Doreen Ong

singapore american school Mom, singapore 

Tuol Sleng, S121, the high school the Khmer Rouge turned into a horrific torture prison during the days of the Cambodian genocide—  My skin went cold and my heart felt heavy as lead as I stared into the despairing eyes of countless faces in black and white photos—row upon row—of the inmates who had been held, beaten, and most likely killed in that very space.  I read the reasons for their arrest: spoke English or foreign languages, educated, wore glasses, professional, doctor, foreign-influences. That would be me, and all my family, then. All of us would have been arrested, tortured, killed—for merely existing. As I walked, sickened and stunned, through the graphic exhibits, the pain, horror and the burden of the genocide took my breath away.  I could not look away. The world must know. And we must help. Tears fell as I mourned the loss of life, the loss of decency, the rampant, unimaginable evil, the loss of hope—and the legacy of pain that continues in its wake today. This is what our villagers have lived through, I thought.  No wonder it is so hard for the land and the people to recover.  

 Doreen Ong, a mother from Singapore. She joined TASSEL four years ago when her eldest daughter joined the Singapore American School chapter.

Doreen Ong, a mother from Singapore. She joined TASSEL four years ago when her eldest daughter joined the Singapore American School chapter.

Our first introduction to TASSEL was as a high school service activity that my daughters were eager to support. It was visiting Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, however, that helped me better understand the deep, raw need that TASSEL is seeking to meet. Although it has been 40 years since the genocide, today’s generations continue to suffer from its after-effects.  The land is ravaged, educational resources are sorely lacking as a generation of teachers were killed in the genocide, post-traumatic stress disorder continues to affect subsequent generations as marriages fail, children are abandoned, food is scarce, hope is easily lost, and suicide is prevalent. So how can TASSEL help in the face of such daunting odds?

 Doreen with her daughters and two TASSEL students. This is a rice field where the students scavenge for food like clams, tiny fish, frogs, etc.

Doreen with her daughters and two TASSEL students. This is a rice field where the students scavenge for food like clams, tiny fish, frogs, etc.

TASSEL teaches English, which opens doors to higher education and greater future job prospects—a  lifeline out of poverty for rural students. But more importantly, through its Khmer teachers who teach the children day after day, TASSEL teaches self-sacrificing love, trust, and hope. TASSEL founder Joji Tatsugi’s willingness to lay aside a comfortable corporate career to move to Cambodia and dedicate his life and life’s savings to serving the poor speaks more powerfully than words. Teaching the children and the teachers is fun and life-giving. Visiting the families in their homes, hearing about the tragedies and hardships they have faced puts our children’s struggles into context, opens our eyes and breaks our hearts.  Yet when we listen, embrace and often weep with them, I believe it communicates across languages: you are seen, heard, valued and cared for—what happened to you matters. You matter.     

This summer we took our fifth TASSEL trip to Cambodia, and we look forward to more, for we have grown to know and love our TASSEL brothers and sisters.  It is just the beginning. Why are we educated if not to educate others? Why are we blessed if not to bless others? To quote from the biblical book of Esther, “who knows whether you have not come to ..(your present position) for such a time as this?”  We may not be able to do everything, but we can do something, and as we all do our little “something” together, the world will change. Kindness today will change tomorrow. TASSEL is living proof. Come, join us!