Blind Band Together Against Discrimination

When Kol Sam Oeun told neighbors in her village that she was going to Phnom Penh to join an organization that might help her learn skills that would one day get her a job, they laughed at her.

“Some people teased me,” the 21-year-old from Pursat province said Wednesday. “They asked me how can I expect to get a job when I am blind?”

Kol Sam Oeun was one of about 130 blind people who gathered at Phnom Penh’s Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana for the first general assembly of the Associ­ation of the Blind in Cambodia on Wednesday. ABC also became an official member of the World Blind Union Wednesday, bringing it together with organizations from 158 countries.

There are an estimated 72,000 blind people in Cambodia. Land mines, along with easily treatable disease such as childhood me­asles are largely responsible, said Boun Mao, who founded the or­ganization with financial help from the Overbrook School for the blind in the US.

Boun Mao, who himself was blinded in an acid attack seven years ago, says blind people are sidelined by a society that will not make room for them. Some families are too poor to cope with the extra burden of looking after a blind relative. Others turn their backs on them because of superstition and prejudice.

Boun Mao tells a story of a blind woman he met in Kompong Cham province who had been trained to become a singer of traditional Cambodian songs. She offered to sing at the wedding of one of her relatives. “The family would not let her sing,” Boun Mao recalls. “They said, ‘you are bad luck for us.’ ”

Boun Mao hopes the ABC—the first organization for the blind in Cambodia—can change those attitudes.

“Only our eyes are blind,” he said. “Our minds, our ideas and everything else is the same as other people.”

Kol Sam Oeun was blinded by measles when she was 3. She helps her farming family as much as she can—doing household chores and planting rice and vegetables. But without them to support her, she’s afraid she couldn’t survive.

She never went to school. It never occurred to her to try. “How can I? I’m blind,” she said.

When a representative of ABC came to her village to ask her to join the organization, he told her she might one day be able to learn how to support herself.

“They asked me what I wanted to do in the future,” she said. “This question brought me hope.”

Ivan Ho Tuch, general secretary of the Asian Blind Associ­ation, offered ABC a few pointers based on his own 40 years of experience working with the blind.

Training blind people in Braille and computers isn’t enough, he said. ABC needs to work out a job placement strategy so it can find exactly what employers need and train people to fill available slots.

“Don’t just look at the educated people,” he added. “The poor need to work also.”

Keo Phea, 45, at­tended the conference at the urging of a Roman Catholic priest hoping that he might be able to get some help.

In 1973, Keo Phea was a government soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge under the US-backed Lon Nol regime. Near Sihanoukville, he was sent with other troops into the forest to search for the enemy.

Keo Phea triggered a mine and three men were killed. He lost his sight along with his arms.

Before the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh in April 1975, Keo Phea and his wife went to Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam.

After the fall of Saigon, the couple were left stranded in Vietnam without friends or family or jobs.

Their first three children died of disease. Neighbors refused them when they begged for money to buy medicine, Keo Phea said.

In 1979, one of Keo Phea’s former commanders told him he could get a visa to live in the US if he returned to Phnom Penh to fill out some paperwork. But when he got back to the capital, there was no visa and no way for him to make a living, he said.

His wife comes over with a plastic bag full of cookies she’s gathered up from the tables laid out for the morning tea break at the swank downtown hotel. She introduces herself brightly to the people talking to her husband, sits on the floor at his feet and rests her hand on his knee.

Keo Phea is hoping membership in the ABC will improve his life. Since returning to Phnom Penh, he hasn’t been able to find work. He pays 1,500 riel a day to squat with his wife and two young children in a tenement in Russei Keo district.

How does he raise the money?

“I beg,” he said softly.



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