Cambodia has had a difficult past. In recent history the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s evil three-year, eight-month, and twenty-day regime, has left the people scarred and is the foundation of the country’s current troubles.
The corruption in Cambodia’s government and limited access to education mean that most Khmer people live in poverty. Tourism is the major driver of Cambodia’s economy, yet little of that money finds its way to ordinary Cambodians.
Due to this, and the fact that we were on a school-organised trip ourselves, most of our time and resources were directed towards orphanages and non-government schools, such as Lavalla, a school for students with disabilities, outreach programs led by the Catholic Church in Siem Reap and Seedlings of Hope, run by the charity, Maryknoll.
At the various institutions we visited, we volunteered our time teaching and working, as well as donating 200kg of materials and $15,000 we raised in the months before our departure.
One of the institutions that made a huge impact on us all was the school Lavalla, where we spent four days. Lavalla was founded by the Marist Brothers and Fathers and Australian Marist, Br Terry Heinrich, helped co-ordinate our visit. Every student at Lavalla has a physical or mental disability, or both. Most commonly, the children are affected by polio, congenital diseases or the landmines that scatter the countryside.
Despite their inability to carry out some everyday tasks, the children were constantly happy and incredibly grateful for the time we spent with them.
In the morning at Lavalla we cleaned, painted and cleared the vine-ridden fences and after lunch, we taught English, music or physical education. We also spent breaks eating, playing and talking with the children. The time at Lavalla gave us a valuable opportunity to connect with the students. The lessons we taught them were reciprocated by the lessons they taught us: patience, gratitude and incredible resilience.
As a group, one of the best experiences we shared was visiting Stepping Out, a halfway house founded and run by an Australian woman from the Diocese of Bathurst, Clare Holman. Stepping Out is for teenagers who would like to finish their schooling and eventually attend university but are unable to do so. We spent a lot of time with the boys, playing mini golf, basketball and soccer and helping improve their English through conversation and interaction.
Clare’s work, we discovered, is of immense importance to Cambodia. The nation’s corruption means that a very small part of Cambodian society, those people linked to the political class, possess all the wealth and legislative power. By empowering and educating disadvantaged Cambodian youth, Clare and Stepping Out’s sponsors are helping to expand Cambodia’s middle class, with the aim of fighting the institutionalised corruption that curses the nation.
Even when we were not at schools or orphanages, we found ample opportunity to make a difference. We regularly ate at restaurants run by NGOs for the purposes of training disadvantaged Cambodians to give them a better future and we often patronised fair trade shops, where victims of landmines and polio-affected people were given the opportunity to earn a living through textile production.
One place we visited was Artisans d’Angkor; a project created to help the young rural population find work in home villages by providing high level skills and a vocation from which they can earn a living. These craftsmen are engaged in silk weaving, stone and wood carving, lacquering and gilding, or ornamental and silk painting. Artisans d’Angkor is also working with Aspara, the Cambodian institution in charge of the preservation of the Angkor site, to reconstruct and conserve Cambodia’s most famous archaeological site.
A profound insight of the CASP was the consistent happiness that the Cambodian people possess, despite the many hardships they and their families went through under the Khmer Rouge.
Our time in Cambodia was worthwhile and rewarding, both for our group and the people we worked with over the two weeks. Many of us hope to return to Cambodia in the future and continue our work there.