The Liberty Gazette
March 27, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Following our (fairly) fearless feat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, our feet freshly furbished by fish, we would have one more night at our hosts’ exquisite traditional Khmer wooden house. We had climbed through ancient temple ruins, watched the sun set behind Angkor Wat, the largest Buddhist temple, toured a silk farm, boated around the floating village on the Tonle Sap, experienced Pub Street, and gained a new friend, Alex, the hard-working young man with the entrepreneurial spirit who drove us all about town. The one other item high on our list was the Cambodian Circus.
This is no Barnum & Bailey–Ringling Bros. It’s an exhibition of life before the Khmer Rouge, through the genocide, and the restoration journey since. This “circus” will break your heart and make it leap in your chest as you cheer because the story is real and there is still so much healing needed—personal tragedy beyond comprehension. It is painful, powerful, and hopeful.
“Phare” was organized with the intent to provide a way for children in poverty to learn a skill and earn a living, to rise from atrocities of genocide and foreign occupation and to keep Cambodian heritage alive.
In 1994, nine young Cambodians and their teacher, Veronique Decrop, returned from a refugee camp near the Thai border to create a school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (“brightness of the arts”). Many of the students had spent their childhood at the Site 2 camp in Battambang. Ms. Decrop and other French volunteers taught them to use art to cope with trauma, poverty, and abuse. She would help children overcome and rebuild their society. To this end, the organization grew to offer classes in visual and performing arts, with academic and social support.
We claimed our seats under the small tent. With few props and no nets, the troupe performed “Sokha,” a story about a child haunted by war. Her memories of the Khmer Rouge combine with surreal visions and nightmares to create a distorted and bleak reality. Scenes move from her happy days at school to the invasion of her town. As she tosses in her sleep, a live band carries the mood and supports the action: acrobats leap into the air only to fall violently to the bang of gunshots, one after another after another. An artist rolls out his easel and paints stunning portraits to fit the moments: beautiful homes and countryside replaced by the darkness of war, starvation, and fear; faces of evil; then a new sunrise as the small, scared refugee discovers her strength through art and finds the tools to heal herself and her community.
The acrobats flipped, danced, and balanced atop each other. Their muscles were upstaged only by their dedication to show the long term effects suffered by post–war victims and that art is still providing a powerful way to heal and rebuild their country.
Deep and purposeful, Phare provides a hope for tomorrow in Cambodia.