In a world that is loosing touch with what matters we feel it is important to reestablish the connection we have lost with one another. That is the main reason why we started Lost in Samsara, a small ethical shop selling crafts coming from different projects we collaborate with around the world. Connecting the products with the artisans who make them is our core mission so we flew to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, to meet them and hear their stories.
Some of the handcrafts they make are up-cycled from cement bags and once in Phnom Penh we better understood why. The city and the country are still recovering from the scars of a brutal civil war that lasted until the nineties and a stroll in the streets it is enough to see the legacy of those dark years. Cambodia has many amputees, victims of landmines, and still today has one of the highest casualty rate in the world. It is heartbreaking to see the number of amputees, some using only their arms to move on the pavement without a wheel chair. There are also construction sites everywhere and the cement bags are literally scattered all over the city.
We spend two days getting to know Phnom Penh and its history and we also decide to pay a visit to Tuol Sleng, a former high school used during the Pol Pot regime as a security prison and execution center and now turned into a museum.
While trying to get our heads around it all, we start preparing to meet Vichet, the representative of the organization we collaborate with. During the ride on the local motor-remork, he tells us a bit more about life in Cambodia and how they started this project that since 2008 is giving training and creating opportunities for 49 artisans who are mainly disabled.
They work in their homes and that gives them the chance to create the crafts in their own environment and at their own pace. We arrive where two of them live, a big block of flats not too far from the center of Phnom Penh.
We feel privileged to meet the people behind the products we sell and entering their homes it is really special. Seeing where they live and listening to their stories is emotional. We all know what fair trade is but getting closer to what it really means is something entirely different.
One of the artisans, Srey (Mrs in Khmer) Mach lives on her own and she greets us with a big smile. She seems excited to meet us too and with the help of Vichet, she tells us how she stepped on a mine 12 years ago when she was only 21. The accident left her without a leg. Now she works for two different organizations that provide her with enough work to sustain herself. She tells us that she feels happy now and that she enjoys working from home as she can organise her work freely. The condition and the pay are much better than a garment factory she says. She blushes from time to time while talking to us so we all break the ice by joking for a while. She also wants a picture with us to remember the day before we leave.
The other artisans live on another floor in the same building. They greet us too with a big smile and show us what they are working on. Three of them are deaf and working on some paper crafts. Vichet explain us that they provide them with the orders, the materials and the machinery when necessary and that the artisans are self-employed, paid a livable wage and offered constant training including design workshops. The founder of the organization Mr Sapbay works closely with other organizations which aim to give employment to people with disabilities and offers youth programs to support education.
We talk to them for a few more minutes and then we are off to visit Mr Chantha, a jewellery maker. He shows us his workshop located in one of the poorest areas in the outskirt of Phnom Penh. He tells us that he has lost both his parents when he was little, his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was only 8. With the help of an international NGO he received the training necessary to become a jewellery maker. For the past twenty years he has been doing what he loves and he has now enough work to reinvest in his workshop and to buy the machines and the tools he needs to create his beautiful handicrafts. Mr Chantha work is special in many ways. He uses bullet cases and bomb shells to make the jewellery that he designs himself. It is incredible to see how the symbols of destruction and so much suffering are now transformed into something new, how the bullets that destroyed his family are now giving him the chance to sustain his new one.
Mr Chantha shows us how he melts the bullets and how the all process is done. He is a very joyful person and his English is very good. He also trains young people and teaches them how to make the jewellery. He is really proud of the work he does and keeps smiling while talking to us. His son Moss runs around while he explain how hard it is to sustain all of his family but he is determined to give both his two children a better future.
Before we leave we do few pictures together and like Srey Mach he wants one with us too.
We head back to the hotel trying to keep everything in our mind. Their resilience, their modest lives, their hard work are something we’ll never forget.
Cambodia is a beautiful country but what struck us the most are its people. Despite the struggle they face everyday, the past that still hunts the present, the poverty and a government not interested in their wellbeing, Cambodians never spare a smile, one of those worth more than everything, one of those that goes deep into your soul and that is there to stay.
About the Author
We are Alessia and Marvi, founders of Lost in Samsara. We are originally from Italy but we’ve been living in London for many years so we call it home now. We have different backgrounds, Marvi studied Political Science and Alessia holds a degree in Foreign Languages, but we share the same ideas, the ones that brought Lost In Samsara to life. We believe that even a small act can have a positive impact. To know more about us and the projects we support, have a look