Aspenite finds rewards in nonprofit work in Cambodia
Ryan Summerlin September 30, 2013
Editor’s note: “Bringing it Home” runs Saturdays in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have connections to the Roaring Fork Valley.
Daily life in Cambodia certainly is no holiday. Political turmoil and human-rights abuses seem forever linked to the southeastern Asia country.
It is estimated that some 2 million people were murdered in the late 1970s during the infamous Cambodian Genocide, orchestrated by communist dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge government. Though the Khmer Rouge has been out of power for more than three decades, Cambodia is still a center of unrest; its leader of the past 28 years, prime minister Hun Sen, a free-market Communist and former member of the Khmer Rouge, controls the country with an authoritarian hand.
The violence and oppression that have marked his rule was evidenced as recently as Sunday when journalists covering a protest that disputed the nation’s summer election results — which kept Sen’s party in power — were attacked by police and men in plain clothes, ABC News reported earlier this week.
Aspen transplant Natalie Deuschle, a native of Tulsa, Okla., has witnessed the good and bad of Cambodia over the last few years.
Deuschle, now 25, spent the summer of 2010 there, starting out with Salvation Centre Cambodia, a nonprofit dedicated to HIV prevention and AIDS care. From there she moved on to other projects, including time spent teaching women sewing skills, before moving back to the United States to finish her senior year of college.
She returned to Cambodia in the summer of 2012 and, working with different organizations, continued her mission of helping women improve their lives. Encountering more than a few difficult situations, Deuschle remained in Cambodia for about a year before moving to Aspen in June.
Cambodia changed her life, she said, mostly for the better. She’s not as innocent as she once was, but her experiences in the country didn’t turn her into a hardened cynic, either.
“I think Cambodians have had a really rough go of things,” Deuschle said. “I did have some unsettling experiences there, especially with some of the men; a lot of them look down on women. I had to be on my guard all of the time. Overall, Cambodians are very friendly, loving people. I will definitely go back.”
Working with the Salvation Centre gave her a different perspective on relief work, she explained.
“It was unique in that it wasn’t just white people going in and telling all of these other people how to live their lives,” Deuschle said. “They used local Buddhist monks to educate about AIDS and do counseling. Monks are very well regarded and respected in Cambodia. To have monks come into a community and talk about things like prejudice and how to treat and support each other is a model that makes sense. It’s something that comes from the inside. To me, that’s how development work should be done.”
Part of the difficulty in educating Cambodians about HIV and AIDS lies in some of the odd belief systems that exist in the country, she said. “There’s a common belief that if a man has sex with a virgin girl, he can cure himself of his AIDS,” Deuschle said.
While working in a ghetto near Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia, she became privy to some unusual acts by the country’s elite.
“There was this community by a lake,” Deuschle said. “The elite came in and completely filled the lake with concrete. They kicked out all of the people, who have lived there for forever, and bused them out to the countryside, where there is nothing. They literally stole the land from them. Those people are homeless now. There have been huge riots. I was in that neighborhood working with the kids of those families. I was teaching, and there were kids who would suddenly have to leave the program, because their families were being deported.”
On her second trip to Cambodia in 2012, Deuschle worked six months for an organization that fought human trafficking.
“At the time, I didn’t really know much about the human-trafficking crisis that’s happening all over the world right now,” she said. “It’s a growing problem. It’s mainly about labor but sex also.”
Young women from poor families are susceptible to being trafficked, Deuschle said. She also learned that women are being trafficked from Vietnam to Cambodia “because Vietnamese girls are seen as being sexier.” When a girl is trafficked to another country where she doesn’t speak the language, it makes her even more helpless, Deuschle explained.
In Cambodia, there is a stigma attached to women who have been trafficked, which makes it difficult for them to break out of their predicament, she said.
“Virginity is very highly honored,” Deuschle said. “If you’ve been working in the sex industry, you have no honor, no respect. Most of them come from poor families and they are very uneducated. So what are their options? And their families very often turn their backs on them.”
Much of her work focused on helping women break the cycle of their circumstances. It all started with teaching them “soft” life skills.
“We were really ambitious and wanted to teach them business skills and accounting,” she said. “What they needed to learn was how to make eye contact with someone. They needed to learn basic interaction. When you have basically been raped for a year, you have to relearn everything: how to read and write, how to show up on time, how to shake someone’s hand and smile and make eye contact.”
Despite some of the hardships that were inherent to her projects, Deuschle said she lived a great life in Cambodia, met people from all over the world and generally felt safe, although she noted that nighttime could bring about some scary situations.
She said she doesn’t pat herself on the back or consider herself to be an “awesome person” for the type of work that she’s done in Cambodia. Instead, she feels a type of quiet, inner happiness.
“It just makes me feel good.”