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Cambodian Poet: “What doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”

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Download Poet Kosal Khiev has just return from representing Cambodia at the cultural event of this year’s Olympics. He was chosen to attend from 6,000 poets nominated from around the world.

Kosal spent most of his life as a refugee in the United States. His family fled the Khmer Rouge when he was a teenager.

It was there – in US prisons – that he learnt poetry.   He was deported to Cambodia last year and now writes poems to inspire young Cambodians.

Khortieth Him has his story.

That’s Kosal Khiev in London at the Poetry Parnassus - a cultural event at this year’s Olympic- the world’s largest gathering of poets.

He recited a poem about hope, called ‘Earthy’.

31-year old Kosal Khiev was the only Cambodian at the international event.

He cried when he found out he was going to London.

“I never knew that it is possible you know. I just want to see the Olympic, just being there and see the Olympic. I mean it’s a dream come true. It was my first time and it is amazing because it is like oh wow there are so many people, so many people from different walks of life. It was so multicultural. At London was huge. When I get on stage, I was so nervous. Then I started doing my poems. I finally got in the moment and let myself go.”

He was surprised by the audience reaction.

“All those great poets gather in London and we were united as one. We shared stories and being a part of this collective feeling was beautiful. There was no boundaries. We’re just a group of people wanting to share stories from different perspectives.”

This is one of Kosal’s first poems, called “Why I Write”. It explains how he wants to give a voice to voiceless people.

He learnt about the art of spoken word inside a prison in the United States.

He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and then he fled to the United States with his family to escape the violent Khmer Rouge regime.   

It was there that he got into trouble with the law.

“At the age of 16, I already joined a gang and did illegal things. You know, selling drugs, doing drugs, drinking. That year, I got arrested. Then I started writing. There was a moment where I found that poetry is a form of expression. It gave me a channel to express what I was feeling. All what I went through, I wrote that on a piece of paper.”

He was imprisoned for 15 years.

Last year, he was released and deported to Cambodia by the US government.

“I had never been home to Cambodia. home. I didn’t know what to do, I had no idea. I don’t know how to read or write Cambodian. I arrived here in Phnom Penh, didn’t really know anybody. Then one night I got on my motorcycle and drove around the city. Then I realised that I was falling in love. I saw all the possibilities in the city, that there is so much beauty here. That there’s so much you can do.”

Cambodia became Kosal’s new home.

He writes poems about his life – especially his experiences of being a Cambodian refugee and surviving prison in America.

“Most of my poetry is written through hardship and moving forward from that stage. So a lot of my stuff is dark, full of anger, sadness, tragedy, but there’s hope, that there’s a light in the end. You can go through this, this is not the end. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You’re still breathing, you’re still alive. Once you overcome it, you’re stronger.”

His works attracted the attention of Studio Revolt – an independent media lab in Phnom Penh.

Anida Yoeu Ali is the studios co-founder.

“His talent, his poetry and his performance are very impressive. We offered him to collaborate with us.”

This video is the first part of “Verses in Exile” – series of short films from Studio Revolt featuring his poetries.

Kosal wants to encourage young Cambodians to express themselves in positive ways – especially those who have had a difficult life.

“I think sometimes people don’t have any voice to say that they’re feeling lonely, angry, sad or happy. They don’t know how to express it. That motivates me to do what I do, because I can speak for them through my poetry. I give them the power and courage to see themselves in a positive way. A lot of people express their feelings in a negative way.”

Studio Revolt is planning a touring screening of Kosal’s first documentary film titled “Cambodian Son” about his life and work.

“My mission is just to keep telling stories and keep letting people know to love, support each other. Let’s not be separated by colour or dialect or language, but let’s come together with one vision and build the future with no boundaries or separation. We will have creative events, with music, traditional culture, poetry, art, dance. I want to see what they can become and what good things to happen.”

He’s planning to work closely with a Geneva-based International Bridges to Justice – an NGO that fights for ordinary citizen’s legal rights and put and end to the use of torture for investigation.

“I’m trying to educate the youth in custody in Cambodia. I hope to do some talks in prisons and see their condition – what we can do to educate them. I will also work with youth in custody in the United States. And hopefully we can bridge the two to share perspectives. I think it will be good for both.”

With all his projects, Kosal wants to help Cambodian young people.

“I want to give some impacts to the youth. That they have a voice, to give them hope. And to show them that nothing is impossible. With hard work and self-reflection, and hope, they can see the power within themselves. That’s the impact I want to leave for them. They should start envisioning the future as inspiration. To see what they really want to do, what legacy that they will leave behind when they’re old.”

After Kosal Khiev’s performance in London, Anida Yoeu from Studio Revolts believe that he is an inspiration.

“I think Kosal is a great representation of  hope - that someone who went the wrong way in the US can find the right way here in Cambodia. Isn’t that great to represent Cambodia on international stage like that? He says ‘I’ve changed, I’ve come through a great violence, but look at me now, my work is really good.’”

This poem is called “My Asia America” – reflecting how much Kosal misses his family in the United States.

“My family is in the United States, in California. My mom, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, they’re all there. Yes I miss them. That’s another thing about deportation – that immigration agency can separate families just like that. It’s sad to be separated from your loved ones.”
Last Updated ( Monday, 27 August 2012 10:47 )  

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