How many millions of families have virtually journeyed around the world courtesy of Disney, serenaded by the memorable melody of “It’s a Small World”? I know that prior to these past two weeks, it’s the closest I’ve been to the wondrous lands of Southeast Asia. I write this to you from the air, on my way home from visiting Cambodia, a long journey back, but one full of memories that will linger much, much longer.
My family and I were graciously invited to accompany a small group of educators and other families on this adventure, mainly to visit and bring supplies to several groups of school children in Cambodia. I read as much as I could about the country’s history, most notable in recent times for the Khmer Rouge atrocities in the 1970’s in which nearly 2 million people were killed by Pol Pot and his followers. Any Cambodian now over the age of 40 likely lost multiple family members during these horrific years. But all of my book learning could not prepare me for the physical and emotional realities of this hauntingly beautiful yet ravaged country. And most amazingly, I did not anticipate the incredible warmth and vitality evident in the children we met.
Astonishingly, almost half of the Cambodian population is under 15 years old. As we’re seeing with many developing countries, it’s this “youth bulge” that is bringing Cambodia slowly but surely into the 21st century. Nearly all of the children live in poverty, many having lost parents and siblings, yet they display immense curiosity and spirit. Some were street kids, formerly scavenging the dumps of Phnom Penh for scraps of food and supplies for their families. Others traveled via broken-down bicycles to attend school in a rural village, where they learn English and Khmer and can now eat fresh produce from a garden they plant and cultivate. The few hours we spent with these children—learning from each other, playing soccer and yard games with them, watching them sing and dance—was the greatest gift we could receive. To see my kids and our friend’s children laugh and play with the Cambodian kids was something that none of us will forget. Yes, we did of course do some sight-seeing, too, while there—exploring the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat, haggling with merchants in the capital city’s famous Russian Market—but what will most remain fixed in our minds will be the moments we spent with these incredibly inspiring children. I encourage anyone who is able, whether in this country or abroad, to take at least one journey in your lifetime to realize how connected we all really are.