In front of an audience of nuns and other young children, a little angel struggles to curl her tiny fingers to signify a fruit. It is late December of 1974 and, unknown to everyone in the room, the child is performing one of the last Apsara dances before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
The photograph may seem like only a snapshot in time, but behind the smiling faces and intense stare of a young Apsara pupil lies a story that touches upon a theme that all of us should consider around this holiday season.
In the 1970s, well-intentioned Cambodian parents did anything they could to send their young children overseas in hopes of a better life. But, in the end, they unknowingly assigned them to a life that none of them could have predicted.
These children were mostly from elite families, even though the program was meant for the rural poor, and they were some of the last children to leave Phnom Penh before its fall in 1975.
They were loved and cared for by Western families, and were given opportunities, freedoms and luxuries many children today could only dream of.
But they also grew up feeling different, and their life seemed artificial; they didn’t seem to fit as their parents had imagined.
They were too young to remember their Cambodian roots, yet they didn’t feel right in their new home.
Rather than fulfilling their parents’ wishes by prospering and changing the world, they were haunted by the burning desire to find the world they had left behind.
Many years later, some of them returned to Cambodia, only to find their parents had been killed and their identities were lost.
Even today, there are children who don’t even know if their parents are still alive.
The good intentions of parents to give their young children the chance of a better life are often fraught with uncertainty and risk.
Indeed, nearly 42 years later, in a small town in Connecticut, in the US, parents sent their first-graders off to school, unaware that their good-morning hug and daily goodbye would be the last opportunity to see them alive.
This message comes not as a sober note to think of the world’s dangers; nor should one lose faith in mankind’s nature.
We should look instead to the hearts of young children.
Without worry or sadness, a child’s outlook on the world reminds us that although our planet is still coloured by evil and danger, there is still a hope that mankind can be better.
In 2013, the Documentation Center of Cambodia wants to remind everyone to reflect on the innocent wonder behind these young eyes. Indeed, in the eyes of our children, hope is far from dead.
As we bid farewell to one year and wonder about the unpredictable future, be mindful that the spirit of hope continues to live.
From the staff of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.