–By Katy Sewall
I arrived home yesterday very early in the morning, after flying all night. Returning home, I feel the familiar combination of loneliness and relief that solitude brings after busy and social weeks abroad.
I can’t say these days haven’t been without tears. This trip has brought a lot to process.
The group left Cambodia Friday night, and I left Saturday morning. So the first tears came finding myself alone, watching television and eating an expensive room service dinner of steamed rice and cheese.
The tears had no one cause to point to. Maybe it was that my meal cost ¼ of what people in Cambodia make in a month. Maybe it was loneliness, picturing my travel companions boarding a plane and lifting off. My mind was full of pictures. I vividly remembered Sam’s furrowed brow and Haley’s tired eyes as they learned about another atrocity poor women face in the developing world. I saw Sara and Shanna with kids bounding around them. Megan calculating a business plans to employ young workers.
It was all those things, coupled with the knowledge that my husband Derek wouldn’t be home when I arrived. He’s in Israel. We’ve been married for nearly 2 years, and this has been our longest separation.
I find myself praying a desperate prayer “Please, please, please protect us both so that we can be together again.” It’s the prayer of someone fully in love, I think. This feeling is new to me and it has changed my perspective.
I’ve been to Toul Sleng (S-21) three times. (Sara wrote about this Khmer Rouge interrogation prison in an earlier post.) On earlier visits, I studied the fading bloodstains on the floor. I walked in the tiny cells and tried to imagine the heat and fear that had once filled that space. My attention was on the horrors, the psychology of the captors, the torture.
This time I felt the families. The lovers. People who prayed and hoped desperately for a reunion with their spouse or their children. People who hoped that saying the right thing, or doing the right thing, would set them free to reunite with their families.
We know now, these were hopeless dreams. For the 20,000 prisoners of S-21, death was all that was before them. The reunion with their loved wasn’t to be. For the first time, I could imagine how devastating that realization would be.
And we – the people of privilege who want to help – feel overwhelmed. How can we possibly help?
Today in Cambodia, orphaned sisters work hard for a better life. Their living family members are no help. Instead, they’ve tried to steal their house to ease their own poverty.
Today in Cambodia, a little girl dreams of school, but every morning she works at the market instead. She’s the only family member making money. Her mother is dying from HIV.
The culture overlooks it. It’s commonplace. The way things are.
As tourists, we walk through the streets, stepping over trash and noticing the skinny dogs. We are impressed by the kindness of people toward us and we’ve learned to see the danger and frustration.
When I travel, I always ask myself the same question – “Could I live here?” It is a question I enjoy contemplating.
The truth is-– I don’t have to live there. Whatever my hypothetical decision is, I am free to go.
So, on Saturday morning, as I stood in the doorway of my hotel room, looking over the room for missed belongings, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was escaping.
I’m free to go. That’s not true for people in poverty. They have to keep trying or give up.
Today, they hope they’ll be luckier than they were yesterday. They hope their family will be able to stay together. They hope they’ll stay safe and feel full. They hope for joy and relief. They strive to get an education. They make difficult and horrible choices to survive.
This isn’t theoretical or hypothetical or intellectual. This is today.
On the trip, we were told that we help young girls dream bigger just by showing up. That may be true, but they are the ones that must endure. And we need to keep asking (and answering) the question — “How can I help?”