May 2010 Issue
In the unforgiving heat of the Cambodian sun, a mother learns of her ultimate fate: testing positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Confronted with a terminal illness, the mother is briefed of her own futility and the provided yet limited options. But in her weakest, she is also her strongest. Aware of her present responsibilities to her children and their safety, she sees past her diagnosis and understands that from this moment on she will do what she must in the time allowed to not only care for them but to leave them with a lasting impression of what is truly a mother’s love.
The mother, while being treated at the Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE, is approached by a social worker aware of a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specifically employs women living with HIV and allows them to work from home and gain skills in trade. In a country where the epidemic remains strong due to poverty, inequality and a devastated infrastructure from years of genocide, NGOs play a significant part in Cambodia’s rebuilding process.
A relationship fastened by her late grandmother, American Rachel Faller uses her long established exposure to crafts in KeoK’jay. Translated as fresh or bright green in Khmer, KeoK’jay employs HIV infected mothers and teaches them how to sew apparel and accessories for purchase in capital city Phnom Penh. At the young age of seven, Faller began stitching her own clothes under the tutelage of her mother and her grandmother who’s ancestry dates back to the textile mills that embedded surrounding city Lowell in Massachusetts during the 19th century.
Educated at Maryland Institute Island of Art with a bachelor of fine arts in fiber, Faller weaved her talents to implement her public endeavors.
“I always wanted to do something in teaching, community art projects and development,” she said in a phone interview. “I always thought I’d be a painter or some kind of fine artist, but it wasn’t until college did I think I could fuse together fine arts and crafts.”
Exposed to a Cambodian refugee community near her New England hometown, Faller drew up a proposal for the Fullbright Fellowship where in addition to aiding women with HIV in Cambodia, she would also examine the rules and regulation of fair trade and the sustainability of organic textiles in Asia. Once awarded the grant after graduation in 2008, she quickly partnered with local textile businesses compliant with free trade regulations producing organic hand dyed fabrics. Supplies are also found on trips to the market requiring deft ability to hunt through the lions den for recyclable material that add flair to summer dresses, styled shirts and accessories. KeoK’jay’s line spurred from Phnom Penh’s noticeable lack of clothing options for women—it was either high-end silk designer dresses or cheap imitations of western trends ruined after a single machine wash. The simple lines paired with playful arrangements reflect the growing number of travelers setting foot in Phnom Penh searching for quality and chic fashion.
As of late, KeoK’jay employs nine sewing staff, three store assistants and one manager. These female tailors have little to no experience in the craft, but are taught the basics and given the opportunity to purchase the sewing machine under a 12-month payment plan. With KeoK’jay, the women are encouraged to interpret Faller’s designs in their work and to strengthen their skills in preparation for those interested in self-employment.
Mary Read, owner of Cambodia House in Woollahra, Australia, imports KeoK’jay products not only for its “fresh ideas and commercial designs” but also for its focus to help the women for the long-term.
“We don’t just want producers and sewers, we want to be able to assist them to move towards independent living and livelihoods,” stated Read.
As the business continues to grow and garner worldwide attention, Faller has been slowly distancing herself and distributing more responsibilities to her Cambodian counterparts, grooming them to ultimately run the operation themselves. Taking note from the Lowell Mill Girls and their fight for fair conditions at textile mills during America’s Industrial Age, Faller heavily enforces the same palpable fervor for self-empowerment with her employees.
Without challenges there cannot be success. Strength is measured by the struggle endured, not by quantity or size but by an individual’s sheer perseverance. NGO staffers face the daily task of detaching themselves from the surrounding poverty and narrow their focus to the day’s set objectives. A mother does not focus on her depleting state of health or the cause of her fatal future. She sees just for that day, she must work.
For more information, please visit www.koekjay.org
Photos done by James Grant at http://jamesgrantphoto.com