As a writer and photographer, Andy Gray (MACCS ’94) documents stories for Alongsiders International, a nonprofit organization that empowers young people around the world to walk alongside disadvantaged children. When he was photographing campers at Shalom Valley, their retreat center in Cambodia, one young girl evaded him, covering her face and cringing whenever Andy lifted the camera. Andy soon learned her name was Kheing and that she wasn’t just avoiding the camera—she was hiding extropia, a disease that caused her left eye to permanently turn outward.
A year later, the organization sent Andy to the town of Sihanoukville to take pictures and gather stories, and when he arrived at the village church, a boisterous group of children greeted him—including Kheing. Wanting to learn more about her life, he asked to speak to her, and the children gathered around to help. As he asked questions, the children would listen and stand close to Kheing’s face, translating and speaking slowly in Khmer. “Something fell into place that I hadn’t understood until that moment,” he remembers. “She was reading lips.” Andy realized that Kheing was deaf, and it was a sacred moment to watch the other children work so hard to mime and translate for her. “The crowd of peers were doing whatever it took for them to communicate with her,” he says.
The children weren’t always so eager to help Kheing in this way, and it was a young woman named Paektra who first noticed her walking alone past neighborhood kids who were teasing her. The moment inspired Paektra to join Alongsiders, befriend Kheing, and convince the kids to stop. “In Cambodia, kids with disabilities are often left behind or purposefully excluded,” Andy says. “In the balance of power, having an older person with respect in the community standing up for her made all the difference.” Because of Paektra, Kheing was now surrounded by a new circle of friends—friends who were eager to befriend her and translate her story for Andy. “Paektra was a living sermon,” he says, “showing the way of Jesus to Kheing and bringing ‘church’ to her whenever they meet.”
After their conversation, Andy took new photos of Kheing, with her friend beside her, making the sign for peace.
+ Andy and his wife Hitomi (PhDICS ’99) design curriculum, write, and edit online content for Alongsiders International. Explore more of Andy’s photography and stories at alongsiders.org.