On June 25th, we visited S-21 Prison in Phenom Penh. Before the Khmer Rouge, S-21 Prison was a school. The Khmer Rouge was mainly formed by Viet Cong and a small number of Cambodians who supported communism. They used this facility as a torture center for people they suspected to be Russian spies or CIA. If the victims said “yes” they would be killed quickly, if they said “no” they tortured them until they said they were and then put them to death. Many victims lied to reserve a quick death. We were told that soldiers in the Khmer Rouge tortured their victims for fun. One method included the removal of finger nails and teeth with pliers. Another method was to whip and hang children, over cauldronsthat held blood, acid, and feces. Women and children were often raped as well.
While there, we met two of the facility’s seven survivors. In the image below, you can see Chum Mey, who had toenails ripped out and a finger broken. The finger never healed properly. The Khmer Rouge also electrocuted him causing him partial deafness in his left ear.
Another survivor we met, Buo Meng, was also put through electrocution causing him to become deaf and mute. He also witnessed his wife get raped and killed. After the Khmer Rouge genocide, they wrote books explaining what they went through in S-21. Meeting theses survivors helped put a face to all the horrible things that occurred in S-21, especially after observing all the toture equipment and images of how they were used. Speaking to the survivors also made everything connect and made it more real.
By Christina and Cherokee
Little Angels is an orphanage founded by Sery Rathana in 2002. Rathan grew up as an orphan, exposing him to the cruel conditions one has to bare as an orphan alongside his three brothers in a poor country like Cambodia. In order to get himself and his brothers an education, he had to sell cans and sand from the river. In spite of only having an education equivalent to Middle School, Rathan was able join the House of Peace Association, where he learned the skills of leather carving, and finally founded The Little Angels organization. The Little Angels is an organization through which Rathan adopts orphans, providing them with essential food, shelter, clothes, water, and the education needed to be successful in the future.
Global To Local visited the Little Angels organization on June 29th and 30th. Thanks to our supporters in the U.S, we were able to fundraise enough to donate 2 laptops, 2 routers (necessary because of the limited bandwidth access), and the capabilities to have wifi. The children at the orphanage were truly grateful for the little they had. Working with the students was amazing and educational, and they taught us leather carving so we could help them make puppets. Even with a language barrier, the communication and teamwork it took to create murals and puppets did not stop us. We even sang along to “You Raise Me Up” together as one teenager played his guitar.
Stepping back and seeing how appreciative these students were for what they have made us understand how grateful we are to be in the position we are today. The students often consume soup as it is a cheaper food option, but they enjoy eating rice, which is a luxury they cannot always afford. The appreciativeness that these students shared with us compelled Global To Local to purchase three 25lbs sacks of rice. We left this orphanage making every single one of us want to continue our volunteer work in future foreign countries, as well as in our hometown, Newburgh.
-With love from Cambodia
By Eliana, Juan and Iggy
When we visited the Wild Life Sanctuary, we were literally walking through the forest with wild animals. According to Trip Advisor, there are over 1,200 animals. Some animals were caged but others were loose such as the deer and monkeys. We saw many different animals, from monkeys, to bears, to lions, to tigers, to deer, to water buffalo.
However, what grabbed our attention the most was the people. They were carrying fruit and sugar cane to sell to us so we can feed the animals. They were strongly pushing for us to buy their products so they can support their families. This was a fundraising tour and 100% of profits went directly to the rescue, rehabilitation, care and release of wildlife. It also helped the workers who are living in poverty. They even had small children and a baby there that had no diaper on. We noticed there were many children, then learned this was a strategy used to influence tourist to give into buying their merchandise. This opened our eyes to see how poor and desperate they were to make an income. We learned that many children live so deep in poverty that their parents can’t afford to put them in school, so they end up in places like this animal sanctuary, working. I (Aiyanna) was able to talk to a ten year old girl that was following us as we traveled through the wilderness of this sanctuary. The little girl ended up there because her parents were divorced. She had other siblings but happened to be the youngest, and she also mentioned how her father was very ill and unable to get out of bed. This little girl at the age of ten was working in this sanctuary, and that has to be one thing that struck my attention the most.
By our conversation I could tell that she was very selfless, as she talked about how she was saving up money in hopes to help her father get proper medical attention. This visit to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary definitely made a lifetime impression for the both of us.
With love from Cambodia,
Aiyanna and Alexis
We’ve been super busy and the wifi has been a bit spotty, but here are a couple of our favorite moments in the last day and a half. Hopping on a plane to Siem Riep this afternoon! xoxo
We started our day by writing a letter to ourselves and sealing it in an envelope; in the note, we thought about what makes us excited and nervous about the days to come. Inspired by one of our mentors, Juan-Carlos, we all took a few cleansing breaths, and then thought about WHY we are here. We used those thoughts to close our letters. It will be interesting to revisit these letters towards the end of the trip, and talk about the ways in which this journey surprised us or confirmed our expectations.
After writing into the morning, we piled onto the bus for the short ride out to the Choeng Ek, the memorial commemorating one of Cambodia’s hundreds of “killing fields.” These mass graves were spread throughout the country, but this one closest to Phnom Penh is where the victims of Tuol Sleng were transported when death became imminent. As we walked around the the central Stupa, there was quiet music playing to remind guests of the solemnity of the place. The soft echoing music was in stark contrast to the graphic descriptions of how men, women and children were slain. According to the signage, the Khmer strictly adhered to the slogan that to “clear the grasses…[one must] dig its entire root off,” leading to the arrest and murder of entire families in order to avoid revenge later in life. We were reminded of a line in the book we are reading, Never Fall Down, in which Arn Chorn Pond recounts having to bend like “grass” in the wind and do what is necessary to survive under the Khmer Rouge regime; it is powerful to think about these contradictory images of grass and everything that we learned today.
Back in Phnom Penh, we visited another notorious monument to Cambodia’s recent past. At Tuol Sleng, which was once a high school until it became known as Prison S-21, we toured the areas where prisoners were accused of working for the CIA and the KGB; victims would be tortured if they said no, or killed if they confessed.
Only seven individuals survived their time there, and we were able to meet the two who are still alive: Chum Mey and Buo Meng. Mey was spared because of his skills as a machinist, while Meng worked as an artist for the regime. Both men have co-authored books about their experiences, and we were able to pick up signed copies of their memoirs. Although Meng was left deaf and unable to speak by the torture he endured, Mey spoke for a few minutes and our guide, Chanath, translated for us. He thanked us for traveling to his country, and shared his hopes that we would return home and teach our families about the Khmer Rouge genocide. No one spoke as we gathered around him for a picture, and Chanath reminded us not to smile as we usually would when being photographed.
We ended our day by seeing a performance from a group of artists who have been trained by Cambodian Living Arts, a non-profit organization started by Khmer Rouge survivor Arn Chorn Pond. Through this program, Cambodian youth are able to learn and preserve traditional Khmer art forms, which were in danger of dying out after the genocide. Our first day in Phnom Penh left us with a much richer understanding of what happened here during the 20th century, and a growing sense of gratitude for our shared experience of traveling together.
After an emotional departure from Newburgh, we started our long journey to Cambodia, which is the fruition of ten months of hard work, fundraising, networking, and researching by our students.
It is hard not to be bursting with gratitude thinking back on every leg of our long journey from New York. It was an adventure: 6 takeoffs, 6 landings, 1 lost and re-found passport, 11 hours waiting in airports, and 19.5 hours at 15,000 feet.
To some people, taking twelve students on such a long haul may sound crazy, but we were continually impressed by how our students took advantage of every opportunity to support one another and try new things (or old things, like the chicken feet some also ate in Ecuador). Who knew airports were so much fun?
Our partner, Kim, has been an amazing resource as we planned over Skype and email, and seeing his smiling face in person was a comfort as we stepped of the Phnom Penh airport.
As we drove through the streets of the city on the way to our hotel, motorbikes dodged out of the way of our bus and shops illuminated the sidewalks, while our Khmer guide, Chanath, warmly welcomed the students and quickly got them all laughing and relaxed after the long trip. He then shared a little bit about his life and the current socio-economic and political state of Cambodia. His willingness to share his story about having lost his father at the age of six immediately personalized the Khmer Rouge genocide for our students; we were grateful for his candid storytelling, as we hope it helped prepare them at least a little for what they will experience here. Afterwards, Tamara and Elise both commented on how moved they were by both his openness and his experiences. Chanath also spoke about the extremes that exist in his country, where the majority of people live on less than $150 a month, creating a stark contrast between what we were seeing on the streets of the capital city and the life of Cambodian rural farmers.
After a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, we are starting our day today with a quick writing session and then heading off to visit Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.
More to come soon.
Remember those fifteen students who traveled to Quito, Ecuador, last year? On May 19, they hosted the Newburgh Youth Leadership Summit and Enlightenment Expo, and it was amazing to see all of their efforts and planning pay off! Who know what’s next for these young change-makers?
A special thank you to Juan-Carlos Piñeiro, whose undying dedication led him to our school every Tuesday morning at an inhuman hour, where he helped our kids prepare for being on stage. He even emceed the event with Jason and Naisha, and we couldn’t have done this without him.
Huge gratitude to Shawn at Phan Media! We love connecting with local talent:)
We had our final meeting yesterday to prepare for departure, and we are beyond excited! Our final itinerary, courtesy of Kim White and Into the Wild, includes exploring Angkor Wat and the historic sites of Phnom Penh, three days of service at Little Angels in Siem Riep, and visiting the Apopo Hero Rats and Cambodian Living Arts!
This would not be possible without the support of our sponsors. We have received donations from so many organizations and individuals, and although some are camera-shy, here is a partial list:
- MYGHT and Javier Valdez
- Greater Newburgh Rotary Club
- Mid Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union
- Newburgh Brewing Company
- Kiwanis Club of Newburgh
- FLYTE and Erica Virvo
- Mike Bazinet (the kids at Little Angels are going to love the Chromebooks!)
Thank you, everyone! We will carry your generosity and kindness with us to Cambodia.