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Hey, Swattie!

“Hey Swattie!” Liz Seth ’98 called over-cheerfully to a jet-lagged Richard Sager ’74 as he entered the lobby of the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Adding to his disorientation was the fact that the two had never met in person—Liz only recognized Richard’s name from his and his family’s sponsorship of The Sager Symposium and the Sager Series, not to mention the associated and memorable after-party. Liz broke through Richard’s Lost in Translation fog, led the way to the bus, and two Swatties in Cambodia embarked on a journey that would not only change their lives but, more importantly, challenge them to change the lives of others.

What drew both of us to Cambodia was a study tour with American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a human rights organization. Founded by Jews who believe that tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for repairing the world, is at the core of what it means to be Jewish, AJWS is inspired by Jewish teachings to help the poor, care for the stranger, and recognize the inherent dignity of every human being. AJWS also believes that Jews, victims of The Holocaust, have a special responsibility to protect the human rights of other peoples who are denied their basic humanity: “Never Again!”

But again and again, the world witnesses horrible human rights violations, atrocities, and genocides, and remains essentially silent. From 1975 to 1979, nearly two million Cambodians were murdered by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime—over 20 percent of the country’s population.

The wounds from this genocide, perpetrated by Cambodians on their own people, continue to fester: the Khmer Rouge specifically targeted intellectuals for execution, and ultimately killed many of the older generation, leaving a country where two thirds of the population is made up of people under 30 years old. Holding close to 80 percent of the seats in the nation’s senate, the current government is still largely in the hands of former Khmer Rouge and continues to erect barriers to education and limit civic and political space—all methods of authoritarian control employed during the time of Pol Pot.

Ultimately, few Khmer Rouge were ever brought to trial and only one perpetrator was convicted of his crimes. In addition to being governed by their tormentors, victims live next door to them—today, Cambodia as a country suffers from PTSD.

To better understand why, we began our trip deeply exploring the Cambodian genocide. We toured the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where babies’ heads were smashed against trees so they wouldn’t grow up to avenge their murdered parents, and the museum at Tuol Sleng, a high school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a center of torture and execution.

On our first evening together, we boarded a boat on the Mekong River for a sunset cruise and some reprieve from the sorrows of the day. While marveling at the juxtaposition of fisherman and their families living in small boats bobbing just in front of sleek modern hotels, we also marveled at the coincidence of having found one another, two Swatties, in a small group of travelers. After all, as we discovered, neither of us had explored issues of social justice explicitly at Swarthmore. For Richard, many of the opportunities the College now offers to explore human rights work were simply not available; for Liz, her focus was elsewhere—her face buried in her books in her “office” at McCabe.

Still, for both of us, our years at Swarthmore were formative for our personal identities and life stories. Liz embraced the diversity of the student body, eventually marrying her Swarthmore Matchbox partner, Gaurav Seth ’98, an international student from India. With Gaurav, she visited India while still at Swarthmore, witnessing extreme poverty and hearing stories of human rights violations. For Richard, on the other hand, the Swarthmore of the Seventies did not provide similar freedom of exploration for a far-from-out gay young man, and he struggled privately with his sexual identity. Swarthmore during his years had virtually no LGBT presence.

Neither of us chose to pursue human rights academically, but both of us pursued an ongoing social justice education in our post-Swarthmore years. Liz volunteered writing grants for AJWS while in graduate school. She grew increasingly active with AJWS, and now sits on the Board of Directors. Liz has also been inspired to translate her passion for social justice into a career and now works for The Akanksha Fund, a nonprofit providing quality education to some of India’s most disadvantaged children.

When Richard moved to San Diego after graduate school, he became involved with several LGBT organizations. He ultimately became chair of the San Diego HIV Funding Collaborative, a position he found particularly rewarding due to his own 1986 HIV diagnosis. Richard most recently co-founded the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, an LGBT community Foundation whose endowment, though small, has grown from $35,000 at founding to $6 million, and is the immediate past Board Chair of ARTS - A Reason to Survive, providing arts based programs for at-risk youth.

For both of us, traveling to Cambodia with AJWS was another chapter in our continuing social justice training. Richard had until this point focused his social justice involvement in his local LGBT community and Liz had remained focused on India. Now, both of us were challenged to expand our attention to Cambodia, generalizing our human rights theories to this new context, while at the same time narrowing our focal point to understand the unique challenges facing each grassroots organization. These organizations represented indigenous peoples, communities displaced by rapid development, garment workers facing hazardous working conditions and low wages, and communities whose fishing resources and economies had been destroyed by damming of the Mekong River.

One organization, the Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP), is dedicated to the empowerment of Cambodia’s youth to fully embrace their civil and political rights. These youth represent the first generation of Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge regime to be able to move beyond the fear and mistrust of their parents and grandparents. In exchange, they exhibit an eagerness to create the democratic space to make real social change.

For both of us, exploring social injustices in Cambodia, in a context wholly divorced from what we knew personally, has enriched our perspectives greatly. We have both learned how to champion the rights of others whose life stories in no way intersect our own, and this is truly to embrace “the other” and fully respect our mutual humanity. Our continuing education in social justice in the Cambodian context has also allowed both of us to return to our own work with renewed passion and determination, to make a difference where we can when we can and to recognize that though change is slow, it is possible.

We would like to conclude by calling upon each of our fellow Swatties and other members of the Swarthmore community, to join us in tikkun olam. Swarthmore’s mission, “to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern,” is fully aligned with AJWS’s core emphasis on “repairing the world.” And, as we all know, our education in life-long, continuing well past our daily hike up Magill Walk. Each of us can realize Swarthmore’s and AJWS’s shared values in our own ways, based on our own passions. Join us in making a difference.