University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
Beyond the Bubble
Beyond the Bubble
Being born and raised in America, I've always led a comfortable life. I grew up in Strongsville, a community on the west side of Cleveland. There, I experienced, what many would call, a suburbia lifestyle. I lived in a medium sized home with ample yard space. I attended a small public school and played a variety of rec sports, trying to find an athletic calling. At that time, my biggest worries were related to school and girls.
Growing up, my family didn't go on many oversea trips. The transcontinental vacations we did take were always to the same place, my family's country of origin, Cambodia. Although the trip destinations were always the same, each visit felt as amazing and exhilarating as the last. We often visited different ancient monuments. During the times we weren't sight-seeing, we were eating, enjoying food, that when finished, left the body craving more. Cambodia's tropical weather was always a pleasant change from Cleveland's seasonal climate. Unlike in Cleveland, Cambodia was always bright and sunny. There was never a need for coats or jackets. Being such an old country, Cambodia had numerous customs and traditions, all of which were intriguing and interesting. Learning more about each tradition revealed more about what countries influenced Cambodia in the past. In the eyes of my younger self, Cambodia was a paradise, a utopia I would later call home. When I learned about my parents' intentions of moving to Cambodia, I was ecstatic. In my mind, the move was a longer version of one of our vacations. And for a duration of time, it was. We ate good food. We went sightseeing. Cambodia was still the paradise I remembered from my visits. When my school year started, we stopped visiting tourist sites. Busy with homework, my brothers and I couldn't go anywhere. The only times we left the house were to commute to school, which required us to drive through the city. The first few commutes, I didn't notice anything different, I was always preoccupied with the car's TV. However, one morning, I decided to look outside and watch the scenery instead.
As a child, I've always naturally looked for other kids. This situation wasn't any different. The moment we entered the city, my eyes drifted to the sidewalk many of the children were at. What I saw out my window shocked me. On both sides of the road, there were children working. The older kids and teenagers were all doing manual labor. If they were at a construction site, they were tasked with carrying equipment, everything from cement to hammers. At small shops, they were unloading products and packages from shipping trucks or motorcycles.
The younger kids, too weak for manual labor, had a different job. Each of the kids stood at the side of the road, carrying little woven flower arrangements. At first, I was confused. I thought they were playing. I didn't realize they were working until the flow of traffic stopped. When the cars stopped moving, all the kids left the sidewalk, venturing onto the packed road. Each kid approached a car, holding out their decorated arms and gesturing to the driver, trying to sell their flower arrangements. Those who were successful in selling an arrangement, jumped up in celebration, excitedly waving a bill as if it was a gift from heaven. After watching the kids run around, I noticed one girl, my age at the time, holding a baby. Her left hand held the flowers while her right hand was used to balance the baby on her hip. She was wearing a faded hello-kitty t-shirt, lined with holes and streaks of dust. The baby was a boy, naked and caked in dirt. He had streaks of old tears under his eyes, the remnants of a tantrum. Although the girl was carrying extra weight, she moved around the street with the most ease, gracefully dancing around the cars and motorcycles.
I had so many questions about those kids. I wanted to know more about: how they lived. Why weren't they in school? Where were their parents? My curiosity led to a series of dark revelations. Those flower sellers, the kids weaving around cars, were being taken from their families. Their parents, in desperate need of financial support, gave them up for money. In some cases, those sellers were orphans. Regardless of their background, they did the same job and had the same pay, almost nothing. All the money they received ended up in the hands of their employer, their handler, an adult who has no qualms about preying on the weak. In instances where a child was unable to sell anything, he or she was beaten and not given any food. At night, after work, these kids have no home to return to. I remember one night, on my way home from the city, I glanced out the window and noticed kids sleeping on the sidewalk, the same kids I saw working earlier that the day. They were huddled together, using their arms as pillows, trying to stay warm in the cold night. They were all wearing the same clothes they had been so tirelessly working in.
Through my parents, I learned that my grandfather was also an orphan. His mother passed away in childbirth and his father died when he was young. If it weren't for the temple that took him and his brother in, they may have ended up like the kids I saw on the street. Sadly, the sort of struggle and abuse I witnessed doesn't just occur in Cambodia. Similar schemes occur all around the world. The National Human Rights Commission of India has reported that 40,000 kids are abducted each year to supply the Indian cartel's child begging business. Like their Cambodian counterparts, these kids are rewarded and punished by how much money they raise. In pursuit of pity and compassion money, these cartels cripple their working kids.
According to the nonprofit organization, Child Liberation Foundation, over 4 million kids worldwide are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. They're taken from their families and are forced to work. Imagine, all the comforts and enjoyment we experience as a child, playing with friends, having dinner with one's family, and even school, being ripped away. These kids were not just being used but were being robbed of their childhood. At a young age, they were forced to give up their innocence and were dropped into an adult situation, to fend for themselves. They were denied an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to play, an opportunity to be a child.
The moment I made these discoveries, a flood of emotions engulfed me. I was bouncing between three main emotions: anger, guilt, and sadness. I remember clenching my fists, grinding my teeth, trying to find a logical reason for someone wanting to exploit innocent kids. That anger slowly morphed into guilt. I felt bad for living in such a comfortable life when others, kids my age, were struggling and being abused. That guilt transformed into sadness. I slowly began to relive different memories, drives and commutes through the city, looking out the window and watching young kids work. As each memory finished, I remember feeling heartache and hopelessness. Eventually, all three emotions slowly faded into the back of my mind, leaving a single urge in their wake.
I was inspired, motivated to find a way to help these kids. And with the support of my parents, I did. Whenever there was an opportunity to buy the flower arrangements, we would do so. However, in addition to paying for the purchase, we would also give the kids food and drink. All our vehicles were always stocked with snacks, fruits, and beverages dedicated to just being given out. Although our actions may have seemed small, it meant a lot to the kids. Their smiles told us that. Whenever they received the food, they always accepted it with their hands together, bowing, thanking us for the gifts we gave them. My goal now is to find a more lasting way to help them.
I urge you all to do something similar, something that would help better the lives of those being denied a childhood. One way to do so, is to support any non-profit organization that focuses on helping kids. Many non-profits and NGOs have been made to support and better the lives of these children, most of which focus on schooling. They strive to give mistreated and impoverished children an opportunity to learn. One example of such an organization is the Cambodian Children Fund or the CCF. This fund is focused on creating a community for kids, providing them with all the basic necessities of life and more. This organization gives Cambodian kids a safe place to learn, live, and grow. I encourage you all to donate to this fund.
At the end of the day, I want to leave you all with one main lesson. If you see someone in need, regardless of who they are or how they look, stop and help. Any and all efforts are appreciated, regardless of how big the impact. By volunteering your time to help others, you're playing a part in making the world a better place. So, I urge you, as someone who's seen how difficult some lives can be, to find a way to help others.