Monday, May 07, 2007

Mellen on Oni Vitandham

Greg Mellen, staff writer for the Press Telegram newspaper of Long Beach, California has just written a follow-up article on author & genocide survivor Oni Vitnadham and the current status of the charity organization she created, Progressive United Action Association Inc. You can read his update here and in the comments section. Mellen's original article on Oni Vitandham (left) and her inspiring story was published last June and can also be found in comments. Vitandham is the author of the book, On The Wings Of A White Horse, published last year - you can read my review below. Mellen has recently returned from a trip to Cambodia and has published a number of articles which are worth reading.

Surviving two worlds
On The Wings Of A White Horse - by Oni Vitandham
Wow, what an incredible story of survival Oni Vitandham has revealed in this absorbing biography. Told in a clear and easy to read style, Oni describes her miraculous journey through a childhood that would've consumed and defeated most of us, let alone a young girl who'd lost both parents and a succession of guardians. The recollections of her early life are graphic, powerful and vividly portrayed. She witnessed death and cruelty as a daily occurrence under the Khmer Rouge regime, travelling the length and breadth of Cambodia as well as wretched sorties into Laos and Vietnam before ending up in a Thai refugee camp. Beginning a new life in America didn't bring much respite from hardship as she struggled to adapt, ran away from foster homes, lived on the streets and suffered serious abuse. With help, she has turned her life around, become a proud mother and a strong advocate for change. The extent of her suffering - foretold in a prophecy - has set Oni on a mission to help her fellow countrymen, as the founder of an organisation that provides education for Cambodian children. Her courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds are to be admired. I am sure her story will be an inspiration to many. Oni's website.


Andy said...

Helping 'the people left behind'
- by Greg Mellen, Staff writer
Long Beach Press Telegram (Calif., USA)

There is an inner electricity in Oni Vitandham. A surging of crosscurrents. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s, Vitandham finds that her search for a kind of Buddhist serenity is at war with the hard-learned street smarts she picked up in Long Beach. She is Cambodian, but highly Americanized.

She preaches peace, but seems to always be fighting some sort of inner war. At one moment she can be dropping her eyes demurely, and at another shouting and demanding to be heard. Even her name speaks to multiple identities. She chose Vitandham as her last name by combining the initials of people who helped her survive in Cambodia.

On the one hand, she created Progressive United Action Association Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers free English-language instruction to more than 1,300 bereft children in her home country. And yet, never, not once, has she returned to see the benefits of her creation.

And now, relations with the organization she founded have become so strained that the board of directors recently released a letter claiming Vitandham was "no longer our founder."

As a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, Vitandham saw almost unimaginable atrocities. But while many Cambodians retreated within themselves and their communities when they came to the United States, Vitandham had a very different, a very un-Cambodian response. "I'm not a humble person," Vitandham says. "It's something about my personality. I'm an aggressive Cambodian woman."

In the beginning

Before there was Progressive United, there was only a willful young Cambodian woman who wanted to leave a legacy for her people.

In the early 1990s, Vitandham was just another survivor adrift in a foreign country and mystifying culture.

It was then, at the urging of friend and mentor Robert Simpson, that she became an inveterate writer of letters recounting her experiences as a survivor of the Killing Fields, about tribunals to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders, about HIV and ongoing injustices in her homeland.

She regularly sent off letters - to politicians in Washington, D.C., to diplomats, to the United Nations, to leaders across the globe, to just about anyone who would respond.

Members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party have never met Vitandham, but they know her from her often incendiary letters.

Simpson suggested she create a nonprofit corporation and use it to make a difference and shortly thereafter, Progressive United was born.

As Vitandham had little money and less understanding of what she wanted to achieve, the organization remained little more than a letterhead.

In 1998, she registered PUAAI as a nonprofit and quickly started a one-person crusade in Long Beach, helping residents with legal and immigration problems, after-school programs and tutoring.

In 2000, she met Mike Blasdell, a real estate agent in Long Beach who became enamored of Cambodian culture after working in Vietnam.

It was not a match made in heaven.

Blasdell says Vitandham despised him because he had worked with the Vietnamese, the enemy of her people.

However, Blasdell's sister, Karen Blasdell, was fond of Vitandham, and because Blasdell was caring for his sister as she battled through the final fatal stages of her cancer, the three were often together.

Before Karen died, she asked Blasdell to look after Vitandham.

Six years later, the hot-and-cold relationship continues. The two are not romantically linked, but Vitandham, as well as her teenage daughter, live rent-free in a home owned by Blasdell.

"She's my project," Blasdell says in a voice that suggests both affection and weariness.

He sees the rent-free arrangement as one of his contributions to the people of Cambodia.

Blasdell alternately admires Vitandham's passion and ability to get things done, but grows tired of stamping out the fires she can create.

Blasdell says Vitandham eventually introduced him to a group of Cambodians in Fresno, who compose the bulk of Progressive United's base and provide its funding.

"I asked what it was the group wanted the most," Blasdell says. "They said their biggest wish was to help the people left behind in Cambodia. That's what they call them, the people left behind."

Opening in Cambodia

Progressive United was officially recognized in Cambodia as a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, in 2002, after what Blasdell said was a year of negotiation. He refused to pay bribes to expedite the process.

Eventually, the first school opened. Today, Progressive United offers free English-language training, mostly in rural areas of the country, as well as some computer classes in Phnom Penh.

Dianne McNinch, a former member of the Long Beach City College Board of Directors, wrote the curriculum for the schools, and Blasdell put the organization together, hired staff in Cambodia and worked through the bureaucracy.

When PUAAI was still in its formative stage, Vitandham first spoke with the Fresno Cambodian group that would become the backbone of her organization.

Although most of the Cambodians in the group are not wealthy, they have kept the organization afloat through some turbulent times through fundraisers, membership drives and donations.

Especially in the past two years, Vitandham's relationships with donors and the organization's board of directors became increasingly rancorous.

Internal strife

The split arose in part over Vitandham's association with David Brooks Arnold, a Washington, D.C., insider and activist .

Believing Arnold could help PUAAI secure lucrative government grants and contacts, Vitandham enlisted his help.

Arnold, who has HIV and had been a director of international relations for the American Red Cross and special assistant to the president's International AIDS Trust, agreed to do so in March 2005.

The organization's headquarters were moved to Washington and Arnold was named president by the board of directors.

Arnold went on to form another board of directors, although there are questions whether this was properly done or within his authority.

PUAAI board members say they never surrendered their positions nor authorized Vitandham to give away control of the organization.

The problems soon escalated.

There were disputes about the organization's mission - and Arnold's main interest in fighting HIV and AIDS in Cambodia.

"We always wanted to do that," Vitandham says of fighting AIDS. "But (Arnold) didn't want me to be a part of that."

Vitandham says Arnold tried to hijack the group to pursue his personal agenda at the expense of the schools.

However, in a March 2005 letter, Vitandham wrote in a letter she was relinquishing control of Progressive United to Arnold - though, again, it is unclear whether that was in her purview.

Vitandham says the breaking point with Arnold came when he tried to shut down the schools.

Arnold could not be reached for comment.

However, in an e-mail written on behalf of the Washington board, board member Michael Pates wrote that Vitandham had asked Arnold "to lead PUAAI as president to a new level of visibility and effectiveness" and that "Both he and the board have fulfilled their duties in good faith and have no further comment on any allegation to the contrary."

A further e-mail asking Pates if the D.C. board considered itself still in charge went unanswered.

Somara Chea, who runs PUAAI operations in Cambodia, met Arnold on a trip he took to her country. She said he asked her to identify orphans whose parents had died from AIDS.

Chea scoured rural areas and found about 150 children orphaned by AIDS.

However, she said Arnold failed to do anything with the information she provided.

"He doesn't help, only talk," Chea said. "He talks very big, does very small."

Relations further deteriorated when Arnold hired his adopted son, Michael Booker Arnold, as the first paid executive director of the organization. Because of the organization's minimal budget, this caused even more dissent.

Eventually, the organization's California board of directors moved to replace David Brooks Arnold with Blasdell, who had been chairman of the organization prior to stepping down for him.

It is unclear whether David Brooks Arnold will challenge the decision.

Blasdell says his letters to Arnold and others in Washington have gone unanswered. The number for PUAAI in Washington has been disconnected, although the e-mail from Pates still listed a Washington address.

Vitandham also clashed with the Fresno board of directors about her failure to report to them about how she used organization money.

The disputes have damaged PUAAI's membership according to Roath Nem, a member of the organization's board of directors.

"Before there were hundreds of members," Nem says. "After the conflict some members have quit. Now there are maybe 100."

Forging ahead

Despite the internal struggles, the group continues to open new schools and has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a new classroom, office and residential building in Phnom Penh.

Nem says the board is attempting to get funds from international organizations, but has had no luck thus far.

"We don't know when we'll get funds, but we have to do it," Nem says.

Meanwhile, Vitandham has stepped away from the organization.

She has returned to school, is working on a second autobiographical book and says she plans to become a lawyer.

She has yet to visit the schools she helped create.

Vitandham says she fears she would not be welcomed or understood.

"I think if it's the right time, I'll return - peacefully," Vitandham says.

In 2006, Vitandham finished her first book, an autobiography entitled "On the Wings of a White Horse," a fantastic - critics say fantasy-filled - retelling of her survival as a young child in Cambodia during Pol Pot's murderous rampage and her subsequent battles with homelessness and abuse in Long Beach.

In the book, Vitandham tells of a prophesy given to her that she would return to Cambodia on a white horse, from which the book's title is derived, and bring peace to the country.

Blasdell says Vitandham's fear about returning to Cambodia is not unusual among survivors.

As far as criticisms aimed at her for not visiting the schools, he thinks they are unfair.

"When she talks of a grand return, she believes it," Blasdell says. "But she has returned to Cambodia, by opening the schools. I'm a facilitator, but this is her dream. She's worked hard for it and in essence she has returned to Cambodia."

Andy said...

Press Telegram
Long Beach, California
4 June 2006

An uplifting true story of survival - by Greg Mellen, Staff writer

AS A CHILD, Oni Vitandham saw horrors in her homeland almost beyond comprehension. In the United States, the broken promise of a new life in its own way was almost worse. Vitandham not only survived the genocide of the Killing Fields in Cambodia as a child, but the streets of Long Beach as a teen and young adult.

She emerged as more than just a survivor, which would be commendable enough, but as a person committed to making a difference in her home

On Saturday, Vitandham will host a book signing at the New Paradise
Restaurant to celebrate the publication of her first book, "On the Wings of a White Horse: A Cambodian Princess's Story of Surviving the Khmer Rouge

A vivacious mother of one, Vitandham has the kind of sunny disposition the belies the life she has led.

More remarkable still, was her willingness to revisit her painful past in a book that was 12 years in the making.

Her story begins in the jungles of Cambodia where Vitandham, who says she's of royal descent, was hidden in a cave as a toddler. Her mother died in childbirth and her father was presumably slain later in the country's civil war, fighting against the Khmer Rouge.

Vitandham recalls in vivid details the deaths of her godparents at the hands of the Khmer Rouge communists and her battle to survive.

Along the way there are adventures, narrow escapes from death and heartache as she witnesses atrocities and loses loved ones along her treks across
Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and eventually to a Thai refugee camp.

The orphan Vitandham is finally able to leave Cambodia with a family that eventually settles in Long Beach.

However, her adoptive mother is abusive and eventually Vitandham is driven to the streets and even a couple of abortive suicide attempts.

Her travails continue when she is raped and then marries the Cambodian who impregnated her.

It isn't until Vitandham meets a local lawyer and gives birth to her daughter (she loses a twin to a miscarriage) that she begins to take charge of her life.

Vitandham leaves her abusive husband and sets out to try and fulfill a prophecy she remembers from an old monk in Cambodia that she will return to bring good to her country.

The book is a brisk read at a relatively trim 195 pages. It is an impressive undertaking for a person whose first language isn't English.

So many are her adventures and narrow escapes, that they sometimes read a bit like a Hollywood movie. In this memoir — and the memoir of a very young
child at that — it is sometimes hard to know how much of the narrative is trustworthy. That isn't to say any of this is false, but childhood memory is a tricky proposition.

Even today, the depth and ruthlessness of the Khmer Rouge's brief, murderous reign still strains any kind of rational understanding.

The book would be particularly suited to teen readers and those who are unaware of the atrocities committed in Cambodia. And the message of perseverance is certainly uplifting.

Today, Vitandham helps lead Progressive United Action Association, a nonprofit group that runs 14 schools in Cambodia. She is also a tireless writer of letters to public officials and a campaigner for Cambodian causes
and issues. Oh, and she has two music CDs, one in English and one in Cambodian. They are available on her Web site:

Vitandham hopes one day to return to her homeland, maybe even, as the book proclaims, "On the Wings of a White Horse."

Anonymous said...

October 2007, Michael Blasdell has returned to Cambodia, and is currently looking to build a location that would be his base of operations in Cambodia, possibly Seim Reap.
Dianne McNinch will be joining him in November, to travel to each of the schools, to train the teachers in the most current methods of phonation and pronounciation.