Dear Cambodia 2016 Crew,
It’s about 5:20 AM on our last day in Siem Reap and I couldn’t sleep anymore, so as I lay in bed listening roosters do battle (there are just as many here as on the island, but the concrete walls keep all but a hint of the sound out — thank heaven!) my thoughts begin turning to our transition back to our regular lives. We’ll do our laundry later today, pack our bags for home tonight, and soon Cambodia will begin receding into our past. So what’ll be in your suitcase heading home that wasn’t there when you arrived here 17 days ago?
Tee shirts — check. Scarves — check. Faux-lex watches, Ray Bam shades — check, check. That’s great stuff and will make for great conversations when you pull it from your backpacks and suitcases to give to family and friends.
Yet a few days later, and hopefully for years to come as you unpack your memories and store them in your heart, you’ll continually rediscover the real souvenirs from our experience. A few that I hope we all share are compassion, humility, and generosity.
Compassion — Every time I have been to S-21, I have been crushed by the cruelty of which we humans are capable. It wasn’t limited to the Khmer Rouge or the 20th century, but it doesn’t have to happen again, and the only people who can stop it are people like you and me. Lock that devastation from Toule Sleng in a safe place and always remember it. Use it to magnify your capacity for compassion and then work for justice wherever you think it’s most needed.
Humility — This is one I’ll always be working on in myself, but one thing that has become a great help for me is the smiles of the people of Koh Preah. Remember the coffee guy — his face lights up every time we step under the frangipani tree that shades his ice chests and coffee mixing station. Then he sets to his task — smashing the ice, pouring the coffee and stirring in the sweet milk, then finally pouring that delectable drink into the little plastic sack and tucking the straw into it just so, with three or four gentle jabs to secure it. Finally, he looks up into your eyes and smiles as he gingerly passes the drink to you with two open hands.
And the children all along the puddled road from the home stays to the work site calling “Hellooo!” in the singsong tone that simply carries the special love that children are so particularly capable of giving.
Mr. Eng — barely five feet tall and nearly toothless, but the master of all of the projects, scampering around to make sure things are done right.
Mr. Lom, the “boss” who over the past six years has become a better leader because he has been humble enough to learn from teenagers like each of you. (Tola told us all about this that Night at Le Tonlé in Kratie.) He is a dedicated educator determined to get everything he can for the students in his poor rural school, so they will one day have a better life than their parents and grandparents.
The cooks who made our food — even if you didn’t like it, there is no denying the care and kindness with which they prepared every dish and cleaned up after us at every single meal we ate on that island. They were our moms at meal time, and there was love in every handmade, homemade dish they cooked and served.
Our home stay moms who sheltered and cared for us every night. They welcomed complete strangers — other people’s children — into their homes and tended to our needs from bug extermination to keeping the squatters clean. None of us did anything like that for any of them.
You get the idea. The people of Koh Preah get up each morning to the dulcet tones of roosters and strap themselves to their daily work — from farming to pig slaughtering — with humility that can only be called grace.
Generosity — Here’s where you all matched your hosts and truly shone as a beacon of what global citizenship can do. You took a chance by signing up for this adventure way back when. You decided to go halfway around the world — quite literally — and give up three weeks of your summer vacation, whether that’s work time, gaming time, or just chill time with family and friends. You took on the “Ultimate Rice Challenge” and won! You worked like demons in the tropical summer, mixing over 28,000 pounds (14 TONS) of concrete — BY HAND! You bonded with one another, engaged your instructors, your hosts and your guide. You demonstrated the willingness to go into a world badly in need of repair and work to bind up some of its wounds.
And you’re just teenagers, who most people call petulant, slothful, self-centered, and so on. But you have shown that those labels are the spider cracks on the veneer that covers your true nature. You all are teenagers who see a future better than today, not simply for yourselves, but for everyone. You’re teenagers pursuing justice, not just talking about it. You’re teenagers who accomplished the first leg of a great journey — the journey to make the world as it should be, not satisfied to leave it as it has been.
I thank you from the deepest font of gratitude I possess for sharing it with Kirsten and me, and SSTS. We can’t wait to see what you will do in the months to come at your schools, and in the years to come in the world.
Peace and blessings to you all, Jim
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
ROBERT F. KENNEDY