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A beacon for the blind

A beacon for the blind

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Blinded in a horrific crime, Buon Mao, 29, was forced to abandon his university studies

and turned to massage as a career. But after over two years at the Seeing Hands massage

center, where he gained a loyal clientele, Mao has been awarded a study scholarship

and now hopes to become an advocate for Cambodia's blind.

MAGIC TOUCH: Mao's 'seeing hands' will be missed by many.

Mao will spend six months in Khon Kaen, Thailand, learning leadership and management

skills and training to use technology for the blind.

"I'm so very happy because I am the first representative of [Cambodia's] blind

to go and study in Thailand," said an excited Mao. "When I come back, I

need to use my knowledge in Cambodia to help the other blind, like set up an association."

The Executive Director of Cambodia's National Center for Disabled Persons, Yi Veasna,

said he nominated Mao for the scholarship because of his enthusiasm and leadership

skills.

"He's very active and has a strong commitment, he has participated for two and

a half years in the NCDP Council of Management, so I think he has potential,"

Veasna said.

"The blind in Cambodia want to have their own voice," he added. "They

need a body which can be strong and help this voice . . . if they have their own

association, they will not have to depend on others."

Mao said that in general, Cambodians don't believe that blind people can be constructive

members of society.

"They don't trust us to have a job, just only working in the family," he

said. "We need to introduce them. . . to write rules for government, to get

people to respect the blind, don't treat them differently, respect their human rights."

Six years ago, Mao was not worried about the rights of the blind. He was a promising

young forestry student, earning extra money as a motodop driver, and looking forward

to a happy life with his fiancee.

But fate struck Mao a horrible blow. Early one morning, he picked up a robber near

Phnom Penh's train station and drove the man to Tuol Kork. Instead of paying, the

robber threw acid into Mao's face and stole his moto.

Mao's face was totally destroyed. His eyes, his nose, his mouth were dissolved by

the powerful acid. Six years and six reconstructive operations later, he has a mouth

and a nose, but his face is still ravaged.

He had to drop out of university, and his fiancee left him - although she did help

him get into Maryknoll's blind training program, which led to the Seeing Hands job.

"I lost everything," he said quietly. "My life changed quickly."

However, the determined Mao completed the training - three years including work in

English, Braille (in English and Khmer), and physiology. He has been at Seeing Hands

for two and a half years, earning at least $100 per month. He lives alone and says

he can take care of himself without any trouble.

"My godsister comes to help now because I'm so busy at work, but before I did

everything myself - cleaning, laundry, sewing, even sharpening knives!" he said.

"We can work and do everything like everyone else."

Mao said he will miss working at Seeing Hands when he goes to Thailand - "my

customers, the masseurs, the receptionists, they're my friends" - and will continue

to massage at least part-time when he returns.

"I [will] still keep massaging because I love it, but when I become old, I cannot

do massage any more, so I need to change and find other skills," he said.

Mao's many regular customers, some of whom have been known to wax lyrical about his

"healing touch", are sorry to see him go.

"He's a man who's made his job into an art," said Beth Deutsch, who will

miss her weekly massages, but is enthusiastic about Mao's new role. "I think

he has a sense of commitment to do the best he can do. . . he will put all of himself

into whatever his task may be."

Mao's course, run by the Christian Foundation for the Blind in Thailand, begins Jun

8.

"I would like to appeal for all people to help Cambodia's blind to have opportunities,"

Mao said. "Help us to open the door."

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