The Metabolic Center Story
Written by Terry Kellogg.
In 24 months of the late 1970s between 1.5 and 2 million persons were murdered and starved to death. Several more million were driven from their homes. Cities were evacuated and education camps with inhumane conditions were set up. This nightmare occurred in Cambodia , a SE Asian country about the size of the state of Missouri with a population at the time of the genocide about seven million people. Cambodia is considered a constitutional monarchy but presently control is in the hands of a single individual, while the king is more of a figurehead.
From the mid tenth century until the mid fifteenth century Cambodia was the power center of SE Asia. Today two million visitors a year flock to the Seam Reap region to visit the ancient temple complexes which with their elaborate irrigation borays cover 5 centuries of construction and several hundred square miles. After the 1400s Cambodia began losing its status and land to the neighboring countries. In the mid nineteenth century it became part of French Indochina. This lasted for almost a century and the French influence ,though still present especially in the cities and towns, never really overwhelmed the Cambodian culture. One can still see the Hindu/Buddhist background and the fishing/rice culture lifestyle. There is a languid beauty to the flat riceland countryside bordered by lush mountainous forest. The climate is warm and humid, the population friendly and often shy.
The twentieth century saw a rapid destabilization of this country. This took place as a result of several interwoven factors including ineffective leadership and frequent internal political conflicts. Problems also stemmed from the use of Cambodia as a supply and troop movement conduit for the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam conflict. In addition there was a growing communist cell organized by Cambodian “intellectuals “who had been highly influenced by the communist movement while studying in France. This group was supported and manipulated by the communist parties of the surrounding countries.
The modern conflicts in Cambodia had actually begun over twenty years earlier as a struggle for independence from France. The years of continuing tensions in the 1960s and early 70s set the stage for this relatively small group of fanatical communists under the leadership of a man called Pol Pot to take over the entire country. His delusional goal of a strictly agrarian society led him to empty the cities and direct the slaughter of entire classes of Cambodians. Anyone found to have education, a profession, artistic talent, leadership experience or were simply suspected of not being a simple farmer were eliminated.
Rice was being exported while millions of Cambodians were starving, schools and factories were abandoned, public works projects were halted or simply failed because the competent engineers had been eliminated. The result of these years of terror and slaughter reverberates through families and the culture to this day.
Two of the sites for this torture and carnage are visited each year by thousands of people from all over the world. The Killing Fields is a well known monument but the Tuol Seng school, where the thousands who were tortured and murdered were actually photographed and documented ,is one of the more disturbing historical sites on the planet. Duc, the director of this facility, was the only member of the Khmer Rouge ever tried and convicted by the international tribunal set up to deal with these crimes. The fighting in Cambodia which began in the 1950s was to continue for almost 50yrs with the final skirmishes in the mid to late 90s.
The results of these decades of war and genocide include a high adult mortality rate, a dearth of teachers, engineers, medical personnel and leadership. The country’s industries disappeared, agriculture disrupted and infrastructure destroyed. Virtually the entire remaining population suffered from physical and emotional stress reactions and post trauma related disorders. Almost all Cambodians lost family members, many entire families were murdered.
My first arrival in the late 90’s was a short visit to pick up our recently adopted daughter. There were and still are thousands of orphans in Cambodia and many more children whose families are too poor to feed or care for them. I had traveled through impoverished nations before but the situation in Cambodia struck me in a visceral way, maybe the pain was contrasted with the joy of meeting my new daughter who at two years old had already survived incredible abandonment and trauma.
Travel was still dangerous. Even though the Khmer Rouge had lost control of the government they were still active and armed. The country had roving gangs who maintained their war mentality. This situation wasn’t to change for several years.
My wife and I were somewhat prepared for our daughters trauma reactions and understood to some extent the culture in which she had been living. We were both therapists who had dealt with trauma in many of its manifestations.
I had come from a violent alcoholic family and had spent about 25 years counseling, writing, lecturing and setting up programs for survivors of abuse, neglect and various forms of trauma. Several of these programs dealt with the continuing responses to trauma and sanctuary betrayal; including addiction, depression, relationship issues, lack of self esteem , anxiety disorders and general self destructive tendencies. I was fortunate to have been involved organizing some of the early programs for addiction treatment, alcoholic family members support , codependency, domestic violence, sexual abuse programs for survivors and offenders and helped found Viet Nam veterans family programs. For the past 15 years I had been training health professionals in the dynamics and resolution of trauma while also working on expanding the concept of trauma to include the results of betrayed sanctuary, especially family violence and chronic stress settings.
In 2003 I returned to Cambodia in an attempt to locate my daughter’s birth family. I did locate a family that was involved in her arrival at the orphanage and claimed to be her birth family. A few years later we discovered it was a scam. I understood it was perpetrated by this family for survival but it did cause a great deal of pain in my family.
What I did find on that trip, amongst all of the poverty and corruption, was a group of 28 children who had either been orphaned or came from families with no means to care for them. They had been assembled on a property owned by my driver who was assisting my search.
Mr. Pole was the lone survivor of a wealthy Cambodian family who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. He had worked for the UN, taught and supervised educational programs and had spent several years working for an adoption agency. he was using his salary to gather and care for this group of children. His goal was education not adoption. He had been a teacher and believed educating these children was the best addition he could make toward the rebuilding of his country. Unfortunately the United States had just declared an adoption block which is still in place over ten years later. With no more USA adoptions Mr pole lost his income and the funding for these children.
During my search for my daughter’s birth family Pole and I shared a lot of our history and stories. In a short time we had become like brothers and I was completely smitten with his lively, curious ,playful group of children. After a few calls to my ex wife in the USA we made a decision to take on at least partial support of this project. A short time later a Japanese Buddhist monk ,who had also made a financial commitment to the Palm Tree Center, pulled out and we were left with the entire budget. Fortunately within a few months a couple, Raoul and Bettina Witteveen, entered the picture and began funding the project under their foundation. Help for projects also comes from David Davenport and the Three Sisters Fund and John Ryan as well as many others.
John and Nina Soileau, the founders of Metabolic Research joined up by helping us pay expenses and purchase property for agriculture and expansion. This orphanage grew to house 93 children. Most of this original group now have good jobs while others are pursuing university degrees and job training.
With the funding from the Witteveen foundation providing for the Palm Tree center and with the personal and financial support of John and Nina Soileau I was able to get involved in other efforts, including a village early age school project.
At the time only a small percentage of children from poor villages were attending the over crowded understaffed public schools. In establishing fourteen local schools for ages three to six in the very impoverished province of Kong Pong Speu ,we were able to raise the number of children from these villages moving on to the government schools to about 90%.
Within a few days after the school openings we noticed several children hanging out long after classes were finished. We discovered these children had no home to go home to.
In 2007 we established an orphanage to take care of these 17 homeless school children. This center is called the APCA Metabolic Children’s Center and presently cares full time for 97 children on the property donated by the family of the center’s director, Mr. Sim Dara. This centers expenses are funded by the Metabolic Research Foundation.
Without this funding many of our children would be living on the streets or become part of the community that lives on the public dump. The children raised in villages and whose parents always seemed to accumulate debt, real or falsified, before they died, would remain in their villages until sold or be passed around as chattel to serve whatever needs of whatever group claimed the debt. Of course the debt would keep increasing so the only freedom would be running away. We often have had to cover this debt before children were released by the village officials.
With your donations, we can join together to put a stop to many of the atrocities the Children of Cambodia face every day.