Friday, August 31, 2012

Wealth Gap

How do we reconcile


Being a few minutes away from 


...Urban Poverty.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Safety in a District of Turmoil

Here's the story of interviewing one lady for a World Relief report...

Kom Yong. Veal Veang district, Pursat Province, Cambodia 
I felt my organs colliding with each other inside me as I rode for hours in the back of a truck through the bumpy mountain roads that led our team to World Relief’s Pursat headquarters. The jostling I experienced on the road was nothing, however, compared to the shock of learning about the tragedies of the district I was in, caught in the crossfire of conflict and injustice, with the bullets of poverty pouring in from every side.
Veal Veang is a poor district located in a rough mountainous region that makes it difficult to grow crops, travel to a hospital, or access clean drinking water. It lies near the border of Thailand, making it vulnerable to the issue of trafficking. Women are brought to Thailand under the pretense of job opportunities, but once there they are often abused or forced to work as physical or sexual slaves, trapped without a means of getting home.
I came to this place to listen to the stories of the villagers and learn about this trafficking situation, but once there, I was thrown into a world with so much more injustice than I had ever imagined. There are so many factors leading to the vulnerability of this place, and so much suffering that lies just below the surface of what I was researching. As I cracked the stoic surface to discover the hardships beneath, my heart cracked along with it for the people of this land.
The district was torn apart by Khmer Rouge clashes that continued on well after the genocide was over in this communist stronghold. Khmer Rouge officers and soldiers have now integrated into the towns, because the government will not prosecute them, so people in Veal Veang have learned to be cautious about the people they talk to and the subjects they talk about. It was in a village in this district, heavy with a history of turmoil and a tense peace, where I met a woman of strength and hope that rose far above her circumstances.
Kom Yong grew up in Takeo Province during the Khmer Rouge. Her father left and her mother later died under Pol Pot’s reign. Three of her four siblings died at an early age, but she remained close with her older sister. The Communist Regime brought starvation and misery to everyone she knew. Her stomach screamed for food as she dug out compounds and hauled lumber all day. Violent government clashes forced her to evacuate at several points and she became separated from her family. She remembers liberation day clearly. She was finally allowed to go home, where she was reunited with her sister. The two of them migrated to Pursat province to find work, but they soon discovered that political liberation was not the end of bondage and conflict.
Veal Veang had landmines densely scattered through the farms and residential areas, causing frequent accidents and deaths, and leaving acres of farmland useless because of the threat. Kom Yong married a man who had been a soldier for both the Khmer Rouge and the opposing government. He was able to help the villagers know where some of the explosive devices were, and in recent years the landmines have been removed by other organizations, but not before the mines took their toll on the lives and incomes of many families.  
Reflecting on the rampant social issues around her, Kom Yong admitted, “there are many cases of rape in the area, especially migrants.” She recounted the case of a young girl who had been raped in the village recently. “This is bad, because children are innocent. They don’t know anything.” Cases like these raise concern for her, and remind her that they do not live in safety. She also told me about the trouble the area has with human trafficking.
“Some tricky people have come to our village,” continued Kom Yong, “to take women and force them to work across the border.” She described cases of women who she had known, who jumped at the opportunity to make money, but she had heard about their abuse and forced prostitution, or never heard from them again. She spoke with a dry, matter-of-fact tone that made the truth even more horrifying to me. These injustices were as much a part of every-day life as sweeping out her small wooden house or swatting the malaria mosquitos around her. Each of the deep furrows in her brow told a story of the worry and pain that all of these tragedies had caused.
One man had come to her house earlier looking for women who wanted to go work in Thailand and make a good salary. Kom Yong was desperate for money, but when she inquired further, he told her that he was only looking for young virgins. What world do we live in that the most vulnerable and unprotected members of a population, poor, young, unmarried girls, would be hunted like prized animals to be skinned and sold to the highest bidder?
“Some people in our district go to work in Thailand and come back safely, with no abuse,” Kom Yong assured us, “but sometimes they don’t.” Her voice trailed off. There was so much left unsaid, and yet the pain behind her eyes said it all. The tragedies cannot be denied, but the best thing the village can do is spread knowledge of these traps to prevent it from happening in the future. The local authorities have begun spreading information about this prevalent issue.  
“Its not just local authority that teach us about it,” said Kom Yong, “World Relief Hope programs spread a lot of information about it once a week and I go to those meetings.” Unlike the local authorities, Kom Yong said, “they don’t just teach. They listen to us also.” She has learned that “the human traffickers come with sweet words. They try to persuade, manipulate. They promise to give a good salary. They promise the girls will go work in a restaurant or somewhere nice and get paid well.” I can’t imagine the heartbreak that each of these women experiences when they get to Thailand and realize that not only has their opportunity of rising out of poverty been shattered, but so has every shred of dignity and hope in their lives.
From World Relief, Kom Yong learned that if she sees someone that looks dangerous, or hears about a bad situation, she should call services for intervention, to stop the trafficking before it can occur. At the World Relief staff’s suggestion, she now has the phone numbers of the police and World Relief written on the beams of her house. I looked up and saw these numbers painted onto the rough wooden beams above her head. Kom Yong pointed to them with a smile, allowing some of the worried furrows in her face to relax as she reached towards this hope in a place of turmoil. Kom Yong likes to discuss all the lessons World Relief has taught her with the other women at the market, because the teachers encouraged her to spread her knowledge, and reach out to others, empowering them to avoid trafficking traps and live in hope.
“The teachers help us Understand a lot of things. If they didn’t come to teach, train, and show us this, we wouldn’t know any of these things, and the bad things, the tragedies, might happen in our lives as well.” Kom Yong had not called her misery under the Khmer Rouge a tragedy. She had not used this word to describe her starvation, lack of clean water, heavy labor, or fear of landmines. At that moment I realized what a true tragedy human trafficking is. The slavery these girls experience feels more confining than the bondage of a Communist war camp, and the words of the traffickers, more conniving than the placement of hidden landmines. The pain extends far beyond starvation and injury. Kom Yong does not want to see that happen to her family or village members. She is hopeful about the prevention of this tragedy through education programs. “I really appreciate and thank World Relief,” she said, “and hope they can continue to work so we can learn.”
Kom Yong and her friend sitting under their house, with the phone numbers of the police and World Relief written on the beams above them so they can prevent traffickers. 
At a trafficking education meeting hosted by World Relief, people of all ages gather from the village to hear about the tricks of traffickers and receive hope and encouragement. 
Education and illustrated material about trafficking can help keep the young girls of Veal Veang safe from tricks and schemes targeting the desperate and vulnerable. 

Friday, August 17, 2012


You know those people who are really good at picking out and giving just the right gift? I’m not one of them. But I’m quickly discovering that God is the ultimate gift-giver, the one that the pros learn from. I know he gives huge things, like love and grace, and the ability to live, but I also think He especially delights in the little accessories that He drops into our life to make us smile. And He knows just what to give each of us, because He knows us better than we know ourselves.
When Noah was most likely experiencing terrible seasonal depression after living stranded in a barn under stormy skies for week upon week, God gave him a splash of color in the sky and a green tree branch. God knew just what Adam longed for, and got to work making it out of his rib. Even though he had already provided bread from Heaven and water from a rock for the Israelites, God knew what meat-loving babies they were, and gave them quail. Jesus’ first miracle was not a life-or-death matter. He made wine so that everyone could party on through the night at his friend's  wedding. I’m not trying to make God look like Santa Claus or a vending machine. But I do think that we often don’t realize the little gifts in our lives, or don’t take time to thank the Giver for them.
I have constantly come upon these blessings large and small, obvious and concealed during my time here. This week, on a steamy, crowded bike-ride home from work, with thoughts whizzing through my mind like the vehicles whizzing around me, and fatigue creeping in like the sweat creeping down my back, I looked up just in time to see this little gift. It may be nothing compared to the miracles of a baby being born, or food falling from the sky, but it makes me smile every time I see it. Call me shallow. Call me crazy. To Kaka, I say, “Call me, maybe?” 
haha. It was just another opportunity to whisper "thanks" to the Giver of all good gifts, great and small, and continue home with a smile on my face. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sin of a Nation?

Should individuals be blamed for the sins of their countries and cultures? Is it even possible for a country or culture to have sins? Everything in this world was beautifully created by God, but nothing remains uncontaminated by sin. Growing up in a cross-cultural context, and now calling a third country my home, has led me to think about how people often view an entire nation or an aspect of the culture as “good,” or “bad.” Another intern in a different part of Cambodia reflected that when NGO workers and missionaries say things negative about Cambodian culture, it seems ethnocentric, or like it goes against our desire as HNGR interns to accept a new way of doing things and embrace a new culture and narrative.

But it also seems true that the school system here does a poor job of educating students and preparing them for the future. It seems true that there are bad roads and a weak medical system, and a government that does not seem to deal with these things very efficiently. Doctors, teachers, police officers, and other officials constantly ask for bribes. People may jeopardize their morals to make money. Walking the streets at night is not super safe, and you have to be careful about being taken advantage of in various situations. Cambodians are not bad, and the culture is rich with beauty and love, but there are some parts of this culture and this country as a whole that grieve me. It is hard to understand how systemic development differs from cultural redemption. I guess we need to see cases of injustice and evil as results of the fallenness of humanity, not the fallenness of an entire culture.

Recently the US played Japan in the finals for women’s Olympic football/soccer. Both my countries played well, and the US ended up winning. I was routing for my Nadeshiko Japan heroes, but happy for the US ladies as well. What I was not happy about was the explosion of racism on various social networks from fans and spectators following this event. I remember the same thing outraging me after the same teams played each other in last year’s World Cup final. Americans made numerous vulgar connections between soccer and WWII on facebook, twitter, and other forums. The comments include racial slurs, making light of painful memories from history, and reflecting the total ignorance and insensitivity of the people posting them. Here are a few from twitter:

For my whole life I have tried not to be angry at a particular country because the things said and done by a handful of ignorant citizens, or because of one aspect of the culture that I do not personally resonate with. Events like this make that struggle more difficult. I have had people make fun of me for being “one of those Americans” while living in Japan, and I have even had people in the US pick fights with me about things Japan has done throughout history or in their culture, as if I had anything to do with it. These things happened at a Christian high school and a Christian college. There’s something wrong. I know I have come across as cynical towards America by many of my American friends, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Americans. And now, here in Cambodia, I can see things that I don’t understand in this culture as well. I could easily become frustrated at officers asking for bribes, but whose fault is it?

On Sunday, I was walking between church and my grandparent’s house and I saw a blind woman sitting on the steps of a Buddhist temple, begging for money. It reminded me of the story in the Bible about Jesus healing a blind man on the Sabbath. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” I didn’t wonder about this woman’s sins on Sunday, but I realized that I have been looking around at the poverty and oppression of this land, seeing barefooted children selling bracelets on the streets during the school day, and finding myself wanting to ask Jesus: “Who sinned-- This child skipping school to work on the streets? His parents who took him out of school, because they couldn’t afford it? The teachers who charged so many extra fees? The government who would not pay the teacher a living wage? The series of corrupt governments and leaders leading up to this fragile one? Or perhaps it is the fault of the rest of the world, who did nothing when Cambodia was destroyed by genocide, and continue to do very little for the economically downtrodden of this nation? Is Cambodian culture a sinful culture because it has these issues? Or is it my own sin that causes me to view the culture of street children as a problem?”

If I remember correctly, Jesus turned that question right around on his disciples and said that the man was not blind because of sin, but so that the work of God could be revealed in his life, and then proceeded to miraculously heal him. This sparked all kinds of controversy, because the Pharisees could not believe that Jesus was God’s son, or that this man had truly been healed, even with clear evidence. They were so caught up in the issue of sin that they missed the opportunity to believe in something great. When questioned, the healed blind man essentially said, “I don’t know if this man was a sinner for healing on the Sabbath. I don’t know if he was a prophet. I’m not sure where he came from. One thing I know for sure is: I was blind but now I see. Dudes, don’t you get it? It’s not about who I am. It’s about the transformation that came from Jesus! Healing of the blind can only be from God. If this is a God-thing, then this Jesus guy must be from God as well. It’s that simple. Just be excited with me!” In the end, who was sinful? In the end, who was blind?

It's possible I've spoken complete blaspheme in this post, because I'm no expert in the individual/ corporate sin debate or what a blind woman, a soccer game, and a Bible story have to do with each other. But I am trying to be less caught up in blaming people and events and cultures and countries for the things that make me furious, like a beautiful child being treated like a slave, or the beautiful game creating an arena for racial slurs. We live in a world full of sin and suffering and racism and pain. But we also live in a world where a blind man can be healed, a child can be rescued, and many countries can exist in peace in one girl’s heart, all through Jesus. I don’t want to miss out on the healings because I am so busy worrying about the afflictions.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Happy Birthday

The little sibs...

“Happy Birthday” and “You eat rice” are the only 2 phrases that my little sister here knows in English. Honestly, I’m beginning to doubt that the Khmai phrases she’s been teaching me are even real. Maybe that's part of the reason people laugh so much when I try to communicate. Yosue, my 11-year-old brother has taken it upon himself to teach the Khmai alphabet to his little sister and the random foreign girl living in the room above him, who is so ignorant of the language and culture. That’s me. So Moria struggle through the alphabet song. (Actually she's quite good. I struggle a lot). It goes something like this:

Ga ka go ko ngo.
Ja cha jo cho nyo.
Da ta do to nao.
Da tda do tdo no.
Ba pa bo pbo mo.
Ya ra la wa sa ha la ah.

There's your little Khmai lesson for the day. That’s just the consonants. And don’t ask me how to write them, because I will do my best, and end up with a bunch of undecipherable squiggles on a page. The language is hard. I think I should stick to learning vocabulary and conversation with my real tutor. The alphabet song is sort of a cross between the happy birthday song and a Buddhist monk chant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about birthdays lately, because the tune has been stuck in my head from learning the alphabet, and Moria shouts “happy birthday!” every time she wants to say something in English, (or any time she gives me something or I give her something). My small group is also celebrating the birthdays of two of our amazing women this weekend, and I just wrote a birthday note for my sister, so if I mail it today, it might find its way through the crazy Cambodian mail system to Atlanta before the 31st. The tradition for my host family is to wake up the birthday boy or girl at 5am with a little cupcake and candle and photograph them blowing it out in bed as we all shout something (I don’t know what). Needless to say, I have never been so glad to have a birthday in April (NOT while I am in Cambodia).

Today is a sort of birthday for me, though. It’s 2 months since I first set foot in this country.  I guess it’s more of an unimportant month-iversary. I’m one-third through my 6-month internship, which is crazy to me. Before leaving for Cambodia, my sister gave me her book (My Utmost for His Highest, of course), which she had had during her 6-month internship in South Africa. Inside the cover, she wrote about how HNGR was one of the best times and one of the hardest times. I’m seeing the truth of that statement now.

The fresh tropical fruit, warm breezy weather, ginger chicken, exciting city life, small group community, World Relief staff, passionate worship at church and work, challenging assignments, friendly ladies at the market place, loving host-family, and daily serendipitous blessings from God have been some of the best things of my life. 

But it has also been hard. And these hard things are more difficult to articulate: The grief of seeing children walking barefoot on the road around my bicycle begging for money. The frustration with men-- who leave their families, beat their wives, sleep with prostitutes and spread AIDS to their family. The frustration with women-- who keep selling their daughters back to the brothels, even after they are able to escape, and take their children out of school, because they can make more money selling bracelets on the street. The frustration that after 4 more months of working here, trying to stand with the vulnerable, these things will still happen, and the emaciated homeless man that I see in my neighbourhood as I bike past every day will still be sitting at his post when I step on the plane to leave again. The fear of violence in the streets around me and the annoyance of noises that keep me awake at night are hard. The difficulty of making friends and building a community and fully engaging in this place when I know I’m going to leave again soon is hard.  And the struggles with communicating in a different language and cultural context is also hard. 

But on this “birthday,” I want to celebrate the lessons that God has been teaching me and the things he has blessed me with up until this point. These things are literally too numerous for me to count and definitely too much to recount in a blog post. So I will just mention one thing of significance, one recurring theme for my work and life here, (and anywhere). This is important:

The stories. I love asking the staff and family and people in the villages and communities around me about their stories, because often, even if their English is limited, they will happily recount what they can. I have heard so many stories of hardship and suffering. (Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Cambodia has been served more than it’s portion of injustice and pain). But the stories are also rich with redemption, grace, and hope. It’s a lot to take in, both good and bad, but with each testimony I hear, my view of God’s kingdom broadens that much more.  While they are not Bible-stories, I believe that they are God-stories. We can learn so much about God and the world and even ourselves from pouring over the stories of biblical heroes like Abraham, Ruth, Samuel, Hosea, Mary, Stephen, and Paul. In the same way, the story of a man in Siem Reap who was diagnosed to die of a blood disease within 2 years, but has been healed after starting to eat the moringa given to him, or the story of a teenager in Kandal who takes care of his family since his father left them, or the story of a widow with HIV/AIDS in Phnom Penh, who would have commit suicide had it not been for friends from the WR cell group coming to her and the power of Jesus entering her--these are all stories that should be told. 

They should be told not just because these people deserve to have their voice be heard, but also because people need to know. Why do people need to know? Why should you know or care? That’s a question that continues to come to me as I attempt to tell these stories to the rest of the world. Just look at their faith! Look at their perseverance and passion. Imagine their pain and frustration. This is not happening in another world. This is happening in your world. This isn’t happening to a stranger. This is happening to my friends, to your brothers and sisters. Take a moment to pray for the people of Cambodia. Did you know they are praying for you? Forget about borders and passports and long-distance flights for a moment to imagine these stories all being bound up into a book along with your own story. All these God-stories are part of the same book, the same meta-narrative of redemption. Reading them can help us open our eyes to the author, the one working in and through all of us. That’s why you should know. That’s why you should care.

So as I blow out my meta-physical candle in my imaginary cupcake for my fake birthday, I make a wish for more unity in this world of believers. I pray for open eyes and an open heart to experience God’s kingdom work for the rest of my time here, and for the rest of my days, wherever they may be. I hope that the stories of our modern heroes of faith will be spread around the globe, and be received with open arms. Yeah, that’s one hell of a candle-wish. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Speak for the Voiceless

Holler for the fatherless, speak for the poor
speak for the sick ones and the victims of the war
We will speak for the prisoner, the alien, the “whore”
That's what they call you, but not who you are.
For those with no home, always kicked out the door,
for those with little ones that they can't care for
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the hungry, who's lives are torn.
When you're lost and oppressed and beat until you're sore
We will try to speak for you so they will not ignore
We will do our very best to be your press corp
Speaking for you when you have no voice anymore

Speak for the voiceless
Find them in their distress
Is their freedom in this press?
I know we have to express
the pain that they go through
See a different world view
Though it may be taboo
We have to stay true

Life is not a bus-stop-- What are you waiting for?
It's hot as a sun spot, get out on the trading floor.
Go on and take a shot without debating your
ability and resume. Just keep creating words
There isn't a speed cop. We can do more than stay the course
Don't you know we've got the freedom to change the world
We'll make noise and won't stop as we try to open doors
With a voice for the people we speak for in this crazy war

The crowds may be surprised to see our words comprised
of words for the unknown and marginalised
They many criticise, but don't sensationalize
So the spotlight-deprived may be undisguised

Speak for the voiceless
Find them in their distress
Is their freedom in this press?
I know we have to express
the pain that they go through
See a different world view
Though it may be taboo
We have to stay true

They're saying our play didn't sway like they planned,
but what is today if not Heaven in one hand?
I pray it is the hand with the pen in command
As it brands the news with the truth in demand

Its my first-fruits and you'll hear it firsthand
From the heart to the gland to the head I expand
I will rise, open eyes with my cries like vapour
As God is my shaper my pen strikes the paper
I will lift up the visions of the vulnerable
Broaden their dreams to see what's possible
Keeper of the memories, collector of the stories,
I'll weave them together in His tapestry of glory

Speak for the voiceless
Find them in their distress
Is their freedom in this press?
I know we have to express
the pain that they go through
See a different world view
Though it may be taboo
We have to stay true

Though my pen may seem useless, it's my way of connection
It's a bridge and a wand and a poisonous injection
to dictators, violence, corruption in election
Displaying agony but pointing to resurrection

They say its one for all and all for one
And I for one want to see this done
I want to see the sun rising high
Shoot the bullets and guns out of the sky
Let the children run, to their water supply
Hear no grief, no anger, no more sighs
But it's all begun by stories that fly
From the roots, through the pavement without lies
But the stories get spun, and that's why I
will speak for the voiceless. That is my cry.