Saturday, August 18, 2007

Journey to Cambodia

Many teenagers spend their summer vacations going to movies or the beach, but Hudson’s Rachel Belanger spent her school vacation in a different way than most teens.

Belanger, 16, spent the month of July in Cambodia with an organization called the East-West Center and 20 other students from across the country for a four-week program called "Partnership for Youth: Reporting for Change," in order to create a documentary about various aspects of Cambodian life.

"I never learned about Cambodia’s history or the Khmer Rouge in school, so I was surprised to find out that between 1975 and 1979, about 1-in-4 Cambodians died from execution, starvation, or disease, or that about half a million Cambodians died in the early seventies when the United States illegally bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War," she said.

Belanger’s journey began with a three-day orientation in Hawaii, before moving on to the city of Siem Reap for six days, then six days of homestays in the Kandal province of Cambodia, before ending the trip with a nine-day stay in Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia.

While in Cambodia, Belanger experienced many layers of Cambodian society by studying the social, political, educational and economic issues the country has faced by speaking with families in various villages, spending time with teenagers and university students, and by living with a host family for six days.

Belanger’s host family was a family of rice farmers which included a 47-year-old widow and her three children in their 20’s. She remarked that although there was no running water, phone line or mail service, the children all had cell phones and used e-mail at Internet cafes in Phnom Phen and lived simple and happy lives.

Her group will be creating a 15-20 minute documentary about the educational opportunities Cambodian children have, and the need for both academic and vocational training in the country and enter the documentary in a film festival in Missouri.

"We’re aiming to have the documentary completed by the November submission date for a film festival in Colombia, MO where two of my group members are from," she said. "We’ve also discussed a book drive in our own communities to send books to some of the schools we visited or even fundraising so some of our Cambodian friends can come to our schools for a year."

In addition to completing the documentary, Belanger and her group will give presentations at their schools about their trip, write op-ed pieces about Cambodia and participate in other follow-up activities such as radio segments or photo exhibits.
Last summer Belanger went to the tsunami affected regions of Thailand with the same organization for a program called "Partnership for Youth: Building Disaster-Resilient Communities."

Belanger, who is entering her second year at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA, a liberal arts school for students who have completed tenth and eleventh grade, feels one of the major lessons she learned was although many Cambodians live in poverty, they are still able to live happy and productive lives.

"We met many people who lived in poverty, and many of us were quick to think about how lucky we were to live in the United States," Belanger said. "I realized this only confirmed our cultural obsession with material goods and our assumption that everyone is after the American dream. I realized I shouldn’t take pity on a family that finds happiness and has hope for the future despite all the challenges they face."

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