Exploring Healing and Development in Cambodia

Fuertes and students presented with an oil painting as a gesture of cooperation between Mason and the Buddhists for Education of Cambodia
Fuertes and students presented with an oil painting as a gesture of cooperation between Mason and the Buddhists for Education of Cambodia

Over winter break, New Century College associate professor Al Fuertes led 13 undergraduate and graduate students on the course NCLC 498 Post-Genocide Community Development and Spirituality in Cambodia.

Fuertes’s goal in organizing the course was to help students recognize the resilience of survivors of extreme violence and the impact that development and spirituality can have in peace building and community recovery.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the people of Cambodia witnessed extreme violence as a result of the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, which ended in 1991. During this period, experts estimate that 2 to 3 million Cambodians were killed.

In bringing students to Cambodia, Fuertes says, “I want them to understand the importance of resilience in the wake of such violence. Also, we should understand the crucial role of civil society in bringing about peace, healing and development—against the backdrop of crime and corruption.”

Angkor Wat. Photo by Al Fuertes.

Students arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and were immersed in the rich culture and history of the region by visiting and learning about Angkor Wat and its 12th-century architecture. Students then traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, and learned about the Khmer Rouge’s oppressive regime during the mid 1970s. Students also visited red light and slum areas in Phnom Penh where human trafficking is a serious issue.

From Phnom Penh, the group traveled to Battambang where they worked with monks from the Buddhists for Education of Cambodia and the Buddhist University. Mason students visited villages and distributed school supplies to children and household materials to villagers. The group also joined a radio mission and met with several teachers and students in the city. A variety of additional seminars and peace-building projects formed the core of this program.

“[Fuertes] organizes some of the most challenging, demanding, and impactful study-abroad courses that I can imagine,” says Mason senior Matthew Fry, who has also traveled to the Philippines as part of another of Fuertes’ study-abroad courses.

Fry, a conflict analysis and resolution major, works in the U.S. Department of State in the Office of the Coordinator for Cuban Affairs as an economic officer. So the course work ties into his long-term career aspirations.

“I’m very interested in the capacity of Buddhism to heal traumatized society, and to instill a more peaceful value system,” says Fry. “I also learned, again, to try new lenses when considering the unfamiliar lifestyles of non-Western communities.”

Fry also uses the word “profound” when describing the experience. “I saw the effects of modern slavery [when we] encountered the handler of two preteen victims of human trafficking.”

Fuertes builds in time for students to process what they’ve learned.

“The students were inspired and challenged,” Fuertes says. “Every morning we had moments of reflection. [I find it is] important to provide people with the opportunity to grow and reflect and consider where we go from here.”

The program was conducted in partnership with the Spirit in Education Movement and the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies. Fuertes wanted to be sure that students understood and appreciated the importance of spiritualty and its usefulness as a tool for peace building.

Fuertes will direct another international course this summer in the Philippines. The 6-credit course, Human Trafficking, Environmental Issues and Grassroots Peacebuilding, will be offered through Mason’s Center for Global Education.