Next Tuesday I will journey 8,872 miles (this is by the Great Circle route; it will be farther in airmiles) from my home in Philadelphia and spend three months in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The story of why I am planning to do this begins 56 years ago, when I was 18 years old.
A man by the name of James Robinson gave a speech at my high school on a snowy evening during my senior year in the winter of 1966. In his remarks, he told the students about an organization he had founded called Operation Crossroads Africa. His motivation in forming the organization was twofold: First, although he was an ordained minister, he thought that Africans needed clean water, literacy, education, and public health more than they needed his particular message about God. Second, he was both alarmed at the dissolute and profligate behavior of American youth but confident that we had good hearts and could be inspired to commit ourselves to helping others. Crossroads arranged for small groups of American students to spend the summer in Africa, matched with counterpart groups of Africans of the same age, and to engage in projects such as teaching or construction.
ZOT! I was hooked. I matched perfectly Reverend Robinson’s prototype. I knew that helping others was to be my goal in life. I stayed up all night, writing my application. Six months later, I was in Bangui, the capital of the six-year old Central African Republic, with nine other American students and a counterpart group of Central Africans. We built a youth center and learned a lot about each other. I also caught bush typhus and almost died, but that is a different story.
Later, I tried valiantly to follow up on this start. I earned my graduate degrees from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and then applied to and was admitted to the U.S. Foreign Service. Reluctantly I decided to decline the offer because I was concerned about what I considered to be the moral indifference of American foreign policy at the time, as designed and implemented by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger One of the most egregious examples of this moral indifference (I am thinking of more graphic words but will restrain myself) was the American bombing and invasion of Cambodia. The devastation was both immediate and long-lasting. Perhaps the most devastating was the destruction of the social and economic systems of Cambodia, which led directly to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Not only were millions of Cambodians killed during the reign of terror, but even today, half-a-century later, the impacts are still felt.
Somewhat later, I applied to and was offered a job on Senator Ted Kennedy’s Sub-committee on Refugees. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory when the position – politically expendable – was unfunded and I lost the chance to make a difference in the lives of some of the world’s most destitute and needy. Ironically, as will be revealed in a few paragraphs, my effort to join Senator Kennedy took place during the same time as the “Killing Fields,” when the Khmer Rouge was terrorizing Cambodia. One of the refugees whose life Kennedy literally saved (all Cambodians living overseas at the time were immediately put to death if they returned home) was a man named Chanthol Sun.
Then life happened to me. Work, marriage, mortgage, children, tuition, health insurance, and all the other consequences of being human in 20th century America influenced many of the choices I made. The idealism of my youth was never extinguished, but was put on temporary hold. I often thought about the dreams of my youth, and occasionally lamented the missed chances. In the meantime, I tried in small ways to express my solidarity with those who suffered, including by becoming an 8-gallon blood donor.
Eventually, retirement appeared on the screen of my over-the-horizon radar. I decided that I would reject the concept of “retirement” and simply transition to a new career, one which had always been an unspoken goal of mine. I spent the first nine years of my “life after I stopped working for an employer” writing the book I had been imagining for decades. Titled There Are No Foreign Lands, this book focuses on moral values and dispositions that I admired in other people from many different countries. These values and dispositions were, not surprisingly, the same as those to which I aspired (but I had in some cases forgotten or blocked out during my working years). This writing project had the unintended but salutary effect of re-energizing the idealism of my youth.
One of the individuals I profiled in the book was this man named Chanthol Sun, to whom I referred in passing three paragraphs ago. Chanthol is Cambodian, born in a small, agricultural village outside Phnom Penh. He was a teenager as the American involvement in Vietnam and its subsequent invasion of Cambodia took place. Luckily for him, he had managed to escape to the United States before the Khmer Rouge imprisoned his country. When he graduated from college, his student visa expired and overnight he became a refugee. This is when Ted Kennedy sponsored legislation that granted Green Cards to all Cambodians in America. There is a long story about what happened next and it is explained in detail in my book. Leaping ahead, Chanthol today serves as Minister of Public Works and Transport in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Meanwhile, an Australian man named Scott Neeson was running Twentieth Century Fox International in the United States. Supported by a home overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, a yacht, and all the arm candy he could handle, his life was beyond comfortable. Vacationing in exotic locations was one of his rewards, and he chose Cambodia in the early 21st century. After visiting the obligatory tourist attractions, one day he found himself passing a large, fetid garbage dump. He noticed young children, as young as five or six years of age, barefoot, scavengers in this pile of waste.
His life changed. He was so profoundly moved by what he saw that he quit his job, sold his home in Santa Monica, sold his yacht, bid farewell to his arm candy, moved to Phnom Penh, and founded an organization he called the “Cambodian Children’s Fund.” Starting as a small group of 10 kids, the CCF has grown to an organization supporting 3,000 or more Cambodian children, with the goals of getting them out of the garbage piles, clothing them, feeding them, educating them, and igniting in them the desire and capacity to rise above the misery of their current lives. Noting that another salient feature of Cambodian society is the unusually large number of destitute elderly widows (whose husbands were killed or maimed by the Americans or Khmer Rouge), Scott established a parallel program to support “grannies.” Scott’s satori and its consequences is one of those stories that is so improbable that it would be rejected as lacking in verisimilitude if presented as fiction.
Maybe you have guessed where this almost 60-year crooked footpath is leading. Fundamentally, my life has been dominated by the desire to shorten the distance between my heart and my deed. And now, after too many years diverted from this goal, I have chosen to renew my commitment to serving others. Next week, I will go to Phnom Penh and spend three months (at least, but maybe more) as a volunteer for the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Remembering how important the early years are to the attitudes, aspirations, and moral framework of children, I hope to be assigned to work with boys and girls who are in elementary school, but I will accept any assignment that the CCF labels as a high priority. My decision is mostly motivated by the same emotion that caused Scott Neeson to change his life, although I still lack the courage to change it quite as dramatically as he did. But my decision is also related to my feelings of guilt (not personal guilt – I protested the American war in Cambodia vigorously during my senior year in college) about what my country did to harm Cambodia and the Cambodian people. Maybe in a very small way, I can make infinitely small steps to help Cambodia to rebuild and to give hope to some of its youngest and most vulnerable children. As Peter Singer so wisely advised us, the greatest good can be achieved by expanding the circle of compassion as widely as possible, and focusing our efforts, whether philanthropically or through our physical presence, on those most in need, most at risk, but with the greatest potential to change the world for the better.