Brokenness, poverty, desolationーthese are three words that stood out to me during my trip to
Cambodia. I responded with compassion, gratitude, modesty.
Until recently, due to the constant portrayal, and resultantly the normalization of ongoing terror across the globe, especially in third-world countries, in the media, I had the tendency to turn a blind eye towards calamities, including in Cambodia. Today, I look at the horrors of Cambodia, and the rest of the world, through a different lens. I see not solely the tragic events superficially, but instead, empathizing with those who are left to horrific circumstances.
TASSEL transforms subpar living conditions, plagued with anguish, into a place of joy, magic, and surrealism. Picture this: fellow TASSEL volunteers and I alighting from the van to step foot into the TASSEL school to see the children’s eyes lifting upwards. Just the simple sight of us, something out of their routine, was enough to make them be full of the joys of spring. Some children exclaimed, “Teacher!”, while others pushed their way through the crowd of well-wishers to embrace us and give us flowers and gifts. The contagious warmth rushed through the students and to us. This definite moment captures the underlying meaning of TASSELーthe ability to touch and transform hearts with hearts.
The smiles prevalent in TASSEL is not a holistic picture; TASSEL is the sole place where the children can receive scarce love and quality education, hence, becoming their outlet and escape from their predicaments at home. Despite their living conditions being appalling, TASSEL allows for the hearts and souls of the children to remain golden. What makes TASSEL an enlightening place is the truly inspiring Khmer Teachers, who continue to willingly serve the students, village, and nation, regardless of their tragic pasts and living circumstances. The world lacks people whose level of sacrifice, compassion, and goodwill equate to those of Khmer teachers.
It is truly unsettling, terrifying even, that many of us, including myself until most recently, are privileged enough to be immune to bleeding children, starving communities, and bodies decorated in gun wounds. The plight of the Khmer Rouge is not an issue to discuss in the past tense. Its effect is still very much extant and plaguing Cambodia, with the everyday person having to worry about safety and basic human necessities.
We are so privileged. While I am concerned about my future, which many would classify as bright with me being a young, healthy, educated, woman living comfortably in Tokyo, Cambodian children would not have a bright future ahead of them without TASSEL. Many of whom are younger than me, have been through a lifetime of agony, one which I cannot even fathom. Have you ever felt like a burden to your family to an extent that you felt obligated to escape home and become a monk, simply out of the shared preconceived notion that asking for help would impose stress and pain upon your family? Has your mother ever attempted to murder you? Have you ever witnessed your mother’s hand being chopped off by her cousin, have you had to pick up the remains of her fingers in the middle of the night at the age of 5? Words cannot do justice to what I witnessed in Cambodia.
If you are pondering upon joining TASSEL, ask yourself these questions: how privileged am I? How selfish? And what are my justifications for acting so egotistically? Nothing. We have everything. That is why there is no time to wasteーwe must use the privilege we have to contribute in any way possible to transform a place of anguish into a land of promise.