Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Gift of Freedom (by my cousin, Lori Cameron)

Some years ago, I had a Cambodian student in my class. He struggled heroically with both speaking and writing English but finished with a C minus. In spite of his difficulty, he came to class every week wearing a big smile on his broad, beautiful face. I had warmed to him considerably during the term, so, when he stayed after class the last day—as he was inclined to do—I sat down and talked to ...him for longer than usual. Our conversation drifted to his home country, and he began—in his faltering English—to describe what it was like to live under the Khmer Rouge. I sat speechless as he described how people were driven from their homes and either killed execution-style or forced to march for days to slave labor camps where they were forced to work for the regime. He said one word of protest, one false move could get you killed. At one point, I stopped him and asked, “How do you LIVE in such circumstances? How do you survive?” He replied, “You do work the government give you, and you keep mouth shut.”

I could feel the strength leaving my body. My student then described his break for freedom. He said that Cambodians often rushed the Thailand border en masse, making it difficult for the soldiers to catch or kill them all. Some were caught. Some were killed. Some were severely injured, but many made it across safely. My student and the group he was in rushed the border under cover of night, and, while my student made it across unscathed, another man was shot. Once across, he helped the injured man make it to one of the refugee camps set up across the border where the American Red Cross was helping the sick and injured. The man was treated and lived. After some time, my student learned that some Americans had donated money earmarked for airfare so that some of the refugees could come to live in America. Against all odds, my student acquired a plane ticket and came to the United States. He said he lived here a while, got married, had kids, then decided to go to college and learn computer programming. He wanted to get a better job to provide for his family. I asked him later, “How did you feel when your plane landed? What did you do?” He replied, “I got off plane, got down on my knees, and kissed ground.”

I cried all the way home that night. I realized that sometimes I cloister myself into a tiny world of slights and imagined wrongs. Sometimes, I think I am the victim. That night, I realized that I lived in the greatest country in the world, and at times I hardly acted like it. I get impatient standing in line at the grocery store—a store filled with more food and greater variety than can be found most anywhere in the world. I get frustrated in traffic, but I’m driving a car with soft seats, music, and air-conditioning. I sigh heavily when my flight is delayed, but I can travel freely in this country, anytime I want, anywhere I want. I can speak my mind and worship as I please. I have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I make my own choices and mark my own destiny. It seems to me that the people who come here from other countries—people who have fled civil war, famine, poverty, and oppression—are the ones who appreciate this country the most. They understand. They feel the contrast right down to their bones. We cling to our curmudgeonly ways.

When we start to cloister ourselves in our tiny worlds, we must stop. We must go the other way. We must make our world bigger. Make it stretch across the ocean to another place. Make it reach all the way to Cambodia—under cover of night.

Tomorrow is Independence Day. The liberty we have is a precious gift—given to us by God and by men and women willing to lay down their lives to keep us safe. I hope that in the midst of the fun, we remember that we possess the single most valuable thing a country can ever give its people, and the thing so many people would willingly risk their lives for—freedom. by, guest writer, Lori Cameron