Credit: Daniel Ostenso Copyright: GetSet-Go nfp 2012.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Solida ("Lida") Ley has a disarming smile and gracious way of offering cold grape juice on a sweltering morning.
You see these things right away. It takes more time to understand the courage and personal conviction it's taken to reach this point in her life.
Lida was a young girl in the post-Khmer Rouge years. At a time when 25 percent of the Cambodian population had just been murdered during a government-led genocide, her father revealed that he had another wife and family in a different village. He abandoned Lida, her mother and her sibling.
Not long after, Lida's mother crossed the Thai border looking for work to sustain her family. After nearly a year, she sent word to the family of the date she would be crossing the border back home. She never showed up. To this day, no one knows what happened to her, or if she is even alive. It was common then for thieves and human traffickers to target Cambodian women returning across the Thai border, since it was likely the women were carrying money they had saved up from their labor.
Raised by her grandmother, Lida was compelled to drop out of elementary school to help out on the family farm. She hid a book among her few personal items so she could study in her spare time. When she saved up enough money, not much more than $20, she escaped at age 15 and went to the city to look for work and educational opportunities.
While in the city of Siem Reap, home to world famous Angkor Wat temple, Lida found work as a waitress and managed to survive on her minuscule pay.
In 2010, Lida met and befriended Wisconsin native Daniel Ostenso, who had traveled to Siem Reap to scout locations and recruit staff for a women's library. Ostenso had just founded a nongovernmental organization in Cambodia to provide high-potential, high-need women with a viable and valuable education. Of all the women that he'd met, Lida stood out for her strength of character in a place where women are pressured to stay quiet and obedient.
Today Lida is regional manager of Ostenso's organization. GetSet-Go operates a Cambodian women's library and learning center in Siem Reap that uses formal classes and advanced self-study tools to educate adult women of all ages and empower them to become equal members (and leaders) of their community, commerce and government.
Lida, 22, is now working on her education and has her sights set on going to college.
But there is one "missed connection" in her life that Lida sometimes considers, or so it seems that way in retrospect. Sometimes Lida wishes that she could go back to a humid Cambodian afternoon three years ago, to see what would have happened had she said "yes."
On that day, before her waitressing shift, she and a co-worker went to visit a pagoda in Siem Reap. There, Lida noticed a beautiful foreign woman visiting the pagoda with a very attractive man, whom Lida presumed to be her husband. The woman stopped next to her and Lida commented, "You are very beautiful. You could be a movie star," to which the woman kindly chuckled, seemingly amused.
A large man approached and said something to the woman, which Lida didn't hear. The woman waved him off, saying "it's OK," and he withdrew.
A Declined Invitation
Lida then noticed a group of people who seemed to be following the beautiful woman. "Did you come with a tour?" Lida asked. The woman and her partner chuckled at this as well. Lida apologized that she was still learning English and she did not know many words.
Lida and the woman began talking. After a bit the woman asked if Lida wanted to join her and show her around. She did not understand who this woman was. What she did know was that she risked homelessness and starvation if she lost her waitressing job. Lida declined, saying she had to get to work. Later she figured out who the woman was. By then it was too late.
To this day Lida wonders what would have happened if she'd said "yes" to U.S. film star Angelina Jolie.
Perhaps they would have struck up a friendship. Jolie might have taken her under her wing in some way, guided her in the right direction.
If only for the sake of wondering, she thinks "what if" Jolie could see her now. She wonders what if Jolie could visit the GetSet-Go women's library, could see how far a woman with no support but her own relentless determination can get.
At the very least, she would like to thank Jolie for looking her in the eye that day, treating her with respect and helping her sense her own worth.
It is that feeling of self-worth, of having a strong, steady voice to share with the world, that Lida hopes to instill and inspire in the women of Cambodia. And she's just getting started.
Carly Rose Elson is a digital marketing strategist at Google. She is passionate about issues affecting women around the world. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband. For more information about GetSet-Go or to donate, please visit: www.GetSet-Go.org.
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