'This is my heritage'
Visiting Cambodia last summer, Trumbull High freshman Emily Kong was struck by the sight of children, many of them under 10 years old, working long hours to help support their families. In a country where 45% of children are forced to work every day, and only 20% of girls reach high school, those who receive even an elementary level of education can be considered the lucky ones. In a way, Emily sees in current Cambodian children what could have been for her aunt and uncle that she never met.
“My starving brother and sister passed away in my arms,” Emily recalls her father, Chenda Kong telling her. “They would have been an amazing aunt and uncle to you.”
Chenda Kong is a survivor of one of the most devastating genocides in history. Following a period of civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime came to power and from 1975 to 1979 carried out systematic extermination of the country’s ethnic minority groups in what came to be known as the Killing Fields, a term coined by Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Modern estimates place the death toll at between 1.5 million and 3 million either murdered or worked and starved to death out of a population of 8 million.
Chenda and his parents managed to escape the Killing Fields, making their war to a Red Cross refugee camp in Thailand. The following year they were relocated to the Philippines. The surviving family members eventually reached the United States in 1982.
“They were very fortunate to be able to get to Thailand, because the border was patrolled by soldiers anyone caught trying to leave was killed,” Emily said.
Chenda Kong still bears the marks of his childhood, both emotionally and physically, in the form of jagged scars and burns that criss-cross his chest that Emily had always noticed, but that Chenda never mentioned until the day she asked how he had gotten them. Then he started telling her the stories. Soldier squads rounding up and shooting anyone who seemed wealthy or educated. Families rounded up and placed into labor camps. A brother and sister who starved to death while he watched helplessly.
“Sometimes he had to stop because there were too many dark recollections that he had tried to store away that were coming back,” she said.
But it was last summer’s visit to the country that convinced Emily that she had to do something to help the country’s children.
“The heavy rush of excitement I felt stepping off the plane was intense,” she said. “For my dad, it was quite different.”
Chenda, who had faced atrocities and witnessed horrors as a child 38 years earlier, was confronted with terrible memories.
“He had tried so hard to push them away, but they resurfaced as he walked through the streets he once called home,” she said.
Leaving the city, the buildings and restaurants gave way to rice fields, with families living in one-room huts made from grass and sticks. Children lucky enough to attend school walked or rode bicycles for miles each way. Others crowded around the roads, begging visitors to buy various trinkets.
“They couldn’t have been more than nine or 10 years old,” Emily said.
Returning to the U.S., Emily’s thoughts turned to, “What can I do to help these kids?” she said. She settled on helping the country’s children get an education in some small way. Or rather, a small way by American standards, but a potential life-changing one in Cambodia.
“Kids in school there, they barely even have paper,” Emily said. “They share pencils.”
Emily has started a fundraising page at gofundme.com/countlesscaresforcambodia to assist Cambodian children get an education by sending them individual school supply pouches. The goal is to raise $1,000.
“For every $5 donated, I would be able to prepare and send a pouch that containing pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners and crayons,” she said. “My mission is to help the people of Cambodia have better opportunities.”
Though the country where her father grew up in on the other side of the world, she said its people remain close to her heart.
“When I close my eyes, I can still feel the welcoming warmth and love from the Cambodian people,” she said. “This is my heritage, I want to help the children who are a part of me.”