earth beneath my feet. As I hoed, weeded, tilled and sowed the seeds, I felt connected to a continent of distant ancestors and alive to the breath of the journey unfolding before my eyes. I remained present to the sweat rolling down my back, the sore muscles of my body and my inner child that got the rare opportunity to fling fertilizer (and I am not talking MiracleGro) across the lengthy humps that rose from the land. As I boarded the bus for the 90-minute journey back to Phnom Penh, a wave of serenity washed over my dirty body - despite my sore body , my breath was full and heart open to the connected community of each other and the families who supported us as much as we supported them.
That night, Luong Ung, the auther of First They Killed My Father, joined our group to share her personal experience of surviving the Khmer Rouge. As I sat there in the presence of this courageous, empowered spiritual activist who expressed the importance of speaking one's truth, setting an intention, and the power that communities have to create change, I noticed the room, once again, breathing as one.
February 21, 2009
Twenty people together for 2 weeks in this emotionally intense environment will undoubtedly bring up 'stuff', regardless of your spiritual discipline. As we tire from this physical and emotional journey, I'm reminded of a 12-step program aphorism - 'don't get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.' Hungry? - no problem, the food is incredible. However, as the trip winds down it seems that the others are ratcheting up. The energy this morning is tense. Leadership training last night stirred feelings. And... one group member left after falling sick. Yup, there are some feelings going on.
Today is a transition. The focus shifts to physical labor in a village outside Phnom Penh. Now it's off the mat and onto the field!
To get to our destination, we endure a 90-minute bus ride, bump-by-bump. We eventually arrive at a community housing 10 families, all formerly living at the dump. These families are here because, though destitute, they have resolved to keep their families whole and abuse free. The community also includes single Moms who made the choice to leave their abusive husbands; an exceptionally brave choice, given the culture of silence around domestic violence in Cambodia.
When complete, the community center here will serve as a campground for the CCF children with sleeping space, playground and what has become known as 'the world's largest swimming pool'. Today, our job is planting morning glories, parsnips, bok choy, and greens.
I'm an African-American and while digging and planting, my mind wanders to what it must have been like for slaves...out in the hot sun a'workin' and a'plantin'. Jokingly, I lead the group in a round of 'swing low, sweet chariot'. We laugh, sing and get really dirty. I also make it a point to befriend the two water buffalo roaming around.
Later at the hotel, I thank God for a shower; there is dirt in every cell of my being.
Then, it is time for our nightly leadership training and something special awaits. Luong Ung, author of First They Killed My Father joins us. She has returned to Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge trials.
Luong graciously shared her moving experience of surviving the genocide, her strength in adapting, healing and prospering in America, and her hope for Cambodia. While not necessarily a reconciliation, she believes that the trials have great potential to be a profound acknowledgement to the Cambodian people and the world, of one of history's most horrific crimes against humanity. She hopes this acknowledgement will initiate a 'seismic shift' for the Cambodian people. When I heard that, a prayer for the Cambodian people arose in my heart. My prayer is that they will experience the same kind of 'seismic shift' I experienced as an African-American when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
As we completed leadership training, the energetic shift was clear, we'd moved from irritation to pure inspiration, from agitation to gratitude. This day has been a blessing!
February 20, 2009
I've never in my life witnessed such pure joy as I did today and it opened my heart and filled me with a love and happiness that is rarely, if ever, experienced. We spent the morning with the kids in the day care center at the Cambodian Children's Fund Community Center. We played, had a pizza party and shared millions of smiles, hugs, kisses and giggles. The highlight of the day was bringing out large boxes filled with new clothes and shoes for each child. It was complete and utter mayhem as we sorted through the clothes and tried to pair each outfit with the child it was bought for. Twenty some women undressing and redressing more than 60 children under the hot sun in sticky humid air was a scene like no other.
I was hot and sweaty and a bit frustrated by all the craziness and lack of organization. Then I helped a little girl into her new dress and then another one into her new shoes and suddenly there was nothing in the air that mattered except the complete delight in the kids faces. Their entire demeanor changed once they were in their new clothes. They stood up a little taller, wanted to pose for photos and compared and showed off their new outfits. They had a whole new sense of pride and self-confidence. As they gathered in a group and sang for us I was given a gift too, their smiles and pride will always be in my heart. Today was like Christmas and your birthday and every other holiday rolled into one!
Watching the excitement of the kids was incredibly heart warming. It displayed hopefulness that I have been lucky enough to encounter countless times in the past few days at CCF. I feel so blessed not only to have witnessed this display of happiness, joy and transformation from something that at home would be an everyday occurrence, but also to have been able to help raise the money that made these new clothes a possibility and a reality for these kids. People told me that this trip would change my life, yet I could never imagine that it would give me the opportunity to experience over 400 little miracles that are each of the most loving, beautiful children I have ever been privilege to spend time with.
February 19, 2009
Today my group and I visited CCF 2 and as usual were greeted with an abundance of smiles, open hearts and minds just wanting to give love as much as they yearn to receive it. We each took a classroom and suddenly I found myself standing in front of a class of preteen girls all eager to work on their conversational English skills.
After we went through some role playing we walked down the stairs singing Brittney Spears (as my name is Brittany and surprisingly they made the association). It suddenly struck me that these children are children. Strip away the pain. Strip away the stories and what remains is the pure spirit of a child, untouched and full of innocence. Seeing this reminded me that no matter what happens to any of us in our lives, there are some things that can never be stripped. The light remains no matter how dark it can get.
Later that evening, feeling very inspired, we went to CCF 1 where myself and another taught yoga to around 20 children, many of which were over the age of 12. When it was my turn to teach, despite the fact that I am trained in children's yoga and I do have a system I use, I decided to teach a class very similar to one I would teach to adults.
As soon as I started I felt their focus, their serenity and their appreciation. While our communication was minimal I quickly realized that what we were experiencing together is universal and no translation is needed. I watched in awe as these children flowed, they connected with their breath they followed along as we chanted "Om Love". They understood. I saw it in their eyes and in their smiles. A glow resonated from each of their hearts and I feel so blessed to have been a part of that sparkle. As we ended the class they followed me as we closed with Namaste. I explained to them the meaning that included "we are all the same." This is so very true. While I could never fathom the experiences these children have been through I know that our hearts are still united in the sweet presence of the Love.
February 18, 2009
Today we were went in smaller groups to the various CCF locations to play with the kids and participate in school classes such as dance, reading, arts & crafts, music and of course, yoga. My group started at the CCF Community Center, located about half a mile down the road from the garbage dump. Today was a particularly polluted day in terms of air quality and we were greeted with a thick smog in the air that you could taste in your mouth. We all forgot about it though as soon as we got out of the car and were greeted by 4, 5 and 6 year olds jumping on us, climbing our legs, swinging from our arms and hugging & kissing us. I have never felt such overwhelming, unconditional love. We played with them in their class rooms- coloring was particularly popular and we also had the joy of staying for lunch and watching them get food all over the place. As they settled in for naps it was precious to see all of these little bodies line up next to each other, smiling and waving at you before they fell asleep.
After a brief afternoon break at the hotel (showers are a much appreciated experience after having kids wipe their noses on your bare shoulder) we headed out to CCF 6 to meet some of the older kids ranging in age from 7 to 10. As we walked to the back courtyard I noticed 2 posts set up for a laundry line and knew that the slackline would finally serve its purpose. As soon as I pulled it out of the bag I had at least 15 curious kids surrounding me and before I knew it the staff had brought out mattresses to put underneath for safety. The kids went nuts for it with over 60 kids gathered around watching and cheering for their friends as they took turns balancing different yoga poses on the line with each of us helping them to take the first step.
After slacklining we walked up stairs sitting in on a music class before heading up to the roof top to teach a sunset yoga class. Teaching yoga to kids is always a test of patience- throw in a language barrier and you are stuck demonstrating everything and making crazy animal sounds to relate to them. They were some of the best students- listening with big eyes and sitting quietly during demonstrations of any AcroYoga or partner poses. Pyramids and partner downdogs were so fun to watch as they started to make every partner balancing pose, into a moving partner pose- something I had never thought about before. As the sun set, we sat in a circle and a sweet girl looked at the pendant on my neck which said "love". She spent some time flipping it over and feeling it in her hands before she looked at me and said " I love you" and then giggled, reminding me that the motivation for the greatest journeys is always rooted in unconditional love.
February 18, 2009
The impact from the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime continues to affect everyone in Cambodia. However, the affect on women is not only disproportionate; it's shocking. Violence against women in the form of domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking is a devastating human rights issue for the country.
Before the Cambodian legislature enacted the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims in September 2005, domestic violence was legal. Unfortunately, even though its now law on the books, the legal enforcement is slow to non-existent. According to a March 2007 report published by the Cambodia League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) the reported cases of domestic violence from 2004 - 2006 increased more than 28%. For the same period, the reported cases of rape increased ~23% (with a 20% increase between 2005 and 2006 alone). Without a doubt, these and other crimes against women are under reported, making data collection challenging. Reasons for this include; victim shame, legal and judicial system distrust and the culture of silence around these topics.
The cultural issues surrounding violence against women in Cambodia reveals a web of complexity. Gender disparity runs deep. Cultural norms define a woman's role primarily as wife and mother, tasked with child rearing, household responsibility and ensuring their husbands success. Unwritten cultural laws include: females should be subservient to men, a man's sexual desire is insatiable and will take multiple women, and a woman is no longer marriage material once her virginity she is lost. Prevailing cultural beliefs seem to feed the view that a man has a right to beat his wife and household matters are private, not public concern.
Cambodian government inaction and cultural norms notwithstanding, the layers go deeper still. That brings us back to the impact of violence, and relative to Cambodia specifically, the violence of the Khmer Rouge.
Upon deplaning at the Phnom Penh airport earlier this week, the same undeniable heaviness, the spirit of unacknowledged depression that I sensed on my last visit, returned.
It's clear that three decades after the bloody regime of Pol Pot, despite the upcoming tribunal of the first senior Khmer Rouge figure, reconciliation is a long way from reality for the people of Cambodia - especially women.
The cyclical nature of violence reveals the disturbing phenomena that victims of violence become the perpetrators of violence. It's the pedagogy of the oppressed. In the case of Cambodia, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, which left the country in abject material and societal poverty, inflated the use of alcohol, drugs and other addictions, family violence and the oppression of women.
Two days ago, our group visited the Steung Meanchey dump, an 11 acre and at some points 100 ft deep dumping ground where families live and work, scavenging though poisonous waste for anything with the slightest resale value. The situation of the many woman and children living at the dump is beyond desperate, its incomprehensible. Every story I hear, leads back to the genocide. I am there to witness and give dignity to even this human experience.
Even in this desperation, there is hope. The organization that we are working with, The Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), searches the dump tirelessly day-after-day to retrieve children and lead them to safe haven from that dangerous, toxic hell. At CCF, the children not only receive meals, housing, medical/dental care and schooling, they're taught values, self-esteem and coping skills. Rather than resignation, resentment or apathy, what I experience working with the executives and staff at CCF is acceptance of the ‘hell on earth' they witness daily in all its complexity while consciously taking appropriate and committed action to make a difference.
A teacher that I dearly love once said "joy and horror live on the same plane." As I feel and contemplate the conundrum that is Cambodia, I can't help but embody both. Despite the horror of genocide, there's a paradoxical joy and simplicity in this "The Kingdom of Wonder."
I'm here with a group of 20 women and what I know is that women are the healers, the intuitives, the nurturers of our world. Another teacher and dear friend often tells the story of a man and wife walking the beach and stumbling upon hundreds of starfish that had washed ashore. As they walked, the woman would pick up a starfish and throw it back out to sea. Her husband remarked that her efforts were useless because she could never save them all. The wife responded, "yeah, but I saved that one."
What our little group does here won't fix or rectify the horror, but like the starfish, woman-to-woman, one at a time we too are taking conscious action to make a difference in the world.
February 18, 2009
Scott Neeson turned his head to talk to us as he tossed his empty plastic water bottle over his shoulder. My instant reaction was to pick it up and recycle it, or at least find a proper trash receptacle - but then I remembered where we were...
We were walking through the 11 acres of habitat that make up the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey, Phnom Penh's largest landfill. Staring at Scott's discarded water bottle on the ground I realized that it is completely redundant to have trash cans here.
Navigating through the labyrinth of neighborhoods built by the residents who live in the dump we witness a phenomenal use of recycling and reusing. Plastic bottles are cut in half and hung from the side of a house, holding everything from cookware and eating utensils to tooth brushes and paste. Plastic bags patch a hole in the roof or are tied together to create a chain link fence to keep animals such as chickens, dogs and goats corralled around someone's home. Pieces of scrap metal and tin shelter homes from the sun and rain as they rest above the ground on a structure build from sticks and bamboo. A sweet lady with bright eyes and a big smile looks up at us from the ground where she sat with a hand loom weaving scraps of fabric into beautiful table cloths and rugs. I kept looking in marvel at the way these creative people use what others throw out to build, repair, eat and create in their daily lives... in a bizarrely ironic way, the residents of Steung Meanchey live a very eco-friendly lifestyle, although it is out of survival rather than conservation for environmental awareness.
On the journey through the dump we pass several recycling stations - clear plastic sheets, hung up to dry in the sun, a pile of aluminum cans and scrap metal; and stacks of paper, tied in bundles. Scott mentions to us that some of the residents sort through the trash for these materials that are sent to Vietnam for recycling. The workers who sort these materials earn an average wage of $0.30 a day with monthly rent in the dump costing $10-$15 to live in a 10ft square lot of trash. Under these circumstances many locals chose to reuse these materials rather than recycle them at a rate that would take 5 days of work just to purchase a bag or rice for $1.50.
Trash and garbage is not limited to the dump. Driving down the streets one will see bags of trash on the ground, torn apart by a person or animal in search of something salvageable. The result of no apparent regular trash collection is that these piles of trash grow and spread, some 5 to 10 feet in length, some occupying a lot big enough for a house with people sitting, sleeping and even playing on and around them.
In areas where the garbage sits in the sun for enough time one will find small fires of trash that are the reaction of spontaneous combustion occurring as the heat of the sun ignites the toxic components of the garbage. These fires release a slew of chemicals into the atmosphere resulting in a "toxic barbeque" so strong that you taste it. In the areas around the dump, the pollution gets so bad that it actually tints the color of the air, similar to looking through a foggy camera lens. Adding to the thick air is the exhaust from cars, scooters and motorcycles that are operated with limited service and inspection resulting in a visible dark brown or black exhaust. Many people wear surgical masks or scarves covering their mouths to that they can breathe. Teaching the kids of CCF 6 a sunset yoga class on the rooftop I felt dangerously ironic in instructing the kids to "breathe deep". Gazing past the laughing kids crawling all over each other, I noticed a beautiful sunset filtered by a thick, grey, hazy smog.
The Cambodians are, for better or worse, relatively adapted to these living conditions. You rarely hear the locals coughing or blowing their noses whereas our morning yoga class of the Seva participants is a chorus of congestion as we "process" what we were breathing the day before. Understandably, environmental awareness is not necessarily on the minds of people who are rummaging through garbage, begging on the street or selling their bodies so they can eat. In instances of extreme poverty, locals would rather establish a secure food source and shelter before thinking up ways to green the planet. However, the environmental conditions are contributing to everyone's diminishing health—especially the touriss . . . we all share the same air, even if it's thousands of miles away.
February 17, 2009
Below the dump, we walked with Scott through a makeshift village of tiny rickety huts built above extreme squalor. Children ran barefoot and mobbed us for the vitamin fortified corn snacks we brought in to distribute. We saw babies covered in bruises from physical abuse and learned that this is just normal here.
We met a frail young mother of five who appeared to be pregnant again. Scott explained that she is dying of Hep B and that her stomach protruded because her liver was swollen. He told us that she didn't know she was dying and struggled with whether he had the right or the moral responsibility to inform her. He was working hard to find placements for her children at CCF because when she died, her children would be in great danger living only with their father. This was normal here too.
Another mother invited us into her hut to meet her newborn baby. Her six year old son had recently been stolen from the dump and sold to a brothel. Again, this was normal here.
"Hell on earth" is an appropriate description of the dump itself. It actually felt like being in a war zone on the surface of a foreign planet. Hundreds of people frantically sifted through garbage as dump trucks rumbled around, creating vibrations that could be felt strongly through the instability of the 100 feet of acrid smouldering garbage under foot. We were told to stay out of the way of the trucks, over sixty children per year are killed by them. If you get in their way, they will not stop. The smoke was so chokingly thick and the scene so chaotic and confusing I was afraid I might not see a truck and understood how this could happen.
I was glad to return to the CCF Community Center where dump children played in the safe haven of the daycare playground and received healthy meals. Here I noticed a withdrawn scabby-headed boy about 2-3 years old sitting on a swing, back to the other children. I said hello, gave him a tiny push and watched amazedly at the expression of pure bliss that overtook his face and remained there for the hour he stayed on the swing. When Seane returned from the dump and saw him she said she couldn't believe it because he was hysterical hours earlier. Apparently he had been found wandering the dump naked, filthy, scabby, and bruised that day. A local said that both his parents were dead, so he was brought to CCF for safe keeping while an investigation was conducted.
By the time we left, he was integrating with the other children and was right in there with the rest of the group, running, waving and laughing after the truck as we drove off.
February 15, 2009
Today we accompanied Scott as he did his rounds at the landfill. We started in a slum just outside of the dump as he talked to one woman who was dying of liver failure and wanted CCF to take in her 5 kids. We walked past two 14 year old girls, sitting with their grandmother, who were involved with prostitution.
It's incredible to watch Scott in action. He is present, passionate, compassionate and focused. see his commitment as he walks through the slums, connecting with families, asking about illnesses, hugging children, and handing out rice vouchers. Everyone comes out to see him and he looks everyone in the eyes. In four years, he’s built a beautiful relationship with this community.
As we walked, I was shocked. I've lived in developing countries, but I've never seen communities built on garbage. We saw mud, sludge, naked babies, malnutrition, barefoot children, young mothers. The homes are built of garbage. I was shocked by the smell on top of the landfill, as well as the hundreds of people, toxicity, burning fumes, sink holes, dump trucks, bulldozers, and children following us with bare feet. I kept breathing through my desire to run away.
But we walked off the dump, into the CCF Community Center, into an enormous beacon of hope. From the shock of the dump, we were greeted by 85 clean, JOYFUL, loving, laughing children.They jumped into our arms and filled us with love and joy. The transformation is a miracle.
Seeing what Scott has created for the children and families, seeing the staff so proud and dedicated, watching the children become alive, filled me with hope, love and compassion, and is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. CCF is a miracle and I am overcome with inspiration and gratitude.
February 15, 2009
Walking through Tuol Sleng(S-21) and the Killing Fields was an intense and emotional day that only fueled my inner fire that this is a story that needs to be heard. I grew up in Long Beach, CA, home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia, during the 80's. It was then when I became aware of the plight of my Cambodian classmates, not through them, but through a movie. I never once heard of their suffering...never once heard them complain... never once did any of them share the absolute horror they have all endured.
The Killing Fields had left such an indelible impression on me since high school and now here I am walking through S-21, the infamous torture center and gazing upon the faces of these people, pictures posted up on boards, looking into their scared eyes.
It was here where our group met a survivor who recounted his story of what he had endured and heard and saw. He showed us the cell he was in, and pointed out his own picture that was posted on the wall. This dear soul of a man with gentle eyes was so humble, and so absolutely thankful that he was no longer afraid to be silent about his experience here. He will be a witness and will be able to speak out against Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, the notorious prison chief, who will finally be on trial here in Phnom Penh in the next few days.
This man sincerely expressed his wish to our group that we will go out and spread his word and share his experience so that the people who died here did not die in vain...and that this form of atrocity; heinous, horrific torture, may never ever happen again in Cambodia and may end everywhere.
What I saw and heard at S-21, and then walking through the Killing Fields, looking upon deep ditches that are the mass graves, walking up to remnants of clothes and bone still embedded in the earth from thirty years ago...a tree called the "The Killer Tree"- it's trunk scarred from the babies that were swung hard against it to join their mutilated and dying mothers... I was struck so hard by the thought that we are a global community!
I can make a difference...we can make difference... and help this man fulfill his wish, our wish to speak out for our fellow human beings who have been silenced through fear. It is the secrets, the silencing of our voices that perpetuate abuse on all levels and we cannot be silent anymore. We need to stand up and be heard...Cambodians need to be heard...their story needs to be heard. For this form of genocide is still happening in the world today.
February 15, 2009
2/9/09 - 4:00pm, Monday
It's only 4pm and I am emotionally drained. Did I really think by learning as much history of Cambodia, watching the Killing Fields and reading First They Killed My Father, I would be prepared for the trip today?
The day began with a yoga practice led be Seane (which is always a treat) who was preparing us for the day ahead. As I began to practice, nausea arose, my sinuses filled with congestion and my head hurt. I felt anxious for a short time and it passed. After the physical practice and the short meditation led by Suzanne, I once again felt prepared for the day ahead of me. Suzanne suggested if at any time we lost our ground, to simply breathe - I thought "I could do that, I'm a yogi".
We pulled up to S21 Museum and split up into 2 groups — Security Office 21, basically a prison. Our tour guide provided us with the history of the Khmer Rouge on the way there, once again preparing me for what lay ahead. S21 Museum was an old school which was used as a prison during the Pol Pot Regime era —1975-1979.
I began following the tour guide — (forgive me, I'm not sure how to spell his name) listening to every word and feeling my heart fill with sadness. As I walked from room to room, seeing a steel frame, leg chains, a small dish, my heart became heavy — I breathed as Suzanne suggested and continued. I saw the picture of a victim on the wall chained, tortured and a pool of blood around him — disbelief filled me. How could one human being do this to another human being? I walked from room to room seeing and "bare" witnessing the same thing over and over again. My soul was hurting as I felt the sadness around me but my breath continued to ground me.
Then, I saw the photos of the victims that were taken just before they were locked into their cells . . . hundred of innocent faces looking at me, and my breath seemed to disappear. It brought me back to 9/11 when all the pictures of the people who were murdered lined the streets throughout NYC — including my partner of 15 years, John. The wound I have worked so hard to continually heal was opened up. I looked into each of these beautiful people's eyes and became full of sadness and tears. Nobody spared — babies, young children, teenagers, the elderly, men and woman. I saw each face with a LIFE behind it — child, maybe a mother, a brother, father, aunt, or uncle.
My breath was nowhere to be found, tears streamed down my face, my heart and soul hurt, my belly felt hollow. I stepped out and searched for my breath . . . it came. I wiped my tears and returned inside to continue looking at each soul. I was thankful for Suzanne who had reminded us to breathe.
Our tour guide pointed at the pictures of the Khmer Rouge soldiers — and I felt anger wash all over my body. Anger I haven't felt towards anyone since 9/11. I looked into the eyes of the soldiers, hoping to see a soul. I could just feel the sadness, the torture, the lives taken all around me.
An older man who is a survivor of S21 shared his story. He pointed out the cell he was in and sat down, showing us how he sat there day after day. I gasped! It was horrible to witness just a demonstration of it. He was one of only seven who survived at S21. The women and children who were kept on the second floor with doors on the cells were kept for only a day or 2 before being brought to the Killing Fields to be executed.
At one point, as I was walking up the stairs, I was forced to a stop as the feeling of torture, pain and the presence of ghosts overwhelmed me. My belly felt sick, my head and heart hurt and it was difficult to continue. Suzanne encouraged me along and in the next room there were even more pictures surrounding me. As we headed back down, a few of us paused (Suzanne, Brittany, Angela and myself) — we held hands and Suzanne shared a beautiful prayer for these lives.
I was exhausted, emotionally drained with a headache and an upset stomach as I got back on the bus, wishing we were going back to the hotel instead of to the Killing Fields.
At the Killing Fields, the first building we saw and entered was a huge building filled with the skulls of the victims who were executed. Before entering, I knelt down and prayed for all these lost souls. I walked around the Killing Fields listening to the tour guide, again questioning how this could have happened. As I walked in this open field reading stories of the women and children murdered here, I went numb.
The numbness continued as I returned to the hotel. I know that soon I will be playing with the children and grandchildren of these victims of genocide — and I pray for the hope that I might find in those innocent faces.
February 15, 2009
Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu - May all beings be happy
One of the most profound meditations I have ever learned is the application of this prayer, first to one's beloveds, then to the world at large, and finally to one's enemies - an alchemical act of transformation with far-reaching consequences – most profoundly for myself.
I am back in Cambodia... a country which experienced a devastating genocide of over 2 million people in 4 years... the effects of which are still lingering in a culture where, for the poorest at least, domestic violence is still rampant, until recently still legal and currently goes unprosecuted.
I came here last August as an advance trip to prepare myself to co-facilitate this journey for the 20 trip participants. We will be taking them to S21 - the school that was turned into a torture chamber and is now a museum filled with pictures of the victims (taken by the Khmer Rouge) in a gruesome array of suffering. We will be visiting the killing fields where the victims were taken and beaten to death (bullets were too scarce) before being thrown into a pit, and where, as the rains erode the layers of dirt you are literally walking upon the bones, teeth and clothing of the dead. We will be visiting the Steung Meanchey Dump where many families live in squalor and children work entire days retrieving items for recycling and are subject to sinkholes, toxic fumes and predators of all kinds.
It is in this place of destitution and poverty that domestic violence is highest. There has long been a history of the oppressed becoming the oppressors yet it is still so difficult to make sense of the situation.
Part of our goal in creating the OTM programs was to offer a template for taking full responsibility for the state of the world; recognizing that the most important activism we can take on is the awareness of our own internal warfare and that we must begin to take responsibility for the change we are looking for by changing ourselves first. And as a child of domestic violence myself, I have to ask myself where that violence lives inside of me. Where am I still attacking myself or others (in thought or deed)? Where am I still living in such deep fear for my survival that I am willing to perpetuate violence?
Yoga and specifically sacred activism, asks us to take a good hard look at the world inside us and to begin to create a program for domestic peace by making those choices ourselves...in every moment of our lives. Just as the ancient prayer extends out to not only our loved ones, but also to our enemies, we begin to find ways to accept and integrate the enemy within so that we become more well rounded, more integrated and more aware - perhaps the ultimate goal of the yoga practice.
How can we wrap our minds and hearts around such things as genocide, torture and warfare? By seeing them for what they are - deep seated fear and greed, and just like Ghandi who faced the beating stick over and over again with a profound understanding of the power of non-violent action, we face our own inner oppressor over and over again with understanding, courage, and the passion of compassion. Only then will we begin to see subtle shifts in perception, thought and ultimately in deed, which, according to the ancient Indian Upanishads (sacred texts) is the seed of our destiny.
My hope for this Seva Challenge is that we make that sacred connection between our inner and outer worlds and begin to realize the power of our compassionate hearts and minds to discern ultimate truths from the illusions that keep us trapped in fear and cycles of violence. This act of discernment can create great change and perhaps even bring us to a state of domestic peace in a world beyond war. - Suzanne Sterling
February 14, 2009
For the entire last year I was privileged to be facilitator for a bi-monthly phone call in which the Seva Challenge participants discussed their process and progress in the daunting task of raising 20k each. From the beginning, we stressed the importance of creating concrete goals, building teams of support and reaching out to local yoga students and communities beyond studio lines. What we didn't anticipate was the way in which each participant would have to find within themselves the perfect combination of will and surrender. The way each person would have to connect with their passion and purpose and give it voice not once, but over and over again. The way in which, although friends and family sometimes fell short of our expectations, total strangers would create events and offer support beyond our wildest dreams. The way in which miracles came from surprising and unlikely places. The way in which we had to place our trust in something bigger than us.
Some worked tirelessly, planned meticulously and had disasters happen. Some created a single event that raised thousands. Others gave voice to the challenge in every single yoga class taught or attended, in line at the grocery store and in a thousand small ways that added up over the course of the year. There were donation boxes placed in studios, silent auctions, yoga marathons, yoga studio tours, t-shirts and other products created and sold and many more creative and successful fundraising ideas made manifest. But the primary gift that most received was the sense of empowerment that comes, not necessarily from reaching the goal but from taking action.
Those of us participating in the calls learned some valuable lessons from sharing our joys,ideas, failures and accomplishments with each other. We learned that most people yearn to be of service and don't know where to start. We learned that when we acknowledge our fears and step forward in any way, we are taking that one bold risk that is genius and setting forces in motion that have far reaching and unforeseen effects. We learned to trust the mystery. We learned to marry the mystical and the practical in perfect union setting us on the path of love in action.
We learned firsthand the ways in which we in the yoga community can support each other to take risks and take our yoga off the mat and into the world... into our everyday world, the world in our backyard, the world at large and the world of a child halfway around the globe. We gained a visceral sense of the way in which we are all a part of the web of life... all connected... and that each of us has something crucial to offer that web - our courage, our determination our passion and our voice.
One of the most amazing things that happened was that those participants who raised some but not all the funds were willing to "pay it forward" allowing others to reach the goal and be part of this groundbreaking humanitarian tour.
And here we are... in Phnom Penh. Tonight the 20 participants arrive from all over the US and Canada and tomorrow we will begin our work here…but we are all aware that in some ways our Seva, our service and our learning has been happening all year. We have gained a deeper understanding that the process is the teaching and is indeed our yoga. Showing up in each moment, boldly, humbly, with a bow to the mystery, we are already in deep service to the world. - Suzanne Sterling
Suzanne is an ecstatic vocalist and composer whose devotional music has been called a "groove-loving and seductive journey into Spirit". She brings a special blend of yoga, music and sacred ceremony to conferences and festivals worldwide. Suzanne is a co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, a project offering nationwide training programs combining yoga and sustainable activism and is one of the Seva Challenge trip leaders. www.suzannesterling.com
February 14, 2009
Today is day one of our Seva Challenge tour in Cambodia. I have waited a year for this moment and I feel deeply grateful to be here with the 20 women who completed the challenge and earned this trip through their hard work, creativity, and leadership. As an introduction to the Cambodian culture, we organized to meet with five survivors from the genocide to share with us the details of their experience under the Khmer Rouge reign. Tears streamed down their faces as they told their stories of incomprehensible violence, suffering and loss. We held our breath and our judgment, as an ex-Khmer soldier, perhaps responsible for countless deaths, cried quietly while recounting his experience. Asking uncomfortable questions, we tried to comprehend the history of this country, and how the strategic slaughter of two million of its educated and cultured people impacts Cambodia today, while learning what is being done to empower its future. We came be a part of the growth and healing of this culture. We came to serve.
I have been fortunate over the years to work in developing countries in a variety of ways, most usually educating and providing product and service to children effected or affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As the National Ambassador for YouthAIDS, I have been invited into some of the most impoverished environments and seen first hand the indignity of illiteracy, the desperation of prostitution, and the end result of incurable disease, and how all this effects the human body and spirit. Being of service and experiencing populations other than my own has transformed my life and affirmed my purpose. I am privileged and grateful that I get to do this work.
Over the years I have dreamed of being able to share these experiences, knowing how life changing it is to serve in these ways. Last year, with the help of the Off the Mat, Into the World team, we came up with an idea that could support this vision. We presented a challenge to the people in the yoga community suggesting that if anyone could raise $20,000 through outreach efforts, projects or events, we would bring them with us to Cambodia to do humanitarian work with the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF). CCF (www.cambodianchildrensfund.org) provides education, shelter, food and services to over 450 children who live and work in the Steung Meanchey garbage dump. These children are horribly abused and exploited, often dying of disease, malnutrition and neglect. Cambodia has some of the highest rates of child prostitution and domestic violence and these vulnerable children often fall victim to these incomprehensible acts. My dear friend Scott Neeson runs CCF. I had visited him in Phnom Penh in 2006 and he brought me to Steung Meanchey to see for myself the deprivation of these children. Although I have worked in orphanages in Africa, where 100% of the children are infected with HIV, and have been in impoverished brothels in the slums of India seeing young girls prostituted out by their own mothers, I had never seen poverty, exploitation and desperation like what I witnessed in the garbage dumps of Phnom Penh. Scott is committed to helping these children and their families and has six facilities that do just that. I wanted to help Scott in his effort and knew that what he needs, like so many non-profits doing humanitarian relief, is funding. This is when I first envisioned the possibilities of the Seva Challenged and how it could aid someone like Scott, while also identifying leaders and activists in my own community.
Continue reading "About the Challenge by Seane Corn" »
February 11, 2009
by Erica Rodefer
Cambodian children are some of the most deprived and abused in the world. They've had no choice in being born into a country with some of the highest rates of child prostitution and domestic violence in the world. Without schooling, and without access to basic public services, these children have little hope of escaping a life of destitution
The Seva Challenge is about taking a small group of leaders and setting a significant fundraising goal for each person who comes on the trip. Through the funds raised, we will be able to leave Cambodia knowing we have made a difference.
Friday, February 6
Participants will fly from their hometown to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Saturday, February 7
Arrive at deluxe Raffles Hotel. As individuals arrive, they will be met by Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling, your hosts, as well as trip leaders Sally Brown and Courtney Gorman.
Sunday, February 8
Participants will partake in morning yoga and brunch. Then, they will depart for Cambodian Children’s Fund main office to meet Founder and Executive Director Scott Neeson, and an English-speaking Khmer from Human Rights Organization. They will gather on the rooftop of CCF where Scott will share his story as well as give in depth information on the children and how they came to be at CCF. Im Vanny and other Khmer Rough survivors will share their stories.
The first Leadership Training will take place this night.
Monday, February 9
After a morning yoga session, the group will depart for the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and later for the "Killing Fields" of Cheoung Ek to gain insight of what the Cambodian people have endured and an understanding of today’s Khmer Society.
Tuesday, February 10 and Wednesday, February 11
There will be four groups of five individuals who will stay together as a team for the next two days. The groups will alternate going to one of the world’s most toxic city dumps and later the community center. Over two-thirds of the CCF children once lived and worked as garbage pickers at the Steung Meanchey landfill, where they scavenged through hazardous waste for recyclables to sell and were largely unable to attend school.
Those remaining at the Community Center will work in one of the service areas:
Childcare (6 years and under)
Fresh water distribution
More leadership trainings will be held in the evenings.
Thursday, February 12 and Friday, February 13
Groups will be divided into four different teams of five people for a day shift and an early evening shift
Day shift duties will include: teaching conversational English, art classes, and library reading. All groups will also assist kitchen staff in the preparation, serving and clean-up of lunch.
Night shift duties will include: Yoga classes, drama classes, modern music, and traditional Khmer dance and traditional music.
Those teams at the Community Center for night shift will: Assist in food service at CCF Café (30-80 people per night), supervise children and children playground (80-100 kids and youth from surrounding communities each night), and teach conversation English to Satellite School children (these are children still working and living at dump site, many of whom are on CCF's waiting list).
Saturday, February 14
Participants will depart for CCF Community Center where they will assist with fitting of new clothes for daycare kids, ages three to seven years old. There will be time to play with the children and share a pizza party with them.
Sunday, February 15
This will be a free day to shop at the Central and Russian Markets.
Monday, February 16 and Tuesday, February 17
The group will spend two days in a small village outside of Phnom Penh. Located in Kampong Cham, about 90 minutes from Phnom Penh, participants will work initially at a children’s weekend camp helping plant trees, vegetables, building of animal enclosures, move water buffalo to work, possible construction of a solar powered, “green” swimming pool filtration system.
Less than one mile away are the CCF rice paddies. Spread over 20 acres, this dry season crop may require irrigation, tending, weeding (6 acres), fence building and animal control. Work on the rice paddies is dependent on weather. If too hot, participants can either stay at children’s camp land or spend one hour maximum on paddy site.
Wednesday, February 18
The first part of this day is reserved for yoga and leadership training. In the evening, the group will watch a cultural performance by the CCF children.
Thursday, February 19
Final yoga class and individuals will fly back to their hometowns.
February 7, 2009
by Erica Rodefer
Seane Corn teaches classes that are an eclectic fusion of various healing and spiritual modalities. She is the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS and trains leaders of activism through Off the Mat Into the World, an organization she cofounded. She received the 2005 Conscious Humanitarian Award for her outreach efforts and is featured in several DVDs.
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