Students applied a month in advance to be able to participate in the fifth annual Hart Hall Global Awareness Conference, which featured keynote speaker Arn Chorn Pond. Pond, a Cambodian human rights activist, came to campus Saturday, Nov. 3 to speak at the conference, which was put together by volunteers from Hart and Johnson Hall. Pond’s emotional talk culminated in a focus on preserving traditional Cambodian music.
The event began at 7 p.m. in Lanigan Hall with an introduction by Rebecca Burch, a human development professional and psychology professor at Oswego State. Pond’s last visit to Oswego State was in November 2007 for that year’s Global Conference. “Hi everybody. Thank you for coming. It’s very cold outside,” Pond said as he opened his speech, receiving laughs throughout the crowded room.
Pond asked the audience to bear with him, as the story he was about to tell would make him very emotional. Pond was sent to a children’s work camp in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia. While working in the camp, Pond survived by playing flute for the camp guards. In 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, causing death, destruction and despair throughout the whole country. Pond said he saw members of his family die of starvation. “Imagine all of you in this audience dead in three days,” said Pond to put the death rate from starvation in perspective. Along with the rampant deaths occurring throughout the country, the rich music of Cambodia was dying as well. Instruments were only played to drown out the sounds of guns and people dying. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Pond found his way to a refugee camp in Thailand. There, a Lutheran Minister named Peter Pond adopted him and brought him back to America.
When Pond came to America, he went to a high school in New Hampshire. His peers called him “monkey” and told him he should go back to his country.
“I was suicidal. I broke two windows and spit at my teacher’s face,” Pond said about his time in high school. Unknown to Pond at the time, the teacher at whom he spat in high school, Patricia McCormick, would be the author of his life story. McCormick lives in New York City, and Pond said that today they are great friends. She published Pond’s life story in her novel entitled “Never Fall Down”. Students were highly encouraged to read this novel by both Rebecca Burch and student testaments from the crowd due to its inspiration and power.
Pond refrained from sharing his account with his peers because he thought that “American kids wouldn’t care.”
Pond’s father told him “We will not let you die here. You survived the jungle of Cambodia. You can survive the jungle of high school.”
Pond’s lack of acceptance from his peers in high school took a turn for the better when Pond became a soccer star for his high school. Kids stopped making fun of him when he made the State Championships.
After high school, Amnesty International (an organization Pond is involved in to this day) recommended Pond to Brown University. Pond later attended Brown before graduating from Providence College. While living in America, Pond visited with the Cambodian and Chinese youth who littered the streets of NYC and Providence. These teens were often involved in dangerous gang activity.
“Young people need someone to care for them,” Pond said. “I shared my story with them and I could help them, which gave me meaning in my own life.” One of the gang members Pond got to know grew up to become a member of the city council in Providence.
The first time Pond shared his story was at a church. There, he said, people cared.
“I broke down for the first time in my entire life,” Pond said. “That was a turning point and the crying really cleansed me. I never cried before. I was never allowed [at the camp in Cambodia]. I had to push people into their graves. If you care about the victim, they kill you with their special axe. I’m not sure what happened to me [at the church]. I blanked out and crying saved my life too.”
Pond has been speaking publically for the past 20 years. He began speaking because he wanted to share his story. At the beginning, he volunteered his time for free. “When I opened my mouth, people listened,” Pond said.
The Speaking Bureau selected Pond to speak for them three years ago and offered to pay him; the money he made had the potential to help his projects. Pond is currently working with two or three organizations in Cambodia. He helps take prostitutes off the streets of Cambodia, a project that has become a work of 1 million dollars. In addition, he has a health care project, which helps buy medication for the sick in Cambodia. Pond said he will soon have a planeload of surviving Cambodian music artists flown in to perform at Carnegie Hall.
“My sweetest dream is to have children all over [the world] to sing and dance and carry instruments and not guns,” Pond said. “That is my dream and I am on my way.”
With this remark, Pond ended his speech. The students, staff, and community members gave Pond a standing ovation. Pond hugged a girl in the front row of the audience and some students were crying. Following this, Pond took out his flute and played a song for the audience.
“I thought power only existed in the barrel of the gun,” Pond said. “My life has been saved so many times. Music is the first one.”
Pond talked about ways for students to get involved after a student asked how he and his peers could help during the question and answer segment. Pond said he offers a scholarship called the Arn Chorn Pond scholarship, and suggested students get involved in Amnesty International. He added that there is a Peace Corps in Cambodia and a “Seasons of Cambodia” festival. Pond can be reached at email@example.com. Pond also asked students to visit cambodianlivingarts.org. Burch closed the night by asking the students and community of Oswego to submit old electronics such as computers or cell phones that can be refurbished and help students in Cambodia. The community of the Global Awareness Conference sent Pond back to Cambodia with a laptop computer to contribute to his cause.