The third country Shanan and I visited on our artisan tour in Asia was Cambodia. The people of Cambodia have endured a great deal in a span of time shorter than my lifetime. Here is a very brief history; after the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia, the communist Khmer Rouge regime took power. What followed was years of devastation, mass killings, torture and fear. From 1975 to 1979, led by the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, there was a reign of terror in this small country. In 4 years, nearly 2 million Cambodians were murdered. Under the government that followed a full pardon was given to all members of the Khmer Rouge for the genocide and atrocities they had committed, this was a slap in the face to the surviving Cambodian People. In 1993, a mere 20 years ago, peace came to Cambodia. Since then, the country has struggled to find growth and prosperity while surrounded by the remnants of war, the rule of a dictator and a communist government. The endless list of challenges they still face include land mines, extreme poverty, lack of infrastructure, lack of jobs and a population left deeply wounded both physically and psychologically.
We didn’t know what to expect as we headed for Phnom Penh on the last leg of our tour. Our reading told us Cambodia is a place you will fall in love with or feel completely overwhelmed by. We settled in, after some hotel switching drama, and were ready to find out which side of the love/hate relationship we would develop with the Kingdom of Cambodia. We fell in love! Cambodia is chaos with seemingly no traffic rules, huge SUVs, whole families on scooters, hundreds of tuk tuks pulled by motorcycles and bicycles all weaving in and out, and somehow not running in to each other. Cambodia is beautiful with temples and bright orange clad monks everywhere you look. Cambodia is joyful and filled with smiles. The Cambodian people amazingly find a way to include kindness and laughter in each day.
Buy The Change works with a non-profit called Craftworks Cambodia which was founded to give disabled Cambodians access to a market for their handmade goods. We aren’t talking about arts and crafts here, these people are highly skilled sewers, weavers and jewelry makers. Craftworks Cambodia works with dozens of independent crafts people around the city and in surrounding villages. Sapbay, the founder and director of Craftworks Cambodia who was once a refugee himself, was kind enough to introduce us to many of them.
We visited a woman living with HIV/Aids. Her husband died of AIDS several years ago. She earns enough money with her sewing and beading to support herself and her daughter who is now attending university. Her daughter was home that day helping her mother add beading to an order of blouses.
We visited the workshop of Srey Kimsean and Srey Mach . Kimsean caught polio as a child and wears a brace on her damaged leg, Mach lost her leg in a land mine explosion many years ago. These two women are the creators of our popular Elephant Bags and our new Recycled Feed Bag IPhone cases. They are challenged daily with the fact that their workshop is on the second floor up a very steep flight of stairs. This may slow them down a bit but it certainly never stops them.
Srey Oun , we have written about her story in previous blog posts, was the victim of an acid attack during a dispute with a neighbor 14 years ago and was left severely disfigured and blind. She supports her elderly mother and young daughter with the income she earns crocheting bags for Buy The Change and other fair trade companies. She keeps her face covered but showed it to us and it was difficult not to react when seeing the pain she has endured.
Along with her husband and several apprentices, this wonderful mother creates the Recycled Bombshell Jewelry we are so excited to add to our inventory for Spring. He was raised in an orphanage and she was born in a refugee camp, together they have come so far. We had to rethink our philosophy concerning selling items made exclusively by women. This couple works together, side by side, every day. They are raising two chldren and working very hard to create a better life for them. It didn’t seem right to exclude them and these great products because she has a husband to share her life and workload with. We learned that empowering whole families is empowering women.
Hopefully, this short introduction to a few of our artisans in Cambodia will help you understand how important and life changing your purchases are to real people working hard every day to create better lives for themselves and their children.
As always, Thank you so much for joining us on this journey. Together we are changing lives one bag, blanket and piece of jewelry at a time.