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Friday, June 11, 2010

Sudbury Contingent celebrates of Lincoln-Sudbury memorial school in Cambodia

By Mira Vale/Special to the Town Crier
GateHouse News Service


SUDBURY — On Tuesday, May 11, I handed in my statistics final exam and headed back to Lincoln, a joyous return home after what was by all accounts a wonderful first year of college. The next afternoon, I set off to visit Lincoln-Sudbury. This little jaunt was not to drop by my former high school. Rather, the journey on which I embarked was to attend the opening ceremony for the Lincoln-Sudbury Memorial School, a sister school to our own L-S in the Thmar Kaul district of Battambang, Cambodia.

Over the past twenty months, students and community members involved with the Lincoln-Sudbury Memorial School Project have worked to raise funds to build and maintain a sister school in memory and honor of the students and graduates of L-S who died before their time. Working alongside American Assistance for Cambodia (AAfC), a prominent nonprofit that has constructed over 500 schools in rural Cambodia since 1999, we passed our initial fundraising goal of $13,000 last June, about the same time as the L-S Memorial School finished construction. The school building, which boasts five classrooms furnished with desks, benches, chalkboards, school supplies, and English-speaking teachers, opened for its 300 high school-aged students on October 1, 2009. This trip, which sent what I hope will be the first of many contingents from Sudbury’s L-S, was intended to celebrate our partner school’s existence and to begin to establish relationships between our school communities.

So twenty-one long and altitudinous hours after leaving Lincoln’s luscious and temperate verdure, I touched down in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. I stepped off the plane into heat more penetrating than I can describe and met up with Peng Ty, the AAfC representative assigned to take us around. I also met up with L-S legend Bill Schechter, much-beloved history and journalism teacher of several decades, and David Barron, a professional photographer, Sudbury resident and L-S alum from 1978.

After a day in Phnom Penh spent catching our breath and touring the most important sites, museums, and genocide memorials, we drove up to Battambang on National Highway 5, Cambodia’s main roadway. A single-lane, startlingly straight thoroughfare, the highway took us by countless villages and rice fields.

The next morning was the opening school ceremony. Something of a misnomer, given that school has been in session for seven months, the students were nonetheless thrilled to see us as we pulled up to the school complex. The ceremony was so colorful and joyous. Bill and I both delivered speeches, as did the school principal, the provincial minister of education and sport, and the district governor. We were blessed by Buddhist monks, listened to the Khmer national anthem sung in unison, and cut a ceremonial ribbon in front of the school’s main entrance.

As the students filed into their classrooms, our L-S contingent went through each room, handing out school supplies and pointing out Massachusetts and Cambodia on the first world map these children had ever seen. All the kids wanted to take pictures with us, and though I think my smile broke from the photo ops, I appreciated the chance to meet students and ask them about their lives.

We returned the next morning to talk more, and I was supremely relieved to be able to walk into classrooms without receiving a standing ovation and enthusiastic applause. I spent most of my time with Nary, a cheerful twelfth-grader who plans to attend university in the fall. Clearly at the top of her class, Nary relished the chance to practice her English, which is her favorite school subject among Khmer, math, biology, chemistry, and physics. The Cambodians I met were not especially physically affectionate, but Nary gave me a big hug when we had to part ways.

I returned home several days later, mind swimming with ideas, hopes, and plans for our two Lincoln-Sudburys. Amidst effusive thank-yous in his speech, the school principal noted that the Memorial School could use another two computers; the solar panel that powers the one we currently have installed can support up to three, and having only one computer for three hundred students is a ratio that borders on absurdity. One of my hopes for this project is to continue raising money to support and improve our sister school.

In my own speech, I focused on the three goals I have for this project. The first goal, to positively direct the grief of my own community so as to heal from our losses, is one that is ongoing and can never be fully achieved. The countless letters and emails I have received to date give me hope that this project is helping that process of healing.

My second goal is to help another school community by enhancing opportunities for education. From talking with students and hearing how appreciative they are to learn in this building, I am confident that we have and can continue to assist our friends at the school in Thmar Kaul.

My third goal is to establish a lasting, sustainable connection between our two school communities, relationships that afford everyone an opportunity to learn from each other across thousands of miles. I hope students from Lincoln and Sudbury will email with students from Thmar Kaul, and I hope L-S will send groups to visit and volunteer at our sister school in years to come.

Cambodia has been through times of unspeakable hell, tragedy beyond what we can comprehend. Some of this suffering came at the hands of the United States, which dropped more tons of bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War era than it did on Japan in the Second World War. Lincoln-Sudbury has also seen its share of sadness, though I will not pretend our suffering lies on a comparable scale. Our communities stand to learn so much from each other. It is my sincere hope that L-S in Cambodia will become a proud and sustained point of contact, and that L-S in Sudbury will develop involvement in Cambodia as a continuing part of its curriculum and its legacy.

Mira Vale, a student at Yale University, came up with the idea of starting a school in Cambodia and led many fundraising efforts while a student at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High.
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Gentle survivors leave indelible impressions

WEEKS after returning from Cambodia, I still dream each night I'm sleeping on a boat that drifts aimlessly across the Tonle Sap.

Beside me are the landless people who tether their vessels to the shifting edges of this vast freshwater lake, the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

I wake confused, certain I will find a sleepy family squatting before the fire, stirring the morning soup, readying themselves for a new day on this body of water that is more welcoming for them than solid ground. So immersed have I been on my journey into this country that even in my sleep I am visited by its gentle souls.

It's a journey that begins in relative luxury: guests at Phnom Penh's Golden Gate Hotel, my fellow travellers and I sip cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents Club, straining for a view of the Mekong River. We have sealed ourselves off momentarily from the deprivation of this city, lingering over our cranberry mojitos and Singapore slings as motos rush by like fireworks on the street below.

But we haven't come to Cambodia to gawk from a distance at the flotsam washed up from decades of civil war and the unspeakable brutality of Pol Pot's regime. Under the guidance of the SeeBeyondBorders foundation, we will seek out the beauty of this place, build connections, target development initiatives and channel support to marginalised communities. In short, we will try to make a difference.

During several days, we are introduced to the complex Cambodian narrative: at Phnom Penh University, where we pair up with students desperate for English conversation, and at Pol Pot's Tuol Sleng prison, redolent still with incomprehensible evil. There's the non-government organisation-funded school at which we apply termite control and play shriek-inducing games with village children and the Khmer Rouge killing field transformed by Jesuit Services Cambodia into a vocational training centre for the disabled. The wares of the Mekong Wheelchair Shop are custom-designed for the country's robust roads and rice fields. The wheelchairs are as utilitarian as bicycles in a country still paved with five million landmines.

Thus initiated, we buy fish-stuffed baguettes for breakfast and board an early-morning bus to Battambang. Provincial Cambodia opens up like a storybook: ox-wagons heaving beneath clay vessels, a new highway arching optimistically above the morning bustle, the curiously titled Ministry of Cults and Religions building tucked into a side street. We stretch our legs at a roadside market where a Cambodian expat now living in the US offers me a bite of her whole fried chicken. I settle for a bag of dried jackfruit instead.

We are staying at the Arrupe Welcome Centre, run by Spanish Jesuit Kike Figaredo and a cohort of young volunteers; here, farmers rake mounds of rice set out in the sun to dry and wheelchair-bound youngsters zip about, shaping for themselves a destiny never imagined under Pol Pot.

SeeBeyondBorders has organised a three-day intensive maths workshop for 70 village teachers, many of whom are barely out of school themselves; they register bright and early on the first day, hungry for knowledge. The five Australian teachers in our group unfurl Khmer number charts and unpack wooden blocks, practising their counting. "Muoy, bir, bei," they chant.

The rest of us spend two days with Dhammayietra Mongkol Borei, a local health and development NGO. Our job is to construct salas, meeting places for elderly Cambodians. Dhammayietra founder Arlys Herem, an American nurse who came to Southeast Asia to work with refugees in 1983, says old people, always well respected in Cambodian society, are central to the country's social reconstruction. "There's [also] great potential for them to monitor what's happening to orphans and vulnerable children in the village," she explains.

Forming a chain gang with the villagers, we haul stones, pass buckets, lay bricks and concrete, and eat communal meals. Alex, a young Sydney-based Canadian, converses with the man beside her, she in English, he in Khmer. "We somehow understood one another," she says later.

As we're about to farewell the villagers, they present us with bowls of milky, purple brew and watch us expectantly. "You really should try some," SeeBeyondBorders founder Ed Shuttleworth whispers, noticing our hesitation. And so we tuck in, for if we don't at the very least accept our hosts' generous hospitality, what would be the deeper purpose of our visit? The dish, as it turns out, tastes much like a pudding my grandmother might have served.

Made with "chicken blood" potatoes, coconut milk, sugar and sticky rice, it's a parting gift as sweet and warm as the people who deliver it.

We travel by van to Siem Reap and settle in at the Reflection Centre, run by Denise Coghlan, Australian-born director of Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia and member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. The centre has a peacefulness that even the traditional sleeping mats and bucket baths can't dislodge. Indeed, these authentic surrounds only deepen the impression of our daily encounters.

We join a group of women who run a village nutrition program and set to work hacking the rinds off pumpkins, cooking soup in a blistering lean-to kitchen, dishing it out to rows of hungry, bright-eyed children.

When we gather each evening to reflect on our days, I feel increasingly impotent in the face of such overwhelming hardship.

While the teachers run another round of oversubscribed workshops, Adam, a landscape architect from Sydney, works on a gardening project with refugees from Sudan and Iraq, and the rest of us prepare parcels for destitute families living on the Tonle Sap. We visit disabled villagers with their wide smiles and agonising stories: in one home the grandmother has lost her legs, the father his arms and eyes. He has gone for a walk, his wife tells us; he feels his way with his feet.

The lake is wild and inaccessible the morning we are to deliver the parcels, but the day after, as we squeeze in some last-minute sightseeing, we get a call from the priest who runs the outreach program: the wind has subsided, he's off to the lake, would we like to join him? Angkor Wat or the people of the Tonle Sap? There's no contest.

The floating villages bob about in their soupy waters, wooden vessels flanked by waterborne pens in which livestock and vegetables flourish. "You must hand over the rice with two hands," Ratana Som, our translator, instructs us. "You must also sit because it makes you equal."

I clamber awkwardly aboard a boat, settling into an incense-scented space occupied by a woman, her daughters and grandchildren. The ceiling is pasted with bright pink lace and images of the saints; a cat slinks casually by, a baby slumbers in a hammock. I hand the package to the grandmother, sceptical of the long-term effect of this gesture.

Perhaps she has sensed my despondency for as I leave she hugs me tightly and reassuringly, as a mother would.

And in that moment I have an unexpected, liberating epiphany: my world has expanded while I wasn't looking, stretching its boundaries to envelop Cambodia and its people, transforming the hungry, damaged faces on the evening news into the warm, flesh-and-blood people sitting before me. Leaving my shoes at the door, I have allowed a whole new consciousness to stream through me. I haven't saved the world, but I've taken an important first step.

We offload our remaining cargo against the backdrop of a lavishly setting sun, then float back towards Siem Reap and our own privileged lives.

Tucked into my metaphorical pocket are the mementos I wouldn't have found for love or money at Cambodia's markets and souvenir shops: the indelible stories of the people I've met along the way, and the profound cross-cultural acceptance that came with that motherly hug on the Tonle Sap.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of SeeBeyondBorders.

Checklist
The SeeBeyondBorders mandate is to empower communities living in developing countries by supporting specific partners and projects.More: www.seebeyondborders.org.

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