A coincidence or fate? You be the judge…
The Story That Started the Dream
We are 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, we had the opportunity to visit the Landmine Museum just outside of Angkor Wat. What initially was to be an educational experience struck home with intensity. In 2004, Asad Rahman returned home from his first visit to Cambodia and shared stories of his time spent there with fellow wildland firefighters and friends. One story in particular left a lasting impression on many and most importantly on him. While in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Asad encountered a group of street kids begging for food and money; if you’ve traveled to Southeast Asia you know this is part of the norm. We’re 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 in 2003, Asad and his friends met a lively group of youth. One of which was 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 what happened to him and an artist he was. Suppose it was one way he could escape the reality of being homeless and hungry? 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, though Asad promised to return and find the boy…he wanted to know that he was all right. Back at home the framed picture of the boy artist, his street friends from Phnom Penh and his artwork were kept in a special place in his kitchen. Their faces and memories serve 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 most have, to be able to get food or clean water with ease whenever we want. The frames sit displayed in his home, a constant reminder of how fortunate we all are.
A Second Chance Encounter
Two years after his first visit to Cambodia I joined Asad on his travels. This first trip to Southeast Asia I was awestruck with 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 soak in the culture of Siem Reap then head to the nation’s capitol, Phnom Penh, to spin our luck on finding that young artist. It was our last day at Angkor Wat and we ventured to what was reportedly a controversial place, The Landmine Museum. We were told it was a “must see” place by many 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 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 greeted us. She was standing under a blue sign that read, in multiple languages, “Welcome to the Landmine Museum.” Our tuk-tuk driver Sao, 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. There were more landmines, more than most would ever see in a lifetime. They were hidden in places one would not see, we walked on a few before even noticing them. Thankfully they’ve all been made safe by Aki Ra. We begin to see how easy it is to detonate a landmine without even seeing it. Sickened and even more so as we learned more about Aki Ra in a video and begin to understand what he went through during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Walking through the landmine exhibit, humiliation sinks in while learning the United States’ role in landmine production, 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).
Irony 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 we wandered around the museum. Caught up in worlds of our own, thoughts were broken as I heard, “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. Looking at the second profile, low and behold there was a familiar face, a boy named Chet. The same artist Asad met in Phnom Penh two years prior! We immediately found Hourt, Aki Ra’s wife, and inquired about the boy in the picture. Hourt was a sweet woman 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! Asad and I were able to return to the museum that evening after school got out.
It was a beautiful and emotional reunion for both Chet and Asad as we arrived; there was an intense, magic like energy fusing the two together and tears in their eyes. Aki Ra offers the youth at his Landmine Museum Relief Center happiness, hope and a positive future.
Changing the World
Inspired by the chance encounter and all of the youth at Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum we established our non-government organization, Project Enlighten. We felt we could offer more to the world by funding scholarships, building free-education schools in Cambodia, Laos, Burmese Refugee Camps, Uganda or anywhere there is an inspiration and need across the globe. We continue our educational support to refugees who have transitioned to living in the United States, help communities impacted by natural and human caused disasters and provide opportunities to enhance education for those in need. As the years pass, our entire team is proud to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Author, Olivia-Iniabi Collette, is co-founder of Project Enlighten, an accomplished fire prevention program manager & battalion chief in the USA.