Monday, 12 January 2009

This Hyphenated Life / 30 years after revolution, Cambodia is blossoming with tikkun olam

By Marco Greenberg, This Hyphenated Life

recently returned from spending Hanukah in Cambodia, a place so remote that even Chabad has not yet ventured there.

How can a country known for man at his very worst - genocide, land mines, sex trade, acid throwing etc. - be a source of hope and inspiration?

Looking back at my whirlwind trip last month, which included a meeting with the country's young and personable king, as well as Khmer Rouge survivors, former street children and even local Muslims, an answer begins to emerge.

Amidst the squalor and heart-wrenching beggars (Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia), Phnom Penh is bustling with throngs of smiling people - often three and four on one moped.

It's especially remarkable that a city which had all its residents forcibly evacuated to the country side by the world's most radical communist regime in the mid 70s, is now home to an uptick in foreign trade and investment, a real estate boom, gentrified French colonial buildings with hip new restaurants, and even a recent glowing profile in the travel section of the New York Times.

While veteran western visitors barely recognize the place, from my newbie perspective, Phnom Penh has retained its indigenous charm and has not yet been overrun by crass commercialism. A sign that reads 'KFC coming soon' is a warning that?s about to change.

In the meantime, speaking of signs, you have to look hard to find any outward evidence of Jewish life. In total I spotted one Zim container, one homemade Israeli flag proudly flying among a row of flags along the Mekong River, and a pair of loud Hebrew speaking tourists (I'm being redundant).

Seriously, it's hard not to see the country from a very Jewish perspective. It starts with our shared experience of mass murder.

January 11th marks the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of Cambodia from the brutal forces of Pol Pot - although I was reminded that he and his troops continued to haunt the country from the periphery basically until his death in 1998. Countless comparisons to the Holocaust have been made before and for good reason.

If you haven't heard it, add the name, Tuol Sleng to Auschwitz, Bergen Belson, etc. It was the notorious prison and torture center set in a former high school in the middle of an ordinary suburban neighborhood and more than the swaying palm trees and barbed wire remain.

Not the polished floors and multimedia video displays that you'll find at Yad VaShem and the Holocaust Museums, instead clearly underfunded and understaffed with bullet marked walls, cracked tiles, shackles, and pictures of the familiar yet haunting stares of the victims.

You don't need to go to museums to hear the stories. "My father was a math teacher and for that he was murdered by the Khmer Rouge," said our tour guide as he took us through the amazingly beautiful historical ruins of Angkor Wat. A wonderful Cambodian woman returning to visit her native country, told us how her younger brother and father disappeared and that she ate rats to survive before fleeing to the US.

Yet, like Israel after the Holocaust, something special is starting to emerge out of the ashes and there is much more to the link between our peoples than genocide.

If there was an international capital for Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), aka a lab for social entrepreneurship in '08/09, this is it. Here's a glimpse of what I saw:

- Eat at Friends (and scores of other cause related restaurants and shops) and have gourmet like cuisine cooked and served by former street children.

- Visit the country's first dormitory for women college students built by author and MIT Professor Alan Lightman and his Harpswell Foundation (I'm honored to be on their advisory board).

- Meet a Cambodian ex-pat who is providing much needed psychological counseling to a country with only a handful of mental health professionals.

- See T-shirts and bumper stickers urging protection for Cambodia?s children from horrific cases of pedophilia.

- Sit in a newly constructed mosque, as we did, speaking to Cham Muslims (one of the most persecuted groups under the Khmer Rouge) who are shunned by the Islamic world for embracing a moderate religious practice that would make most of us think of Reform Judaism.

Make no mistake about it, this progress is both nascent, and given the country's history and continued challenges, precarious too.

My wife and I joined five others, who are much more active than we are in helping turn Cambodia around, in an hour long meeting at the royal palace with the gracious and impressive King of Cambodia. When leaving he made a point of both thanking us for our support and expressing "the need your continued help."

While I didn't have the chance to explain the significance of the Hanukkiah we gave to King Sihamoni as a gift, later in the day I was able to play the role of Jewish emissary.

'Nes Gadol Haya Sham' (A Big Miracle Happened There) I wrote in Hebrew on the white board for students at the Harpswell Foundation's dormitory, using the familiar motto of Hanukkah.

These young women were screened and selected for their intelligence, ambition and leadership abilities. They arrived from poor rural areas and only a year or two ago first saw running water, let alone a computer, and are now ranked at the top of their respective classes at the country?s most prestigious universities.

'Nes Gadol Haya Sham' these 35 young Cambodian women enthusiastically repeated.

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