For one Project HOPE volunteer, Pacific Partnership 2012 is more than a chance to give back. It is a chance to face 33-years of uncertainty about her past.
When Cambodian-born Danielle Pech Carson, a Project HOPE volunteer, went ashore in Cambodia to bring medical assistance, she cried. Carson was not crying because she was sad to be there, but rather because it was the first time she had been to Cambodia since her family fled the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
"I was emotionally stunned once I stepped on land. It did not take me long for the memories to come back,” Carson said. “When I left I was a little girl, young and helpless. Now I have returned and my eyes are filled with tears.”
Danielle's mother, Samantha Pfeiffer, flew to Cambodia to meet with relatives and be at the pier in Sihanoukville when Carson took her first steps back onto her homeland.
"She told me she felt the same way the first time she came back and completely understood my emotions," Carson said. “We were overjoyed to be together with family, and when we went to the car it was filled with the fruits that I loved when I was a child in Cambodia."
Carson was born in Cambodia in 1968, and left in 1979 when she was 11-years old.
"I experienced freedom in Cambodia until the age of seven,” she said. “Then the Khmer Rougue took over in 1975. I was in total shock emotionally, and physically we were living under the constant threat of starvation, we were always sick.”
Carson said her mother worked hard to keep her and her sister alive during the four-year period before the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979 and her family escaped.
"My mother didn't want to stay in the country because it was politically unstable, she knew we could have a better life somewhere else," Carson said. "We escaped to Thailand in hope to have a better life, and we ended up at a refugee camp at the Thai border."
The family was at the camp for about three weeks when a Methodist church group in Florida sponsored their way to America.
With a new life came new hope and a chance for Samantha Pfeiffer to see her daughter adapt to her new surroundings.
"She studied so hard, up till 2 am each day” Pfeiffer said.
“They put her in the third grade and then she started jumping grades, from fifth to seventh to eighth, really fast."She studied so hard… and she continues to study hard today."
Carson is currently working towards her degree as a nurse practitioner at Florida International University. Now in her last rotation of clinical practice, the opportunity arose with Project HOPE to go to Cambodia.
It was a chance she could not pass.
Randy Roark, the professor at Florida International University that helped coordinate Carson’s Project HOPE mission, said he was immediately interested in meeting Danielle Pech Carson when on her expression of interest he saw that she was Cambodian.
“We interviewed her professors about her academic and clinical background," said Roark. “Danielle is an extraordinary student, extremely caring, dedicated and received the highest praises from her professors.”
With her first steps back in Cambodia completed, Carson said she is ready to help out at the medical civic action project sites for Pacific Partnership 2012.
"I want to connect with the people of Cambodia again,” she said. “It’s just so meaningful to me."
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