A coincidence or fate? You be the judge…
The Story That Started the Dream
I am amazed by people in this world and commend a man named Aki Ra for the work he is doing; this man is bound for Nobel Peace Prize Nomination. While traveling in Cambodia, I had the opportunity to visit the Landmine Museum just outside of Angkor Wat. What initially was to be an educational experience became more emotional and home hitting. In 2004, I met Asad, my sweetheart, just after he returned from his first visit to Cambodia (late Dec. 2003). He sat me down and shared with me stories of his time spent there. One story in particular left a lasting impression on me, but also more importantly – on him. While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Asad had encountered a group of street kids begging for food and money. If ever you’ve traveled to Asia, you know this is part of the norm – seeing kids on the streets selling stuff and badgering you for money. I’m not just talking about teens either, there are little kids – two, three, four years on up starving or in need of warm clothes or shelter.
On this particular trip for Asad in 2003, he had met a lively group of youths, among whom was a young boy 13 or 14 years who was missing part of his left leg – a landmine survivor. He didn’t have too many words to share – about living on the streets or about what happened to him – but an artist he was. I suppose it was one way he could escape the reality of being homeless and hungry? At any rate, Asad and his friend Reed spent time with the homeless children – feeding them, buying clothing for them, etc. The young artist drew a couple pictures and Asad purchased them from him saying, “all fine artwork must be purchased, I cannot accept your artwork for free!” Leaving Cambodia was heartbreaking, but Asad promised to return and find the boy…he wanted to know that he was all right. Back at home, as a gift to Asad, I had the picture of the boy artist from Phnom Penh and his artwork framed. Asad had previously kept the drawing and pictures of the boy and his street friends on his refrigerator as a reminder of how thankful we should all be for what we have; the children in the pictures don’t have that same simple luxury that we have – to be able to get food with ease whenever we want. The frames sit displayed in our home, a constant reminder of how fortunate we are.
A Second Chance Encounter
Two years after his first visit to Cambodia, Asad and I returned together. This was my first trip to Asia. I was awestruck by everything I saw. Beautiful places, beautiful people, wonderful experiences. We were in Siem Reap visiting one of few extraordinary man-made wonders of the world – Angkor Wat, and surrounding temples. We decided to spend Christmas there, and then we were to go to Phnom Penh and spin our luck on finding the young artist and the other street children Asad had previously met. It was our last day at Angkor Wat and we had planned to visit a somewhat controversial place, The Landmine Museum. We had been told it was a “must see” place by various travelers.
It was our last stop before returning to our lodging and packing for our boat trip the following day. We arrived by tuk-tuk (motorbike with passenger cart attached) and were greeted by a young Cambodian girl clad in the old Khmer Rouge uniform – black peasant clothing, a military style hat and a red and white checkered scarf. She was standing under a blue sign that read, in multiple languages, “Welcome to the Landmine Museum.” Our tuk-tuk driver (an old friend of Asad’s) commented in awe, “…that’s the Khmer Rouge soldier uniform, look what she’s wearing!” The girl lifted a makeshift stick barrier that had a Cambodian flag attached to it, along with a red and white sign that stated, “DANGER! LANDMINES.”
Passing through the gates, old relics of a war still fresh in the many hearts, minds and lives of Cambodian people are everywhere – landmines, more than I’ve ever seen in my life. They are hidden in places one would not see, I walk on a few before I even notice them – thank God they’ve all been made safe by Aki Ra. I begin to see how easy it is to detonate a landmine without even seeing it. I am sickened, BUT even more so when I watch a video on Aki Ra and learn what he went through during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Walking through the landmine exhibit, I am furthermore saddened, even humiliated to learn of the United States’ role in landmine production and storage, AND their lack of involvement in signing treaty that would ban the production and use of landmines. Although the U.S. is not alone in this, they are one of a handful of countries that has continued to produce landmines since 2002. (Big surprise – Iraq, China, the Russian zone, India, Burma, Indonesia, Cuba, Egypt, Nepal, Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam and N. and S. Korea are also in this category).
Part of the irony, to me anyway – is that more than a handful of these countries (the U.S. included) are not directly affected by landmines unless their soldiers are at war on land that is not their own. In stark comparison, civilians in Cambodia are directly at risk. Over 21,000 people in the surrounding area of Siem Reap alone (not including undocumented cases) have been injured, maimed or killed by landmines. A dark part of the world’s history continued to be unleashed as I made my way around the museum. Caught up in a world of my own, my thoughts were broken by Asad yelling over, “Hey Liv, come here quick, I need you to tell me something…this is him, right? The kid?”
I walked over to a section of the museum where they have profiles of the children who live at the Landmine Museum. There are about twenty kids there who have encountered landmines and have been disfigured in some way. Their stories, along with a photo, are attached to trees and wood posts. I took a look at the second profile – low and behold there was a familiar face, a boy named Chet – the same artist Asad had met in Phnom Penh two years prior! Asad immediately found Hourt, Aki Ra’s wife, and inquired about the boy in the picture. Hourt is a sweet woman whom all the children there call “Mom.” In Chet’s biography, there was no mention of his artistic ability, so when Asad asked about the boy and his art, “Mom” was moved by Asad’s story. She confirmed that Chet was indeed an artist, and that two years ago he had been living on the streets of Phnom Penh. Asad asked to see Chet, but to both our disappointment (and joy), he was still in class at school a mere ten minutes away! Although we were not able to exchange our boat ticket (for the following day) for another day, Asad and I were able to return to the museum that evening.
It was a beautiful and emotional reunion for both Chet and Asad as we arrived. I can’t explain it any other way than to say that there was an intense, magic like energy fusing the two together – there were tears in both of their eyes. Aki Ra offers the youth at his Landmine Museum Relief Center happiness, hope and a positive future.
Changing the World
Asad and I wanted to do something more for the youth at Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum, and upon returning home from our trip we began setting the foundation for Project Enlighten. Originally, we created our scholarship program for university and vocational school for Aki Ra’s kids, but after some time, we felt we could offer more to the world. We have funded scholarships, built free-education schools in Cambodia, Laos and in Burmese Refugee Camps. We’ve continued our educational support to refugees who have transitioned to living in the United States, and help communities impacted by natural and human caused disasters. As the years have passed, we feel so proud to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.