For this year’s project week, I went to Siem Reap, Cambodia with Students Against Slavery, a Quan Cai I am involved with here at school. The SAS groups this year went to two rehabilitation centres for girls and women that have been rescued from trafficking, brothels etc. My group went to the older girls’ centre, while some other students went to a centre for younger girls.
The SAS groups as well as the United World Schools groups took the same flight to Phnom Penh from Hong Kong on Saturday morning, but split up in Phnom Penh. From Phnom Penh, our SAS group had an 8-hour bus ride to get to the guesthouse we were staying at. Originally, we had hoped to get to the centre early enough to be able to spend time with the girls on Saturday evening. As we didn’t get to Siem Reap until late Saturday evening, we had to go directly to the guesthouse and then meet the girls on Sunday morning.
Out of courtesy to the girls and due to safety concerns, I will not be mentioning names, posting pictures of the girls or telling many stories about things that happened at the centre.
Every single day of the Project Week involved getting up early in the morning – I think I was up before the sun every single day we were in Siem Reap. Then we made our way to the centre, where we had breakfast with the girls. Meals at the centre were highly entertaining – the girls would insist on putting more food on my plate until I literally refused to eat any more food. After meals we would have some downtime – after lunch, the girls had a rest period. Every day I used to go to the open area in the main building, and a bunch of LPC students would nap there with the girls.
We had prepared some activities before going to Siem Reap – singing, dancing, Wendo (a form of self-defense), art games, clapping games and a couple of therapies. Every day was filled with activities from about 5am (aerobics) until 9pm (they girls went to bed post-dancing) – the girls loved some of the songs we taught them, and wrote them down so they could continue singing them after we left. We danced every evening, and we did Khmer dances a few times (Khmer dances are normally reserved for family get-togethers, so it was a very pleasant surprise that the girls suggested we do that).
One of the experiences that has meant most to me was taking part in the therapy sessions we did. The art therapy activity was to draw two pictures – one the way you thought others saw you, and another the way you saw yourself. We were split into two groups – in our group I think something got lost in translation, because the girls were mainly drawing what they were thinking when other people were looking at them.
The aim of the therapy was to get the girls to display some emotions and express some of what they’re really feeling – they aim to be re-integrated as soon as possible, and for most of the girls that means they suppress their emotions rather than deal with them effectively in order to work through the pain. While we didn’t get extremely meaningful responses in our group during this session, I don’t think it was entirely fruitless. Many of the girls said they felt scared when men or “bad men” looked at them, but that they would still smile at them and hope that the man would not hate them. That raised several important questions, even though it did not tell us much about what the girls thought of themselves.
I enjoyed the drama therapy much more than I enjoyed the art therapy – while we did not get the desired results from the art therapy, there was a very heavy atmosphere and most people were crying by the end of the session. Many people also cried during the drama therapy, but I found it more interesting than the art therapy. During the art therapy, there were five actors from the LPC group standing to the side of an open space – “offstage”, if you will. Individual girls could come to pull us “onstage” and shape our bodies and facial expressions into whatever positions they wanted to, then we would “freeze” until the girl was satisfied with looking at the image she had created.
The girls shaped a happy image and a sad image, then explained them to the group. After they had created the sad image, they clapped a number of times and the actors transformed back into the happy image. There were many recurring themes in the drama therapy – very often, the girls’ happy images were domestic bliss, studying, singing/modeling or various Khmer dance poses – I was very often placed in happy images dancing, with one of my feet lifted off the ground. While the girls seemed to find it very amusing, it became slightly difficult to hold the positions for a prolonged period of time.
Also, very often, the girls’ sad images were domestic violence, alcoholism, girls crying or girls being taken away (trafficked). Two of the images I think about most often and remember most vividly were created by different girls. The first was a sad image, of a girl being trafficked. I think I remember this image most and think about it most often because I was portrayed as the trafficker, pulling on Jaime’s arm to get her to come with me. Thinking about these things is one thing, but acting them out (especially acting out the perpetrator) is something else entirely.
The second image was the last image of the evening. It was a happy image, depicting all of the actors as one happy family. The girl who created the image spoke for a long time about the significance of the image, and how it represented her main hope for the future. After that, the girls decided they did not want to continue the therapy. To me, the girls’ reactions to the image mean more than the image itself. The fact that many girls were affected by this image indicated that this is a common hope/dream they all share. At the same time, the fact that they began crying shows how uncertain their future are, and how aware the girls are that their futures are not at all secure.
On one of the days, some of the students went to Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Siem Reap province. Here we visited some temples (Angkor Wat – we watched the sun rise from here, the Bayon and Ta Prohm) (pictures below). My personal favourite was Ta Prohm, a temple that had not been renovated or fixed up since its discovery in the 1800s. It was an excellent opportunity to see Khmer architecture from when the Khmer empire was at its prime – many hundreds of years before the atrocities of the Khmers Rouges and the Pol Pot regime.
Leaving the girls at the centre was very difficult. It took Stella quite a long time to get us all out of the gate, down the street and into the mini-bus. We traveled back to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, and met up with the other SAS group to listen to a presentation by APLE, an NGO working to prevent pedophilia and child sex tourism in Cambodia. After that, we had free time until the flight back to Hong Kong left the next day – Cynthia, Adam and I visited the National Museum of Cambodia (right behind our guesthouse) and then walked around Phnom Penh for the rest of the day.
One of the (many) things the girls showed me was how quickly you can grow to love and care about people. While there was a significant language barrier, we still managed to communicate and share things with each other. I realized early on that none of the girls’ stories mattered to me. While they are all in the centre for various reasons, that is not what defines them. They are individuals with stories to be told and voices to be heard. Understanding why SAS was created and why campaigning against slavery is vital are just two of the reasons I am extremely glad I went on this Project Week.