“Can you hear me? Can you hear me, through the dark night, far away?” The voices of the children resonated in the one room schoolhouse on the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia. Two young boys shared a lyrics sheet with me, and as I sang along to Rod Stewart, I could not help but smile from ear to ear.
• We had arrived at the Tean Thor Association (TTA) about an hour before and were led around the premises by Ky Lok, the director. We crowded into a small room, largely occupied by two beds, and stood intently listening to the director. Ky Lok was explaining how HIV/AIDS patients come to stay at the clinic when I noticed that, staring at us from behind beautiful, dark brown eyes was a little girl wearing a “Merry Christmas” hat. She was staying at the clinic with her grandmother and two brothers.
TTA offer health services and respite to HIV-positive Cambodians. Photograph by Pushpa Iyer. •
I smiled at her and bent down to eye level, hoping I could get her to smile back, but she just stared at me with those big brown eyes. Ky Lok explained that she was one of the HIV patients. My heart dropped as my professor Pushpa Iyer bent down, pinching her cheeks and whispering to her that she was beautiful. I held back tears as we entered the second room of the clinic where we learned about the obstacles patients at the clinic face in accessing anti-retroviral drugs.
As we followed Ky Lok out of the room, I looked back towards the little girl’s room and saw her standing just outside the door staring at us. Pushpa and I looked at her, then at each other, and then back again. We were both thinking the same thing…we wanted to pick her up, play with her, and make her smile even if for just a few minutes.
I picked her up and lightly tossed her up into the air. She broke into a huge smile and let out a giggle and in that moment, the world was perfect. Minutes later, I rejoined the rest of the group, but this time with a different attitude. Granted, a piece of me was angry, another was saddened…but on the whole I was inspired and hopeful.
Currently, Cambodia is a post-genocide society engaged in a peacebuilding process. In Asia, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of HIV infection. According to Global Health Reporting there were an estimated 70,000 adults and 4,400 children living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2007. The northwest region, especially the rural areas, is the most vulnerable to the spread of the infection. Cambodian society, like many other societies worldwide, shuns and isolates HIV/AIDS victims.
To combat the lack of awareness and understanding of the disease in the northwest region, TTA, is not only confronting the challenge of HIV/AIDS, but is also simultaneously building trust within society - both challenges to peacebuilding.
TTA is more specifically aiding in the social reconciliation process under the umbrella of peacebuilding. While in Cambodia, I realized that the importance of reconciliation within the peacebuilding process is multifaceted, and failure to build peace on the basis of each facet is detrimental to the success of the process.
According to an NGO worker that we met along our journey, reconciliation is close to peace if it is done in a serious manner. He felt that Cambodia has been successful, to a certain extent, in achieving a level of political reconciliation through the creation of the tribunal, but is still lacking in terms of social reconciliation. Social reconciliation, he said, touches on emotions, memories, and the future. He stressed the importance of creating a trust, defined as a “social knowledge of where we can find a comfortable place to communicate with each other,” in order to have true social reconciliation.
TTA, through its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, is able to create this atmosphere of comfortable communication that lends itself to building a level of trust within society. Tean Thor has a unique way of opening the eyes and minds of those living in the community in order to provide a supportive atmosphere for victims of HIV/AIDS. The most striking qualities of TTA that became apparent to me as we toured its premises were its engagement of monks to remove the stigmatization associated with HIV/AIDS, provision of vocational skills, inclusion of traditional herbal remedies, improved access to anti-retroviral treatments and shelter, and its integrative school system.
The most uplifting part of the entire trip for me was the classroom. Often times, those living with HIV/AIDS are isolated from the rest of the community and feared by their own people. TTA has an integrative classroom that allows children living with the disease to obtain the same education as other children. In having a school that does not distinguish those with the disease from those without, TTA is able to break the stereotypes, reduce discrimination, and consequently create a space for trust in the community.
As I sat on the edge of the wooden bench absorbing the beautiful voices of Cambodian children, I realized just how much hope was actually in that one classroom. I was witnessing the transformation of a generation of youth that, thanks to TTA, would not be fearful of each other but would instead understand and embrace each other regardless of HIV/AIDS.
Their voices became one as they sang, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me, through the dark night, far away?” and I thought to myself, “Yes. We can hear you.” Tean Thor Association and its dedicated workers have given a voice to these children, incorporating them into the peacebuilding process and creating hope for the future of Cambodia.
Sarah's blog entry is part of a two-part series written by WIP Contributor Pushpa Iyer's students. In the coming weeks, more entries will follow. Part I, "Legacy, Responsibility, Justice and Spirituality" will contemplate how Cambodia is coping with its painful past. Part II, "Identity, Sex Trafficking, HIV/AIDS and Property Rights" will explore some of the challenges modern-day Cambodia faces. – Ed.
From Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, Sarah Grime received her Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. She is a candidate for a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies, specializing in Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Sarah extensively researched and continues to study a range of issues including immigration between the United States and Mexico, specifically the disappeared women of Ciudad Juarez, as well as HIV/AIDS worldwide. She interned for a Latino advocacy program and continues her human rights advocacy efforts in studying Latin America and East Africa at the institute.