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Monday, July 02, 2007

Life's Walk

They sat in silence.

There was no "Amen" or nervous chatter, just silence. Members of the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sat in their fabric-covered seats without uttering a sound. Minutes before they had heard from a man who had lived in Cambodia 27 years and had witnessed firsthand the despair of a war-torn country full of starving refugees.

"I went to Cambodia as a joke," said Bob Maat, a Jesuit physicians’ assistant and co-founder of the Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation in Cambodia.

There had been a Time Magazine cover of a "starving mother and child from Cambodia," that Maat says haunted him. He kept thinking about that photograph. In jest, he turned to his buddy one day, a student of theology, and said to him, "Frank, we ought to go to Cambodia."

"We went for three months; I stayed 27 years." said Maat, who first stepped foot in Cambodia in 1979.

"Adults and children were starving; it’s life changing when you’ve been with someone who is starving to death; you can’t be the same," Maat said.

There seemed to be a marked sense of sadness that belied the lightness of his tone. His attempt to tone down his weighted speech with jokes seemed to hit a Sunday sermon chord common in steeple settings.

The word "You" is not used in Cambodia, he said, instead people are called who they are such as mother, father, son, daughter, etc.

"I am Grandpa now," Maat said. "A young man came up to me and said, ’Grandpa, do you remember me?’ I had been there 27 years and did not remember him. He says to me, ‘My mother saw you walking down the road and pointed you out to me and told me that you were the foreigner who helped take care of me when I was hungry; you fed me ice cream when I was a baby.’ "

When he wasn’t trying to cure malnutrition, Maat was helping cure Cambodian refugees ravished with tuberculosis. In 1987, he contracted TB and was subsequently cured. He has served as a United Nations protection officer, as well as a rice farmer. Though he’s been stateside a while now, having returned to Cambodia twice, in 1984 and 1994, it seemed that no amount of distance or time would ever separate him from the borders of Cambodia.

"There was a prophecy that once said, ‘There will come a day when darkness will settle over the people of Cambodia. There will be houses with no people in them, roads with no people upon them … there will be no religion. People will live in jungles dressed in black. Only the mute and deaf will survive.’ In 1975, that prophecy came true. There were more bombs dropped in Cambodia than all of WWII. There were 3 million who died between 1975 and 1979. There was a lack of food, lack of medical care and just lack of care altogether."

In 1991, Maat and others started walking for peace in Cambodia. It was known as the Dhammayietra and has since become an annual month-long walk. He says the first Dhammayietra began in the refugee camps along the Thai border.

"We had a lot of obstacles to cross," said Maat, who was born in New York City and graduated from a Jesuit High School in Cleveland, Ohio followed by Emory, where he graduated in 1977 with an oncology degree.

Due to suffocating heat, Maat said walks would begin at 4 a.m.

"We walked with land mines in the ground," he said. "There were 10 million land mines in the ground - more land mines than people. We formed an army of peace. We used bullets of loving kindness. It was a land mine of the heart. Where there was greed, we used the weapon of generosity; where there was hatred, we used the weapon of loving kindness; where there was ignorance, we used the weapon of wisdom. We walked to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and remove the wrongs of injustice."

It was his relationship with a monk named, Venerable Maha Ghosananda, now deceased, that Maat says transformed his way of thinking.

"He could speak 15 languages, but he spoke best the language of the heart," said Maat of Ghosananda.

Currently, Maat is hopping Greyhound buses traveling the countryside to educate the public about the importance of the Dhammayietra, a walk of hope.

In his closing remarks, Maat looked out over the gathered fellowship and spoke of what the Bible teaches.

"Jesus says to love one another as I first loved you," he said.

And with a soft step, he returned to his seat - to sit in silence.

To help fund the walk of peace in Cambodia, checks should be addressed to Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation in Cambodia or CPR, P.O. Box 60, Bungthong Lang Post Office, Bangkok 10242 Thailand.
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Why ex-movie boss Scott now dedicates his life to charity work

By Annie Brown

TWO days ago as he stood knee deep in the stinking mud of a Cambodian dump, Scott Neeson's life flashed in front of him.

He was once "Mr Hollywood", a movie executive with a mansion, a 36ft yacht and A-list stars on his speed dial.

But four years on and the trappings of wealth are gone.

Scott sacrificed his opulent life to move to Phnom Penh, to set up the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF) in 2003 and help Cambodia's poorest children who lead a grim existence scavenging in Phnom Penh's notorious rubbish dump.

Scott, from Edinburgh, now has 263 children in three facilities, with health care provided by Fiona McLeish, a paediatric nurse from East Kilbride.

And he has just enlisted the help of Sumner Redstone, America's 25th richest man and the media mogul famed for firing Tom Cruise.

However, a couple of days ago on one of his regular visits to the dump, he lost his footing and found himself sinking in to the mire.

Scott said: "The stench was awful. I was knee deep in what I will politely call mud, but wasn't. At that moment I thought of my previous life and my friends who were returning from Cannes while I am trying to scrape muck off my leg with a stick."

He returned to the CCF centre, which now educates, cares for and feeds impoverished children and he was greeted with laughter.

He said: "The kids were edging away from me shouting 'you stink'."

Scott enjoyed a glittering 10-year career in LA as President of 20th Century Fox International and as head of Sony Pictures' international marketing.

He oversaw the releases of such films as Titanic, Star Wars, Braveheart, Independence Day and X-Men.

He was friendly with Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford and even shook hands with Prince Charles at a movie premiere.

Scott, 48, had a house in the Hollywood hills, complete with swimming pool and Cindy Crawford as a neighbour.

He returns to LA about four times a year, but now the importance of Tinseltown is exploiting his connections there for the benefit of the CCF children.

His latest success story is a perfect illustration and brought Redstone to the rescue of Lyda, one of the world's poorest girls.

Media mogul Redstone is worth an estimated £6billion as chief of Viacom, which owns Paramount, CBS and MTV.

Lyda is a 13-year-old girl who has been a CCF child for two years after Scott found her at Steung Meanchey, Phnom Penh's huge garbage dump - a place he describes as "apocalyptic".

She had been abandoned at five and was sleeping on the ground. Like all the children from the dump she was earning a living working 13-hour days from 5am, picking through the garbage for recyclables to sell for pennies.

Scott said: "When I first saw Lyda, she was small, hunched and alone, but she was so loving and had an amazing smile."

A medical check-up at CCF uncovered scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine.

Scott took her to LA after a hospital offered to treat her for free, but was then devastated to be told that the doctors considered it too risky to operate.

But while he was in LA he met up with Sumner who had been asking about CCF and he took Lyda with him.

The billionaire was so taken with her that he got on the phone to the Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA to which he had just donated Û20million.

Scott said: "Sumner was doing the whole curmudgeon thing, and starts barking out orders and the next thing you know, Lyda is getting the best medical treatment in the whole world."

One of the world's top orthopaedic surgeons, Dr Robert Bernstein, successfully operated and Sumner picked up the Û100,000 tab.

The day after the operation it had straightened Lyda's spine so much she was 5cm taller.

Lyda was released last Monday, a week earlier than expected, and she is now able to walk.

She is staying with friends of Scott and has with her Fiona McLeish who has been working with CCF for a year.

Fiona is the health co-ordinator for CCF and as well as administering first aid at the dump, runs a series of health programmes, not just for the children, but for their families too.

The nurse, who worked at Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Kids, is still in LA with Lyda but will return to Cambodia with her shortly.

She said: "CCF is an amazing organisation. I only planned to stay for three months but as soon as I saw what they were doing, I decided I had to stay on longer.

"The children are wonderful and it makes such a difference to their lives."

AFTER his sojourn to LA, Scott wanted to get back to Cambodia straight away in what he sees as "reality".

He said: "It's nice being safe, they have traffic rules and the chances of getting dysentery are slimmer."

But he added: "After 10 days I get the itch to come back to reality. I miss the kids too much. I would rather be in the back of the truck with the kids than a private jet any day."

While in LA Scott visited a friend in the movie business who was arranging for a private jet to be flown to Europe for a famous actress and the publicist was demanding to know the thread count on the seats.

Scott said: "I really don't miss that at all. It's totally obscene."

After 10 years climbing the corporate ladder, Scott now admits he had lost perspective on the level of wealth which surrounded him.

He now looks back with a more cynical eye.

He said: "I once had a case where there were two actors who were in a film together and they didn't get on.

"We had to send two private jets to fly from LA to Europe because they just wouldn't go together. The cost of the jets and the fuel was ridiculous."

It was on a backpacking holiday through Asia when a stop over in Cambodia changed Scott's life.
He was struck by the terrible poverty and thought that helping the child beggars would be a simple case of giving their families money.

He paid for children's education, bought families furniture and clothes only to discover that when his back was turned they would sell everything and take the children out of school.

He set up the CCF in 2003, providing shelter, food, education, medical care and fun through dancing and art classes.

The children learned the joys of security and simply being children. After trying to juggle a new job at Sony, Scott realised to really make a difference he would have to up sticks and move over to Cambodia.

"So many people in LA think the film industry is all there is," Scott said. "Every day people tell you how lucky you are to have such a great job and have so much money. Eventually, you start to believe the hype.

"It makes it hard to give it up."

But he said the decision was as much for himself as the children "It was fear on my part," he said.

"I didn't want to reach the age of 70 and look back at my life and think 'well, I have had a very successful corporate life'.

That just wouldn't be enough as I want achieve so much more."

So it's no surprise that many in Hollywood thought he had lost his marbles when he quit.

His mother Elizabeth is dead, but his father Colin, from Edinburgh, also thought he was insane.

The 84 year-old had watched his son's rise from a working class boy to millionaire movie executive and couldn't comprehend why he would give it all up.

Scott said: "He thought I was crazy. He hit the roof." It was in Scott's contract with the film company that his father would be flown first-class twice a year from Australia, where he now lives, to visit his son in LA. But Scott's move brought his father's days of flying first class to an halt and instead he was demoted to travelling cattle class on Vietnam airlines.

But when he saw what his son was doing, he was immediately converted.

Scott said: "Now he thinks it's the best thing I have ever done. He sits outside in his little red plastic chair and the kids are all over him.

"It's the best gift I have ever given him. He is at his happiest when he is here."

Since he set up the CCF there have been good days and bad days with one constant - Scott also has never been happier.

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'I would much rather be in the back of a truck with all the Cambodian kids than in a private jet any day.'
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Fact sheet on Cambodia

THE Kingdom of Cambodia, formerly known as Kampuchea, is a country in Southeast Asia with a population of almost 15 million people, with Phnom Penh being the capital city.

Cambodia is the successor state of the once-powerful Hindu and Buddhist Khmer Empire, which ruled most of the Indochinese Peninsula between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.

A citizen of Cambodia is usually identified as "Cambodian" or "Khmer," which strictly refers to ethnic Khmers. Most Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists of Khmer extraction, but the country also has a substantial number of predominantly Muslim Cham, as well as ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and small animist hill tribes.

The country borders Thailand to its west and northwest, Laos to its northeast, and Vietnam to its east and southeast. In the south it faces the Gulf of Thailand. The geography of Cambodia is dominated by the Mekong river (colloquial Khmer: Tonle Thom or "the great river") and the Tonle{aac} Sap ("the fresh water lake"), an important source of fish.

Much of Cambodia sits near sea level, and consequently the Tonle Sap River reverses its water flow in the wet season, carrying water from the Mekong back into the Tonle{aac} Sap Lake and surrounding flood plain.

Cambodia's main industries are garments and tourism. In 2006, foreign visitors had surpassed the 1.7 million mark. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial water, and once commercial extraction begins in 2009 or early 2010, the oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia's economy.

Cambodia is the traditional English transliteration, taken from the French Cambodge, while Kampuchea is the direct transliteration, more faithful to the Khmer pronunciation.. Since independence, the official name of Cambodia has changed several times, following the troubled history of the country.
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