Project HOPE volunteer Pech Carson, a Cambodian-American participating in Pacific Partnership 2012, takes the water taxi to land July 29 to takes her first steps back onto Cambodia after leaving 33 years because of political instability. (Photo by Kristopher Radder)

SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA (July 31, 2012) – For one Project HOPE volunteer, Pacific Partnership 2012 is more than a chance to give something back.

It is a chance to face 33-years of uncertainty about her past.

When Cambodian-born Danielle Pech Carson, a Project HOPE volunteer, went ashore in Cambodia to bring medical assistance, she cried.

Not because she was sad to be there, but rather because it was the first time she had been to Cambodia since her family fled the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

"I was emotionally stunned once I stepped on land, it did not take me long for the memories to come back,” Danielle said.

“When I left I was a little girl, young and helpless."

"Now I have returned and my eyes are filled with tears.

Danielle's mother Samantha Pfeiffer flew to Cambodia to meet with relatives and be at the pier in Sihanoukville when Danielle took her first steps back onto her homeland.

"My mother told me she felt the same way the first time she came back and completely understood my emotions," Danielle said.

“We were overjoyed to be together with family, and when we went to the car it was filled with the fruits that I loved when I was a child in Cambodia."

Danielle was born in Cambodia in 1968, and left in 1979 when she was 11-years old.

"I experienced freedom in Cambodia until the age of seven,” she said.

“Then the Khmer Rougue took over in 1975.

“I was in total shock emotionally, and physically we were living under the constant threat of starvation.”

“We were always sick.”

Danielle said her mother worked hard to keep her and her sister alive during the four-year period before the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979 and her family escaped.

"My mother didn't want to stay in the country because it was politically unstable, she knew we could have a better life somewhere else," Danielle said.

"We escaped to Thailand with the hope of having a better life, and we ended up at a refugee camp at the Thai border."

The family was at the camp for about three weeks before a Methodist church group in Florida sponsored their way to America.

With a new life came new hope and a chance for Samantha Pfeiffer to see her daughter adapt to her new surroundings.

"She studied so hard, up till 2 am each day” Samantha said.

“They put her in the third grade and then she started jumping grades, from fifth to seventh to eighth, really fast.

"She studied so hard… and she continues to study hard today."

Danielle is currently working towards her degree as a nurse practitioner at Florida International University.

Now in her last rotation of clinical practice, the opportunity arose with Project HOPE to go to Cambodia.

It was a chance she could not pass.

Randy Roark, the professor at Florida International University that helped coordinate Danielle’s Project HOPE mission, said he was immediately interested in meeting Danielle when on her expression of interest he saw that Danielle was Cambodian.

“We interviewed her professors about her academic and clinical background," Roark said.

“Danielle is an extraordinary student, extremely caring, dedicated and received the highest praises from her professors.”

With her first steps back in Cambodia completed, Danielle said she is ready to help out at the medical civic action project sites for Pacific Partnership 2012.

"I want to connect with the people of Cambodia again,” she said.

“It’s just so meaningful to me."

For more information about the PP12 mission, please visit the Pacific Partnership Blog or engage with Pacific Partnership on Facebook and Twitter.