By Rachel Laskow
"I literally learned how to feel nothing. I made myself numb. I made myself not feel anything. I shut myself completely," Arn told Scholastic News Online during a recent visit to the Scholastic offices in New York City.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took power in Cambodia's capital. The Communist movement banned all institutions, such as schools, hospitals, banks, and even the family. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed the country's vehicles and machines because it was opposed to technology.
Arn was one of 700 children who were taken to Wat Aik by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s. Wat Aik was a Buddhist temple area in Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge converted into a killing place. Children were separated from their parents, and forced to work from 5 a.m. until midnight every day. Sometimes, they were starved.
"For one or two weeks they would not let us eat. They said, 'You didn't make any rice.' They just found an excuse to starve us to death," said Arn, who weighed about 40 pounds.
Even in these horrible conditions, Arn found a way to survive. He played the flute.
"They let me play music for them, and I knew music could save my life, because the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill me also," Arn said. "Because I looked white, my fingers were long, and they thought I was from a rich family, so they wanted to kill me, but they couldn't do that because I was out to play music for them, and I was good at it."
Soon enough, Arn turned from a musician into a soldier. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge gave Arn and other children guns, and for the next two or three months, they fought unsuccessfully against the Vietnamese. (Cambodia was ruled by the Vietnamese until 1989. The country has returned to a constitutional monarchy government, with a king, prime minister, and legislature.)
Life in a Jungle
When he was 12 years old, Arn ran away to the jungle and lived there for a few months by himself. He followed monkeys and ate whatever they ate. He had to be careful not to eat poisonous food. Sometimes, he would catch a fish with his bare hands and eat it. "I mean, the Cambodian jungle is just like what you guys see in Tarzan," he said.
Arn had to watch out for dangerous animals, such as snakes. Sometimes, he would walk for two or three weeks, thinking he was going somewhere, but then end up back where he started. "I didn't know where I was going, because as a young boy, you don't know whether the world is flat or round," he said.
One day, women out gathering firewood found Arn unconscious on the ground. They took him to the Sakao camp on the border of Thailand. Later that night, the man who would soon become his foster father literally stumbled on him.
"I was close to dying, and Peter, my father, stepped on me. He's about 200 pounds, 250 pounds," Arn said. "He stepped on me, and I think he saw my teeth, because he said I had good teeth. My teeth were shining that night, and he picked me up and I clung on to him. I clung on to him and never let him go."
Living in America
Two years later, Arn was in New Hampshire with his foster parents and other children that Peter had adopted. Arn started high school right away. "I was confused. I was angry. I didn't know what was happening with my life," he said. Some students made fun of Arn because he was the first Asian they had ever seen, and they didn't know about his culture. Arn often fought with the other students and landed himself in detention. He couldn't speak English, and therefore teachers had a hard time figuring out why he was angry.
"Remember this: I couldn't cry. I didn't know how to cry. You see, I shut off everything," Arn said. "So, a lot of anger was stuffed in my chest. I broke the school window. It seemed like nobody understood me, nobody was on my side. I didn't know where my family was. I didn't know where my country was anymore."
While in high school, Arn woke up before the sun rose to practice English with his adopted mother. An English as a Second Language teacher also helped him. Little by little, things started to look up for Arn. He became a soccer star, and people started to accept him more. Arn graduated from high school and attended Brown University.
Arn's dad and principal encouraged him to speak about his life. "There is something in my heart that I really wanted to do, which is communication. Communicate with other people about what I went through," he said.
There was only one problem: Arn thought that nobody wanted to hear his story. He was wrong. "I spoke one time in a church. People cried. Young people and old people cried," he said. "They came and made a row, and each of them gave us a hug, and I didn't know how to hug."
Another time, Arn and his dad spoke to members of Congress in Washington, D.C. Arn spoke about his life and was able to reach their hearts. He even learned how to cry and hug. Arn's speech was so influential that he was able to bring many Cambodian orphans to America. And many of them were just like himthey didn't know what was happening to their lives. Many of them joined gangs to express their anger and confusion. While attending Brown University, Arn worked with the gang members, ranging in age from 9 to 25, to help them overcome their difficulties.
The Power of Music
Arn helped one group of gang members who were in a music group called Seasia (Soul Elements of Asia). The group used to write songs about violence, but now they write peaceful songs, such as "Hero in My Eyes". The song mixes hip-hop with traditional Cambodian instruments. With Arn's help, they used donated equipment to record a CD. They even traveled to Cambodia and performed on national TV. "Arn is our mentor," said Seasia's leader, Tony Roun. "We struggled in the streets. Arn told us, 'You need to be connected to your heritage.'"
Arn also founded the Cambodian Master Performers Program. The program locates former masters, or trained professional musicians, and lets them teach, record, and perform again. Arn's goal is for the program to support a revival of traditional Cambodian art forms, as well as inspire modern artistic expression. In fact, Arn found the master who had taught him during the time of the Khmer Rouge.
Arn also helped to start many other organizations, such as Children of War. This program encourages children from war-torn countries to speak out about their experiences. Arn was also one of two speakers on an Amnesty International world tour. He took time off from college and traveled to 50 countries with music stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman.
Giving Peace a Chance
Every day when Arn wakes up, he knows he has to choose the right thing. As a child, Arn was forced to be part of a war. Now, he chooses peace. He feels that by teaching children about peace, the world will be a better place.
"Children are simple. You teach them love, they grow up with love. If you teach them war, they only grow up making war," he said. "I want to touch children with love, not war. I know both sides. War is only lose, lose. Peace, compassion, love, I think it's win, win. Everyone wins. I want to make that popular. I feel so good making peace, and start caring about other people."
Arn hopes that through his work, there will be more peace in the worldand he works on that goal each day by volunteering. Volunteering allows Arn to express emotion, something he wasn't allowed to do while he was under Khmer Rouge control.
"[Volunteering] makes me feel good," Arn said. "It makes me smile more. It makes me cry more."