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Inspiration from Cambodia

An Interview with Fred Lipp, Author of The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh

Caged Birds Book Reviw Fred Lipp is a Unitarian minister in London, England and has traveled extensively around the world. He is the author of The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh, a heartwarming children's book about a young Cambodian girl who sells flowers on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Interview by Allison Martin

What inspired you to write The Cages Birds of Phnom Penh?

What first jumps into my mind is an old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." You never know the form the teacher will take. My teacher took the shape of an image in a photograph taken by a friend of mine at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh.

One fall day in 1997, as he flipped through photos of his trip, I said "Stop" pointing to a photo of an old woman with a birdcage of one hundred finches. "What's that all about?"

"Oh," Tom said, "That's the bird lady. Custom has it that you pay her a few cents, choose a bird to set free, and your wishes come true." He paused. "The only trouble is, the bird is trained to fly back to the bird lady's cage!"

After having just retired from the ministry to write children's books, and having just been released from the hospital following radical surgery for cancer, a story flashed into my mind as a result of this one simple photo.

I was ready for this story to take over my life. It almost wrote itself. Even today, the process feels filled with mystery. I am humbled by what happened. I spent a year interviewing members of Portland's Cambodian community, finally to have published by Holiday House in New York, The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh (March, 2001). The story grew out of my child-center of being. Perhaps, this clarity is why I have found it speaks to children of all ages.

You mentioned that this book changed your life in an altered way. Could you explain more about this?

Again, thinking back to the saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come," you never know where the teacher will take you. After the book was written, I felt compelled to use my savings and travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There was in my mind no choice about this decision. I was in a sense, living out my own book. The script was written. All I had to do was see what this calling meant.

With the help of the National Democratic Institute, I visited hospitals, refugee resettlement camps, schools and orphanages. I was a witness to the overriding needs of children who were poor and at risk. When I came home, I did book-signings, talks in schools and visits to libraries, but something had changed. I experienced a world in Southeast Asia that transformed my way of being. I could never go back to living the old way. We had so much here. The innocent children had so little there. Finding myself a witness, I had no choice but to be an agent of change. Perhaps, with the help of others we might help one or two, maybe three children or more. My own book was changing my life right before my eyes!

What would you like to convey to those interested in Cambodia?

I started a nonprofit, tax exempt organization called Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Foundation, whose primary purpose is to help educate poor and at risk children in Cambodia. This is mainly for girls because Cambodian society and culture continues to favor boys over girls in the promotion of education. I am particularly concerned about the sexual exploitation of girls in Cambodia. I have generous facts from agencies saying over and over again that the best way to change society is to educate a young woman who will influence health care, safety, peaceful efforts and education.

The other focus of the Foundation is to support Cambodian arts and students with Cambodian backgrounds in the United States.

What are you planning in the future?

I hope to be back in Phnom Penh for a couple of weeks early in December to oversee educational projects and meet with the volunteer board there. Ah, yes, I'll pay about twenty-five cents to release a bird, just like Ary in the story. I'll make a wish. I can't tell you the wish because children warn me if I tell, it won't come true!

I want to see again what looked like the face of Christ in the children's faces, the smile of Buddha, the grace of all innocence. I want to see it again, but this time with the help of others bring a small measure of hope.

Fred Lipp is President of the Cambodian Arts and Scholarship Foundation, 305 Commerecial St. #312, Portland, ME 04101

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