Survival, Much Like Smiling, Is Universal - My Family Travels

My time in Cambodia had brought me many challenges. I had a running fever with no access to trustworthy medical care, I was fumbling with cultural differences and customs, and we worked long days teaching English in schools that lacked the blessing of air conditioning. Yet despite numerous difficulties, Cambodia had blessed me with experiences and memories that would stay with me forever. Little did I know that by the time this summer had passed and the next had come, Cambodia would help me rise to meet a gut-wrenching trial.


Boarding a turbulent flight to a third world country, I had expected differences. Yet, it was the similarities that moved me. I found myself relating to the people of Cambodia. A gap quickly closed as I realized that humans, no matter the location, are similar in many ways. We crave the same basic necessities; security, love, and a beautiful life. I learned that some things are not universal, such as waving. But others, like smiling, are understood no matter the language.

One particular area of outreach had been my calling to board the thirty hour flight across the world. Since I was young, combating the sexual trafficking and enslavement of youth has been a passion of mine. While in Cambodia, we had the honor of working in victim’s shelters. As I walked through the doors of the home, I found a cluster of smiling faces, each belong to a beautiful young girl. Despite having been sold for a price no human being should ever be reduced to, they welcomed us with a bravery and happiness that astounded me. I was showered with hugs, giggles, and laughter. Suddenly, I saw the peers of my eight year old sister and my six year old niece. I saw pajama parties and singing camp songs. These little girls were so similar to my family, and to me. Seeing them play like normal kids while knowing the atrocities and horrors they had once been subjected to, my heart was broken with empathy. In the short day I spent with those girls, I was showed love like I had never seen it. 

Less than a year later, with the American school year in full swing and my days in Cambodia behind me, I was raped. The event had followed many already brewing personal struggles. If I had been clinging to the edge of a cliff before, it had dragged me to the depths.  I found myself ridden with shame, anxiety, panic attacks and fits of hysteria, flashbacks, and deep bouts of suicidal depression. I felt disconnected and dissociated. My friends and family seemed far from me, and I couldn’t free myself from the isolation. The path to happiness, and connection to those around me, was difficult. I looked back to those girls I’d met and found strength.

Though Cambodia struggled with difficulties that were vastly different than those I had faced in my first world upbringing, it was also similar. Just like I saw myself in those survivors before, I can see myself in them now. I relate to them through a horrific experience I had never hoped to be able to have say I had experienced. Yet, just as it made them stronger, so it did with me. We choose our reactions to the world. We can let it make us hard, or we can continue to choose to see it as beautiful. We can continue to connect and to love. And just as a girl in a shelter in Asia chose the latter, so will a college bound girl in America.

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