bernica David Bernica :: Cambodia

Reflection 1

February 4, 2008

Throughout my first month in Cambodia, I have experienced a wide spectrum of emotions and thoughts as I have encountered many new people, situations, and lifestyles that have struck me. In some young Khmer men and women longing to teach or work for an NGO to help and change their own country, I have felt inspired. In witnessing severe poverty in the country, I have been moved to sadness, deep compassion, and even frustration. In talking with jovial co-workers and missioners with hope, I have found joy and hope myself. In being alone in a new country, I have felt lonely. In many ways, I knew to expect all of this. The real question, though, would be how I would actually experience this multi-dimensional journey in a very specific, very real way.


Just being in Cambodia, very much on my own, has been a very good experience for me in terms of learning better to take control of my necessities and making sure that I am aware of what's around me and what I may need at some point (contact numbers, transportation, location of a good clinic, etc.) Naturally, of course, a lot of this was done beforehand, but I continue to meet new people, make new contacts, and learn new things. This is certainly no tourist vacation with an itinerary set up with a travel agent. Accordingly, it's been good for learning and adapting—obviously, a very large theme of my time here.

Now, as for adapting to the new culture, that has been both challenging and has made each day interesting. Though language is occasionally a problem or obstacle (more in the city than at work), I have found that I can get by pretty well with some gestures and a few Khmer terms (i.e. thank you, etc.) The vast majority of people who I have met or even briefly encountered, whether at a market or in the office or moto drivers on the street, have been very friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have made a couple good friends with some moto drivers with whom I often discuss national politics and the card game that they play while awaiting customers. Unfortunately, I have had two 24 hour bouts of "having eaten the wrong something", but I have recovered successfully and have gained insight into what and how much I can eat of certain things. The weather and the jetlag together slowed me down significantly for the first couple weeks, but adjustment has arrived gradually.

At CRS, things have been frustrating at times, but largely positive. The staff has been very welcoming and there are a few Westerners too who have helped offer some advice and good feedback. Such has been the same in meeting the Maryknoll group and attending Mass with them on Wednesdays and the larger Mass on Saturdays. In the office, though, things have been up and down in terms of quantity of work for me. The first week and a half was very slow, but since then I have done some proofreading of documents, read and reviewed a number of applications and resumes for a new position open for rural Community Development Officer, created some tables for candidate data, participated in about two full days of interviews, and helped in the scoring and selection process. Along with two days of experience out in the field, driving to and meeting with village communities in the Kampong Speu province, this has been the extent of my work with the new Civil Society for Pro Poor Market (CSPPM) project so far.

Besides this work, the most individual work that I have done and hopefully will be able to do involves preparing a promotional report regarding Pagoda-based fisheries. I have done a lot of reading on the past projects regarding this idea, but I am still awaiting a large amount of data and pictures before I can really launch into the project. I am looking forward to this and more field visits as I will then not feel restless at times when I have completed tasks and as my direct boss, Gonzalo, is very busy and in many meetings. In terms of the work that CRS does in Cambodia, I have found that it is obviously very positive and, encouragingly, effective as well. I have only been here a short time, but I do believe that the CSPPM project will be successful in many ways. My knowledge of international NGOs and local NGOs and CBOs has certainly increased greatly as the project focuses largely on communication and collaboration among all of these organizations.

Now, in terms of individual experiences in Cambodia, I have had many that have shaken me or inspired me. First, the poverty is stark here. Each day, I encounter poverty stricken men and women, many of which suffer from a physical disability. I also encounter a number of street children and one, named Rhi, has learned my name and is very friendly to me. He is probably about eight years old. Once in a while, I buy a box or bag of cookies or crackers and give it to a group of them playing cards on a street corner at night. They are always very grateful. I have tried to do a lot of reading while here, including the Cambodia Daily and some CRS documents regarding certain issues, and I have learned that a lot of these children have families, but that domestic abuse can be particularly bad and that they stay away from home especially when they don't have enough money from begging to give to a parent. Certainly, and this is to put it very simply, not enough children get to go to school long enough or at all. This is worse yet in the countryside where schools are harder to access and children are needed at home to help at the farm. Another serious issue is garbage collecting. People live and try to subsist by recycling all that they can. It is an everyday event to see people sifting through garbage on street corners. It is certainly a striking thought to imagine that many of Cambodia's poor people could live a more comfortable week or month if they simply had one day to sort through a single trash dump in the US and recycle what we throw away each day.

Second, the country has been through so much. One weekend, I visited the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, a former Khmer Rouge torture prison turned genocidal museum. Certainly not an uplifting day, the experience was haunting and one of the more upsetting experiences of my life as I saw thousands of skulls and many sites of severe suffering. Fortunately, my driver, Soppia, was a good companion and talked with me afterwards about what I had seen. Of course, I learned a lot about the ruthless Khmer Rouge and their violent and brutal regime that left millions dead, many crippled, and terrible devastation to education and values—all of which still remain very significant in the country's current poverty and struggles.

Third, I have had powerful discussions with local people and, in particular, one conversation with the new IT man at CRS named Chea. He is 27 and he and I have gone to the National Museum together and hung out a little bit. In talking about the current government and the Cambodia's People Party one day, he became passionate and, it seemed, almost in tears as he explained the corruption in the government. He explained to me how the government grossly underpays teachers (which discourages teachers and encourages bribery and crime) and invests too little in schools while those at the top remain comfortable, capitalizing largely on the rural poor and uneducated for political support as the CPP makes promises and occasionally gives handouts to them at the right time of year. Certainly, the government is not the Khmer Rouge and has done some positive things, but the wealth and education largely remains at the top, among party officials and supporters. Chea also highlighted issues such as the lack of support for orphaned children, the elderly, and the disabled. All the while, he mentioned America and how the media and opposition parties in the US make it possible for greater justice. No conversation or event has ever made me understand so well how fortunate I have been to live in America, or, less specifically, a fairly balanced democracy. Also, this conversation greatly helped me see the larger picture by connecting some of the problems. Chea said that he wants to be a teacher someday and change his country. In some small way, his statement encapsulates what Cambodia needs to make a serious, lasting positive change. Education. Education can topple corruption and stop crime. Education can provide opportunities and relief for the poor and oppressed. The most vicious regime in Cambodia's history was an enemy of education and today it needs to be embraced as the hope for the future.

Of course I have learned much more and have a number of other experiences that have impacted me greatly here in Cambodia including the government's denial of Mia Farrow's Dream for Darfur ceremony intended to be held at Tuol Sleng. It was meant to commemorate the lives lost due to all genocides and raise awareness and support for Darfur. China, unfortunately, has set a negative example and pressured Cambodia into stopping the ceremony as China has oil interests in the Sudan. Anyway, I have had many positive experiences as well. I have had fun going to the markets and visiting with travelers at the guest house. The eating and shopping/bartering is very inexpensive and usually very exciting. I have found the food delicious though I miss things like cold milk and cereal. My time here has also been great for my spiritual life. It has been hard too, but has made me more aware of prayer as well. All in all, I am about a month into my internship and I hope that I am contributing to CRS and somehow to Cambodia in a small way. As for the other way around, the impact from the people and this country is already great and will unquestionably be lasting.

Reflection 2

February 27, 2008

During my last few weeks in Cambodia, I have unsurprisingly had many new experiences and have seen my work load increase and become more interesting as well. In this time period, I have had the opportunity to visit Siem Reap and the enormous Buddhist temple complex in the province. Angkor Wat and many of the other temples/towns were no less than stunning and provided an incredible experience. I knew that I would see a lot, but I didn't quite expect the enormity and quantity of temples. I spent about two full days looking at temples and still missed some of the major sites. I also had the important opportunity to visit the land mine museum located near some of the temples in Siem Reap. As I knew Cambodia still has a serious problem with land mines, this visit really illustrated to me how serious this issue has been and is (some 5 to 10 million mines remain throughout Cambodia). The founder of the museum, who is a great inspiration, was forced to place mines for the Khmer Rouge when he was 5 and then the Vietnamese later captured him and employed him for the same purpose. Later in life, after the wars, he began working to de-mine the country and used some money he earned from the UN to take care of a few children who suffered from severe injuries caused by mines. He later started an orphanage for more children, which is located right behind the museum.

Also, in my few days in Siem Reap, I had the chance to visit a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake with a Jesuit and a couple young Khmer women who teach Catechism after Mass at the village on Sundays. Another Jesuit and others visited a different village further along while we visited one closer to the ever-shifting shore (due to the incredible flooding and drying that occurs through the year—the same reason that villages may move significant distances in a couple weeks' time). This visit was very powerful to me as the people were wonderful and I experienced Mass in a different language in a very unique environment. Not too many people in the villages are Catholic, but many children attended because they have fun singing and playing some Catechism games afterwards and, plus, there is a meal served. Fr. Monaq of India celebrated Mass and I learned much about the great work that he and the Jesuit mission in Siem Reap does to help disadvantaged people, including the inhabitants of the floating villages who largely have migrated from Vietnam. They are now people without citizenship and, accordingly, more vulnerable to negative impacts, including those caused by many polluting tourist boats. It struck me that these tourists were paying money to see how people are living in poverty while, at the same time, polluting the very water that enables them to survive at all. I reflected on how it is very important that people be aware of these villages and of the world's poverty in general. However, awareness should not come at a cost to those already at a severe disadvantage.

Siem Reap offered many great learning experiences. I also met a young woman from Australia with whom I had a couple very important conversations about different experiences in different countries and how one doesn't become overwhelmed by seeing poverty to the degree that it renders one depressed or unmotivated to do good. She helped illuminate ideas of hope and understanding in me. Her name is Angela and intends to become a Sister of the Cross and Passion.

Anyway, back in Phnom Penh and at work at CRS, I have obtained more work and have been busy more consistently than I had been for the first few weeks. I have been and I am currently helping with the editing and organization of an Anti-human trafficking manual that has been translated into English so that expatriate staff could review the ideas and then it will be re-translated into Khmer. The manual is composed of 12 workshops which will be used at the village level. Though some things need to be adjusted and the editing process has been frustrating at times (because of multiple people contributing changes at different times), the manual overall looks as if it will be very strong and helpful. All the activities involve group discussion and the use of role playing or picture identification using very effective paintings done by a local artist. I have been working most closely with a woman named Muoy Kry on this project and have learned much from her in the process.

Also, I have been assisting a Phnom Penh university student named Rasy in writing a proposal that would help educate other college students to be aware and to get involved with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Rasy is a volunteer at the Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP), which is a phenomenal program that teaches students a number of personal and interpersonal skills and brings them together in community to educate. Rasy goes to class in the morning and volunteers 5 to 6 days a week in the afternoon at YRDP. Her project proposal will provide field trips, film days, and forums with one of the few survivors of the former Khmer Rouge torture prison, Tuol Sleng. The proposal is being submitted to the Church World Service and would provide enough funding for a year-long program. While I believed the program seemed like a good idea initially, it became more apparent to me that it was necessary as I learned that many university age and younger people in Cambodia know little about the Khmer Rouge and some people have told me that some younger generations even resist believing that the genocide happened in this country in recent history. Naturally, broader awareness is crucial in order to address the existing problems and issues and to encourage positive, just leadership.

Finally, my "major" assignment at work is to write a promotional report about a pagoda-based fisheries project that CRS tried in Svay Reing province a few years ago. I recently made an overnight field visit to Svay Reing and went to visit 5 pagodas with our driver, Vathanak, and a woman named Veasna from the Svay Reing office. I know Vathanak pretty well from the office and from a previous field visit in Kompong Speu province. He served as my translator and is very helpful because he is great in interacting with the community and has a large amount of experience and knowledge in rural development. Anyway, the visits were largely positive and it was inspiring to see how successful the pagoda-based fishery projects have been.

In the past month, I have kept busy and seen much more of Cambodia, learning a lot and meeting some great people along the way. Some of the more powerful experiences, though, have occurred in brief conversations with people I have known for a month already. In working with Muoy Kry, who I mentioned above, I learned of her personal story of survival and loss during the Khmer Rouge regime. She explained to me that it was a time of such great suffering and hunger. She was in her twenties and seen as strong so she was put to work each day in the fields, working on irrigation. Each day, she said, only a tiny bowl of rice porridge was given to each person. She said that she and others would cry because they were so hungry. She told me that she felt like dying, not wanting to endure this any longer. During that time, she lost her parents and a brother. When I asked her how long she had lived like that, she said: "3 years, 8 months, and 24 days."

Then, in talking with the main administrative assistant at work, whose name is Phanna, I learned that he had needed surgery on his stomach after the Khmer Rouge regime because, during that time, he and others would have to steal rice from fields and generally eat it raw in order to survive. Too much raw rice can cause digestive and stomach problems later.

These people and these stories have helped serve as reminders that everyone in this country was affected and hurt by what happened not so long ago. Muoy Kry and Phanna are generally very friendly, even happy people and I now know more about them that helps me to understand also their strength.

Cambodia has been a great experience so far. At this point, I have made some good friends, have gotten involved with a good group at the Maryknoll house, and I have learned a lot about Cambodian politics and the corruption that is rife. With so many new experiences and encounters, being here has certainly been an up and down ride, emotionally and mentally. While this makes it challenging at times, I know that what I am learning and what I can bring back with me will forever be invaluable to what I believe I can do with my life.





Dr. Meena Rishi 

Program Director
Pigott Building, Room 518
Phone - 206.296.2078
Fax - 206.296.2486
Email -