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Archive for the ‘Cambodia Aid’ Category

Day 8, January 7: Phnom Penh to Kampot

This was another beautiful day along the Mekong. Our 8 AM departure was delayed while a misplaced passport was relocated. On our way out of Phnom Penh, we stopped at the trendy (and socially responsible) Java Café for box lunches.

Krouser Themy Shelter for street children supported by Friendship with Cambodia

Krouser Themy Shelter for street children supported by Friendship with Cambodia

Then we headed to Krousar Thmey (KT), where Phanna, the manager of the drop-in street children’s shelter, Chetra, Coordinator of KT’s Child Welfare Division, and Ari, an advisor from France, talked about the street kids’ situation. Friendship with Cambodia helps fund this shelter.

Tour participants learn about the street children's shelter

Tour participants learn about the street children’s shelter

It was a school holiday (celebrating liberation from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese), so we missed the usual classroom clamor, but we heard the firsthand reports by these three dedicated men. Krousar Themy is a French NGO that counsels street kids, provides resources, and resettles many with foster families, which KT employs and monitors.

We left Krousar Themy at 11 AM and battled the traffic for an hour to reach Choung Ek, Phnom Penh’s major killing field where prisoners from S-21 (Tuol Sleng) were executed and buried.

Memorial at the Killing Fields

Memorial at the Killing Fields

We picked up audio-phones and individually toured the site and the new museum. Much of the information was provided by personal stories.

The horror of genocide

The horror of genocide

Like at Tuol Sleng, it is hard to grasp the horror that occurred here. We ate our lunches in silence, each lost in thought as we drove towards Kampot, stopping just once for toilets and cold drinks at a new and modern gas station.

At 4 PM, we arrived at the Diamond Hotel in Kampot. At 6:30 PM, we had dinner at Moliden Guest House, where we were free to order from the menu.

Group dinner at Moliden Guest House

Group dinner at Moliden Guest House

Most of our meals prior to this had been pre-ordered, due to the size of our group. It was interesting to see what people ordered when freed from the set menus we had been having—fish amok or a cheeseburger. I enjoyed my green peppercorn steak and a large Angkor beer.

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Day 7, January 6: More Adventures in Phnom Penh

This was a very busy and interesting day. Panha, the Executive Director of Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), met us at the hotel. CWCC is another of FWC’s partner organizations. She delivered an informative PowerPoint presentation on CWCC and the problems of domestic abuse, violence, rape, and trafficking in Cambodia.

CWCC Director Panha gives an informative presentation to trip participants.

CWCC Executive Director Panha gives an informative presentation to trip participants.

A banner at CWCC thanks sponsoring agencies, including FWC

A banner at CWCC thanks sponsoring agencies, including Friendship with Cambodia

We all signed statements saying that we would not use any images made here in ways that might reveal the identity of the women taking refuge and receiving training or care here at CWCC. Two of the young women here were training to work in a coffee house and served us the best café lattes and cappuccinos we’d had since leaving the States. They had both run away from an abusive employer who had kept them as slaves since they were small children. We met the children in the nursery, and then we drove back down to the Russian Market.

The Market was the go-to place for the Russians, who were stationed here during the Socialist era in the 1980’s after the fall of Pol Pot.

Created by the Soviets in the 1980's, the Russian Market is a fun place to explore.

Created by the Soviets in the 1980’s, the Russian Market is a fun place to explore.

A delicious lunch at Cafe Yejj, where poor children learn how to work in upscale restaurants.

A delicious lunch at Cafe Yejj, where poor children learn how to work in upscale restaurants.

After exploring 30 minutes, we met for a delicious lunch at Café Yejj (Café Grandmother).

The Café hires poor, rural kids from remote areas and trains them to work at upscale cafes. Tapas and fruit drinks are the specialty.

After lunch we visited the new location of Rehab Crafts, which provides training and a sheltered workshop for landmine and polio victims. The director, Sophan, had been shot in the knee as a child and was unable to bend his leg. The bookkeeper lost his lower arms in a landmine explosion and writes holding a pencil in the stubs of his arms. It was inspiring to see how these and other workers had overcome their physical limitations.

The bookkeeper at Rehab Crafts has overcome the loss of his lower arms.

The bookkeeper at Rehab Crafts has overcome the loss of his lower arms.

In the evening, Joyce organized a group to attend the cultural performance at the nearby National Museum, and the Lorbers were flying to a business meeting in Bangkok that night. We said, “Goodbye, y’all!” to our good friends from Atlanta.

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by Shoshana D. Kerewsky

Shoshana in Cambodia

Shoshana in Cambodia

Like many readers, I was deeply moved, and very distressed, when I first read the Cambodian memoir The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam. Mam’s tragic experiences as a trafficked girl inspired me to donate even more to anti-trafficking causes. I assigned her book to my students. It seemed that every new film on trafficking included a segment on Somaly and her foundation. I was inspired by her courage and tenacity. She made me a better donor, educator, and advocate for human rights.

Also like many readers, I was shocked by allegations, soon substantiated, that important parts of her story were untrue. I felt emotionally manipulated and taken advantage of. I had been lied to. Now I questioned where my all of my charitable donations went, and what I was advocating for. My first impulse was to be cynical and disgusted.

In some ways I was lucky. I had already read Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and I, Rigoberta Menchu, both memoirs alleged to include inaccurate depictions of some events in the authors’ lives. I’d read Three Cups of Tea, and A Million Little Pieces. I’d had time to think about and learn more about these distortions. Now I had an opportunity to reflect on Somaly Mam’s possible motives.

When I’m angry at someone who has behaved like Mam, I tend to start with my negative assumptions—she’s avaricious; she’s power-hungry; she’s self-serving. I might even assume that she thinks of me and other credulous readers and donors with contempt. From there, I could make a quick jump to reducing my donations and voluntarism. It’s natural that we respond to our vulnerability with anger and a sense of betrayal when a person or cause we believe in misrepresents something important to us. Stopping here, however, may lead us to an overgeneralized mistrust that doesn’t help us to support real people with real needs. Stopping here distances us from our best natures.

Instead, we need to consider some of the reasons why memoirists (and organizations and governments) might exaggerate or lie. This helps us to become more informed and sophisticated donors with better skills for separating fact from fiction and evaluating where we want to put our money and time. Yes, some people, and some organizations and governments, lie for their own gain or protection. But not all of them, or even most of them.

It’s also true that disaster and misery sell. I’ve read a lot of memoirs from around the world. Many that are translated into English are about surviving wars, genocides, famines, droughts, and other disasters or extreme adversity. It’s no secret that publishers, and sometimes writers or media producers, may opt for a dramatic narrative over an accurate one. An “escape” that is billed as “harrowing” attracts more readers than a calm departure. To give a domestic example, James Frey first proposed A Million Little Pieces as a novel, not as a memoir. However, true-life stories are more compelling to readers, and the book was repackaged and published as a memoir.

There are other reasons that a life story might be unwittingly or intentionally distorted. A number of disaster memoirists, including Beah, have responded to assertions that they fabricated material by stating that they presented the story as best they could recall it, but that at the time they were trying to stay alive, not memorize or account for every objective fact. This may be particularly true of children giving retrospective accounts. Chun-Won Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag includes two contradictory statements about a physically arduous task the child prisoners were forced to engage in. While neither of his versions seems likely, one is simply impossible. I understand this to be an error of memory (or math), not an attempt to deceive the reader. In another story from the Khmer Rouge genocide, a then-child Cambodian memoirist recounts seeing bodies on the ground, frozen and blue, in a locale that online weather records show has never been below 70°. However, I have seen Vietnamese and Cambodian teenagers shivering, sneezing, and miserable in down jackets and mittens at 76°, so I don’t doubt that to a child, this could seem to be “freezing.” This form of unintentional inaccuracy is like me misremembering my third grade teacher’s name. It’s wrong, but unintentional.

Sometimes memoirists condense events to increase the drama or tighten the “plot” for storytelling reasons, but again, not as an attempt to mislead. More experienced writers and more scrupulous editors often include a note stating that the order of events may have been changed, for example, or that some conversations or events depicted are representative but fictional. The intention of this note is to be sure the reader knows that at points, the story takes precedent over the truth.

In the more problematic form of this style of autobiography, however, memoirists sometimes add fictional events in order to tell a “better,” more illustrative story. The intention is not to deceive the reader, but to tell a story that is compelling and representative. The big caveat here, though, is that in postindustrial Western cultures we place a high value on the “reportage” form of truth in which facts are to be accurate and verifiable. This is not always how “truth” is understood cross-culturally. For example, Menchu has acknowledged that she described some events in her life inaccurately because this made her story more persuasive and more characteristic of the experiences of people in her circumstances. In her biography Buddha, Karen Armstrong points out that historically, biographies of religious or political figures were not intended to present factual truth, but to tell iconic or archetypal stories attributed to those figures’ lives. The biography was not meant to report actual life events, but, for example, to teach moral precepts, demonstrate points of doctrine, or show lines of spiritual succession.

For me as a contemporary North American raised with an expectation of verifiable, supportable, evidence-based “truth” in personal accounts, this is hard to accept. Ultimately, wrestling with this concept opens me to the idea of different forms of truth as the storyteller understands it and uses it to make her argument or tell her story. It gives me a way to recognize my own values and storytelling preferences, as well as to recognize that the memoirist may have good intentions and may have a world view different from my own. For me, this is not just about cultural proficiency, but about compassion for and valuing of people who may not think and believe the way I do.

Knowing why a memoirist may, with all sincerity, misrepresent her story helps increase our understanding and broaden our perspective, but it doesn’t answer the question of what we should do in response. Fortunately, the same processes and tools that we use when first deciding to donate are useful for responding to this dilemma as well.

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Starting from the emotional end, it’s important to be aware that showing a picture and a presenting a brief life story are effective techniques for soliciting donations. They associate a face with a need. This is a reasonable and humanizing fundraising approach, but as a donor, you need use your research skills as well as your heart in order to be sure that the organization is honest. When you hear a moving or inspiring story, make your preliminary decision about donating based on the representativeness of the story, not the particular, individual memoirist or poster child. Learning that the story is typical of a group of people, and that the general circumstances are reported accurately, you can feel confident that your donation responds to the verifiable needs of a real group of people. Work through reputable organizations, using online tools such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to have a better understanding of the organization’s mission, accountability and transparency, and use of funds. A good rule of thumb is to look for organizations that have both in-country and international oversight and governance, with periodic visits to evaluate the agency’s work and legal/ethical compliance. Keep yourself up to date on the work and reputation of NGOs, governments, and spokespersons. This can be as simple as reading The New York Times or going to BBC online, or setting Google alerts for topics of interest.

To summarize: by all means be moved, and also, do your research.

Has Somaly Mam told her story for her own gain, to help others, or for some combination of these goals? I don’t know, though I hope to know more in time. What I do know is that while The Road of Lost Innocence includes some elements that are not true of Mam’s life, they are representative of the brutal experiences some girls and women have in Cambodia and the world. Trafficking is real. Coerced sex and labor are real. People’s suffering is real.

My privilege and resources are also real. I strongly encourage you be an informed and sophisticated donor. Make a difference to respond to big needs and big truths, not to the details of one person’s story.

Shoshana Kerewsky is a former Board President of Friendship with Cambodia and is Director of the Family and Human Services program at University of Oregon. 

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