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Couple find closure in Cambodia mission
Article Published by The Lebanon Daily News

DAVID MEKEEL Staff Writer Lebanon Daily News

Standing in the middle of his hometown, Vandy Oum couldn't have felt more lost. "When I got there, I didn't recognize anything," he explained. "I asked people, ‘Where's my house?' They said it's not there. It burned down. Everything had burnt down and was rebuilt."

Last month, Oum, his wife, Chhunly, and their daughter, Sulyn, joined a group of doctors led by local ophthalmologist Dr. Albert Alley on a mission to Cambodia. The trip, taken through the organization World Blindness Outreach, was designed to offer much- needed eye surgery to indigent people of the Asian nation. But for the Oums, it was much more.

Both Vandy and Chhunly were born in Cambodia, and both were forced to flee their homeland after communist revolutionaries took control of the country in the mid-1970s. For Vandy, it was a quick escape. A 26-year-old member of the Cambodian army, he was stationed on a boat between Cambodia and Thailand. When communist forces overran the capital in 1975, he and his shipmates quickly fled to the Philippines. He later found his way to America, ending up in Lebanon.

Chhunly, however, wasn't able to escape as easily. As the communists took control of the country, she was forced to leave her home and family behind. She and thousands of other Cambodians were forced to march around the countryside, building roads, bridges and whatever else the communists desired.

She witnessed hundreds of people suffer and die - some of starvation or disease, others at the hands of the communists.

Both Vandy and Chhunly lost large portions of their families. Their homes were destroyed. Their lives forever changed.

In 1979, Chhunly finally made her way out of war-torn Cambodia, also eventually landing in Lebanon. It was here that the two met, brought together by the pain of a shared past and the hope of a bright future. The couple married, had three children, and now, after years of hard work, own several businesses.

But despite the happiness they were able to build in Lebanon, something kept gnawing at their minds. They had to go back. They had to see what had become of their homeland.

After a mutual friend introduced the Oums and Alley, the idea to travel to Cambodia for a mission quickly arose. Alley was a seasoned veteran, making 54 similar trips to countries across the globe.

Before leaving, the Oums had some doubts about making the trip. Chhunly said she wasn't ready to go back, only to be convinced by her husband that it was for a good cause. Safety was also a concern, with their last memories of Cambodia stained in blood.

"It was very hard for me," Chhunly said. "The first day, when I got off the plane, my first feeling was fear."

"We were very scared about safety," Vandy explained. "We thought they'd be looking for us because we were different. But after a day or two, we realized that it was safe. We were able to blend right in."

Their worries eased, the Oums focused on the task at hand.

In five days, the 13-person team performed more than 100 eye surgeries, mostly to rid people of cataracts that had nearly blinded them. Vandy manned the operating room, translating and assisting Alley and the other doctors however he could. Chhunly's position was at the front desk, taking people's names and information, and helping them fill out paperwork - a job that allowed her a glimpse into the lives of Cambodia's poor.

"I heard a lot of survivor stories," Chhunly said. "There was a lot of emotion there when you hear stories like the woman who said she had 13 children who all died."

"I saw her sitting there," Vandy said of his wife. "She looked sad."

"You cannot help but be affected. By the third day, it was really wearing on me. I was sick," Chhunly said. "But he (Vandy) said to me ‘You cannot let your emotions get you down. We have a mission. You can't be weak. You need to be strong because these people are counting on you.' So I was. I told myself I came here to help, and I can't get sick. I just had to concentrate on what I'm doing."

Alley and Vandy had plenty of stories to share as well.

Vandy spoke of a grandmother who had severe cataracts in both of her eyes, forcing her to rely on her grandchildren to care for her. After successful surgery, she was elated to discover her sight had returned.

"She was so happy," Vandy recalled. "She said she couldn't wait to get home and take care of her grandkids. All this time they had to take care of her, and now she was able to do the same for them. I couldn't help it, the tears just poured out of my eyes."

Three elderly nuns stuck in Alley's mind. After taking a bus hours to the hospital for surgery, they found themselves able to see but out of money.

"They came all this way and were elated," Alley said. "That's how much this meant to them. They didn't have a place to stay or any way to get home, but they came anyway."

After hearing about their plight, Vandy started up a collection and was able find them a place to stay and enough money for a bit of food and bus tickets home.

For the Oums, the entire experience was liberating. Being able to return to the source of such pain for such a good cause enabled them to finally come to terms with a terrible part of their past.

"It got it out of my dreams and my thoughts," Vandy said. "It had a hold of me for all those years. Now I feel free. The past is away now. I feel so good about it."

Vandy also said he now feels comfortable telling fellow Cambodians that they should try to do the same to find closure.

As for Alley, even though he's done this many, many times before, the experience never fails to have an effect on him.

"It's so humbling to see the reaction of these people. They hug you, kiss you. You've helped them in such a basic way, and they're so grateful, it's almost overwhelming," he said. "It just makes you feel very, very humble."

Alley will head out on his next mission in July when he makes his eighth trip to Ecuador. In November, he will travel to the Dominican Republic for the 15th time. And Cambodia hasn't been forgotten either. The Oums and Alley are already talking about a return trip, although it probably won't happen for two or three years.




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