I couldn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I first read Janelle’s story…
Often times, we struggle so much in life that we forget how strong and capable we all are; we fail to see the beauty of every challenge we are thrown into; and we forget to appreciate the journey of life.
With everything that’s been happening around the world, it’s so easy to fall into the trap and just give in. But remember this, whoever you are, wherever you are, there’s always a way to give back.
Read Janelle’s story below.
Growing up, I always wondered, “Who am I really?” I was adopted as a baby along with my twin brother from Cambodia in December 1990 and never really knew my full background story. My parents always wanted me to be curious about my biological and ethnic roots and encouraged me to seek any and all information I could that would help me paint a better picture of myself. I always thought about my birth parents but never really had the opportunity or the means to actively search for them, mainly because the information I had was so limited. Needless to say, my search was put on the backburner until I found myself having graduated college and able to travel.
In February 2016, I was living in working in Shenzhen, China, and had quite a bit of vacation time for Chinese New Year. I booked a trip to Thailand which would be then followed by a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia- the place from where I was adopted. I had read much about the Cambodian genocide and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and knew that I needed to visit both the Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and The Killing Fields to truly learn about my roots. Itinerary sorted. Or so I thought.
Before departing for the trip, I thought maybe I should also use this trip to find out more about my adoption story. I sent an email to the doctor, Daniel, who took care of my twin brother and I in the hospital when we were newborns, not expecting much back other than a simple “hello”. Fortunately, he replied immediately, saying that his sister, Lauryn, who also cared for my twin brother and I, was actually in Phnom Penh and that we should meet. So, several days later (after visiting Tuol Sleng and The Killing Fields), I met with Lauryn at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh and my heart truly felt as though it had already found a missing piece. She and I were going to visit the former Nutrition Center as well as its new location so that I could see where I was brought as an orphaned baby and where I left to become part of a forever family.
During the drive, she began to tell me about our orphanage- or what they referred to as “The Nutrition Center.” Both Lauryn and Daniel helped nurse babies back to health in the care of the Nutrition Center, a place that had no running water nor electricity. She told me that they (Lauryn and Daniel) would boil water at their apartment across the street and walk back and forth with it to feed and wash the babies. Hearing of this grim situation, my soul flooded with emotion and I could not help but try and hold back tears. I kept thinking about their selflessness and how many babies they took care of to give them a fighting chance.
Lauryn continued to tell me more about origin stories of babies who were brought to the Nutrition Center. Although she did not know about my story specifically (there were far too many babies), she described how birthmothers were bringing in their babies malnourished because they could not even breastfeed due to themselves being on the verge of starvation. Realizing this was likely my own origin story based on how malnourished my twin and I were, I had no choice but to let the tears flow.
I could not help but think about that difficult choice all these birth mothers had to make- keeping their babies or giving them up so that they have a chance at survival. This was approximately 15 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge, but the country still greatly felt its effects in the form of poverty and starvation. Unfortunately, my birth family, like so many other orphaned babies at the Nutrition Center, still fell victim to its horrors so many years later. And, because of these long-lasting effects, birth parents were being forced to make difficult choices that no parent should ever have to make: give up their children so that they can survive or keep them and watch them die.
A few minutes later, we were pulling up to the Phnom Penh Hotel near the riverside- formerly known as the Nutrition Center. It was a bit surreal standing in front of a building (although now renovated) that took care of my twin brother 25 years earlier. I was in awe and found myself struggling to get out of the car at one point. It was a lot to take in, but I was so grateful that I could stand in front of this place 25 years later healthy and happy.
With another 15 minute car ride or so, we arrived at the new Nutrition Center. This was even more surreal, as there were other children who were now being taken care of here. Most of the children were disabled and because of this, had been in the orphanage for quite some time and probably would never be adopted. Each child I walked past greeted me with a smile and curiosity. Their gentle souls spoke volumes- their laughter could be heard from a distance as they chased each other on the playground outside. Underneath it all, the sad reality sunk in- they were waiting for forever families.
Unfortunately, the director of the orphanage was not there when we visited, so we gained little information. We were hoping to see the registration book that documented the arrival of each baby- my twin and myself included. Although our visit short, it was a visit that was life-changing for me as each baby and child I saw that day was me a couple decades earlier.
Although I had to leave the following day, the driver, who was also our translator, went back to the orphanage for me to see the book. Within the documentation of me and my twin’s arrival, our birth names, our birthday, the date we came to the Nutrition Center, and the area outside of Phnom Penh from which we came. This new information added more pieces to the puzzle of my origin and I am so grateful to have learned as much as I did.
Coming away from my trip to Phnom Penh, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratefulness. Cambodia was not just a holiday destination for me, but also a place that offered answers to help me piece together my identity. Reflecting on all that I learned from visiting Tuol Sleng, The Killing Fields, and the Nutrition Center, I realized how truly blessed my twin brother and I were to have been brought to the orphanage to begin with. There, we were given a fighting chance, and were so fortunate to become adopted by the world’s greatest parents who went on to adopt six children in total from both Cambodia and Vietnam. I was given every opportunity every child deserves in their lifetime: the ability to take dance lessons, be part of sports teams, become involved in school clubs and activities, attend college, and most importantly, grow up in a home filled with love and security.
There are so many babies out there still waiting to find their forever homes- and I used to be one of them. My trip to Cambodia made me realize that all of my opportunities I have been given should not be wasted; I need to do something to give back and leave a mark on this world.
Currently, I am a photographer documenting “The Human Experience” here in Bangkok, Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. I focus on street children- children I see a little bit of myself in.
My goal is to create a sense of connectedness with those I photograph to those who view my pictures despite how many differences there are between viewers and subject.
I also focus on street children and their families to showcase the poverty and insecurity they live in to raise awareness of socio-economic insecurity around the world. This is my way of turning my ability to travel around the world into something worthwhile- giving each trip I take a humanitarian cause and purpose.
We all have the power to give back. What can you give?
Follow Janelle’s journey on her Instagram – @expressivesoulcreative