I Am Because We Are

 Young Mercy Links Immersion Participants with Sister Denise Coghlan and Tun Channareth ‘Reth’ at Metta Karuna Reflection Centre. Learning about the Jesuit Refugees Service Advocacy efforts and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.


In December 2023, 10 young women from Young Mercy Links Victoria and South Australia travelled to Cambodia for a 10-day immersion accompanied by Young Mercy Links (YML) Coordinators Angela Scarafilo and Gaby Kinsman and YML Mentor, Meredith Evans.


Over the year leading up to the trip, members raised funds to provide materials for a house building project that is run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in which we would be taking part. The intention of the journey was not only immersion with the people, culture and extensive history of Cambodia, but also to learn lessons in community and togetherness. The structured program involved education and reflection sessions, rituals, hands on volunteering, as well as cultural activities and excursions.


The group spent several days in Phnom Penh, where they learnt about contemporary Cambodian culture and also reflected on the Khmer Rouge genocide which is still so recent in the country’s history. Through visits to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, the experience provoked a broader discussion about the brutal regime and its effects on modern day Cambodia. Participants were shocked and deeply moved by the atrocities that occurred and much time was spent in personal reflection. While confronting, the importance of remembering and understanding this history is integral to the reconciliation and peace of the Cambodian people and inspired empathy as well as an unwavering sense of justice within us. After a visit to the Cambodia Peace Gallery, we were astounded by the culture of Cambodia and how its Buddhist roots allowed a unique path to forgiveness and ultimately peace. We pondered on how useful this approach would be for current global conflicts.


Our group also paid a visit to Bishop Kike Figaredo in Battambang, who is known as the ‘Bishop of Wheelchairs’, Kike has worked alongside Sister Denise Coghlan for over 30 years and devoted his life to serving as an advocate and support system to people with disabilities. Many people have been inflicted by the landmines still littered throughout the landscape, a consequence of the Khmer Rouge regime. Our meeting with Bishop Kike instilled in us the importance of community and solidarity. We were also invited to join him and the children of the Arrupe Centre on an early morning walk and ride. This time together and the opportunity for encounter had a profound impact on our members and their understanding of resilience and gratitude. Even with language barriers and physical restrictions, we journeyed together singing and laughing.


Metta Karuna Reflection Centre.


We spent six nights at the Metta Karuna Reflection Centre in Siem Reap with Sister Denise Coghlan, who has devoted her life to the people of Cambodia. Our time here felt like a home away from home. Once we drove through the front gates, an instant air of calm and a true feeling of being present washed over us. Sister Denise and her staff warmly welcomed us and gave us a refuge from the hustle and bustle of our own thoughts and the personal struggles that weighed us down.



Sister Meredith Evans with ‘Reth’ and our early morning walk and ride with the children from the Arrupe Centre.


As part of experiencing Cambodia’s rich cultural treasures, including a slightly disappointing sunrise at the otherwise beautiful Angkor Wat, the group was introduced to Reth, an inspiring landmine survivor, who heads the house-building project for vulnerable people. On perhaps one of the hardest-working days of our lives, the group assisted in building a house for a young, single mother with an intellectual disability. In instances such as this one, the community comes together to help build houses for those who need them. Community members aren’t paid to do this task, but do it for the love of their family and neighbours.


Following the house building, we had a session with Reth where he spoke of his life story and the many challenges and obstacles he has faced as a double amputee. He talked of his resilience, determination and giving back. We heard about his work with the JRS and his role in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which led to him travelling the world as an advocate and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for the team’s efforts. Personally holding this golden medal and being witness to Reth’s strength and determination brought our members to tears. It was a transformative encounter we will likely never forget. We also helped Reth and his team construct several wheelchairs specifically designed for the uneven Cambodian terrain.


During our time constructing the walls and flooring of the house for a young woman, Tak Na Si, we shared in an invaluable sense of community, compassion and belonging. These feelings are often lacking in our busy lives in Australia. Since our return to Australia, Tak Na Si’s family and community will have completed the remainder of the build.


The time we shared will be treasured by each and every one of us, not only for the learning and memories we will keep, but for the unwavering togetherness we have experienced, a connection with the land, the community and each other. As the proverb goes, ‘I am because we are’.


Sunrise at Angkor Wat.


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