Personally connecting to a non-profit has always been important to me. But I had no idea what was in store for me in Cambodia.
Breakthrough Austin came alive for me during Visitors Days, and changed me from passive donor to active champion. For my first Ironman, my cause of Transplants for Children became a part of me as I sat next to Elida as she underwent dialysis. I believe that education is the best solution to almost any problem, but I went to Cambodia in search of a deeper connection with Room to Read. I returned having left a part of me back in Cambodia, and I came back with much more than I could have imagined.
My first 48 hours in Cambodia were just understanding more about the country, and trying to breathe it in. But our Atlassian Trip to work with Room to Read really began on Wednesday night.
We met the Room to Read team at their Siem Reap office in early evening. They were friendly, passionate about their mission, and had a great sense of humor and love of life. As Kall, the country director for Room to Read walked us through elements of the program, I was impressed with how they were attacking a complex problem from all angles: getting government approval for their programs, influencing the government supplied curriculum, training teachers in how to better create literate students, improving the chances for girls to achieve independence, and creating libraries and books seemingly out of thin air.
At dinner, I asked Kall about his educational background, and how that contributed to his passion for the Room to Read mission. At 12, like all the men of his generation, the Khmer Rouge forever changed his life. He was separated from his family as they fled Phnom Penn, and never saw his family again. He has connected with a few siblings who fled to the states in later years, but he has never heard what happened to his parents, grandparents, or the rest of his siblings. He wandered alone in the countryside, barely surviving off what he could find, then being taken in by families along the way. “I was alone – I had no family.” And after the war was over, he was still alone, with no family. His family had always valued education, and Kall worked to finish his own education, a struggle to survive alone, have enough to live on, and complete the education he knew he needed.
And yet through all of this, Kall is a beacon of hope, and not jaded, or cynical – and seems to never rest in pursuit of making sure Cambodia is a country “where all children can pursue a quality education, reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world.”
I’m humbled in the presence of Kall. I went back to the hotel and had a restless sleep, still unaware of what tomorrow would bring.
Samrong Secondary School
Hopping on the bus at 7 AM, we joined the Room to Read crew and drove out into the Cambodian countryside to a rural village to visit a secondary school. Less than an hour from Siem Reap, you are in a different world.
Getting off the bus, we donned the straw hats given to us by a waiting crew of kids, climbed aboard single speed bicycles with wide handlebars, and rode off towards the pagoda. A crowd of kids awaiting, cheering and waving, greeted us. We were being celebrated, when the heroes were the kids and families who clapped and waved.
The pagoda was beautiful, and set perfectly in the Cambodian countryside.
Tien Tien Goose
The kids taught us a counting game, in English, where they add 1+1, then 2+2, and so on, with hand motions for each number (8 you put your finger in your cheek, 16 you swivel your hips, 32 you point to your teeth, 64 you act like an old man with a cane). Then we taught them duck-duck-goose (Tien is the word for Duck in Cambodian but I can’t remember the name for Goose). Turns out that Leak Kon Saeng is a game in Cambodia that is similar to duck-duck-goose and played at New Year’s, so the kids took right to it. And I got caught twice. These little kids are fast!
We drew on paper with the kids – I whipped up a picture of Alaska with the moose figure I’ve been drawing since I was 10 or 11. Though I put the antlers too low. Now Cambodian kids won’t recognize a Moose when they see one…
The kids sang songs for us and we sang “If you’re happy and you know it…” back to them. At that point I realized I hadn’t uttered a sarcastic word for about four hours, which probably hasn’t happened since I learned to spell sarcasm. I was happy, laughing, having a great time, and truly unencumbered for the first time in over a year.
Then the questions came. 12, 13, 14 year old girls were asking us questions. Do people get married very early in Australia? Then the doozy: “My friend’s mother is sick. My friend is very young, but a man will pay her mother’s medical bills if she marries him. Her mother may die without the medical treatment. What should my friend do?” I gave the best answer I could, but the fact that this question exists fell on me like a lead blanket – that teenage girls every day are balancing the health of the parent they love against their personal future and independence. Abstractly, I am not surprised. Concretely, looking at this girl, and hearing her words, I am buried alive.
After lunch, we watched the Girls Education Program, where three girls who graduated from Room to Read a few years back have returned to teach girls about health and hygiene. How to find safe drinking water. How to prepare food to avoid illness. What foods to eat for immunity, growth, and energy. All the things that we’d call common knowledge that don’t exist in many villages. At the end of the day a girl sang a song that she had written in English, for us. Her plea was that we’d remember her after we left. She began to cry as she sang the song, and I looked to Andrew, hoping that someone was keeping it together, but both of us had watery eyes and were completely choked up. Even thinking about it now, I’m exhaling and swallowing hard to keep from starting all over again.
The rest of the day was a physical and emotional roller coaster. As westerners, we’re not great at sitting on the hard ground, and I was feeling it by the time we climbed into an Ox cart to visit a girl’s home. Audra, a student, and I were in one cart. But with no translator it was hard to communicate as we rode along. Our Ox cart took several wrong turns but eventually we came to the home of a family of one of the girls, only to discover that it wasn’t her parents we were meeting.
Why don’t you write your parents a letter?
Kall translated as the family told us their story. The girl’s parents left for Thailand, because the father had become sick, and they had taken out a micro-loan to pay for the surgery, but could not afford to pay for the loan unless they went to Thailand to work. So they migrated, leaving her younger brother and sister behind as well, for their Aunt and Uncle to care for. Surrounding us there must have been nine kids in addition to her brothers and sisters. As she began to talk about her parents, she began to cry.
I wanted to walk over to her and pick her up, and take the ox cart back to the airport, and fly her to Thailand, and find her parents, pay off their loan, and fly them back to Cambodia. But Room to Read knows that doesn’t solve the bigger problem. When she gets sick or her husband gets sick, who is going to pay then? If she gets an education, and then gets a job, then she won’t have to leave her kids. But I am not that strong. I want to give in and take the easy way out, just to stop her crying.
As she was crying, a question bubbled up in my mind – I wonder how she talked with her parents. Did she write them? I realized that no, since her parents cannot read what she writes. And they cannot afford international phone calls. She sees them once a year.
I left the home with a heavy heart. Her Aunt and Uncle live in a hut, with almost nothing, and yet they’ve taken in three more kids to raise. When asked what she did for fun, she had no answer at first, and then told us “cleaning around the house.” This is a child almost without a childhood, except what she gets at school.
An inner tube
I have maybe 10 inner tubes in my closet, in my spare bike parts closet. At our next family’s hut, this girl explained to me how she rides her bike to school, but that a few weeks ago she had to skip going to school, because she had a flat tire. To buy a new tube, she fed pigs for three days at 20 cents and hour. Three days later, after missing three days of school, she had a new inner tube and could go back to school. Everything is hard for these girls. Nothing is easy. Everything I take for granted is a struggle for them.
On the ride home, I sat next to a Room to Read graduate, who is studying to be a teacher. I asked her about university and what it’s like, looking for common ground. What are your roommates like? Do you hang out with them? Do you live in a dorm? I thought, sure, the rural village life is far away from even my life growing up in a trailer in King Salmon, Alaska. But I can trade stories with a college student and find shared experiences.
But there were almost none. She can only talk with her family once a week. She is working full time and wants to keep studying, to become certified to teach the upper levels of high school, and then become a teacher of teachers. She wants all the right things, and everything is a sacrifice. There are no dorm parties, no social events. She does not have time or money to go out to eat with her housemates. Her family struggles to find a way to fund her next set of classes, or to find a mode of transportation from class to work. Even the girls who have “made it” still have it tougher, and they seize every opportunity they are given.
I’m dizzy. I want to sell my worldly possessions and walk the earth as a monk. Tonight, I don’t want to talk to anyone from my company, or anyone on earth. I can’t read a single page without my mind jumping somewhere else. I can barely order dinner. I look around me, at the hotel I’m staying at, and ask why life is so incredibly unfair. Why do I deserve the life I have? I have no answers to any question I ask. The world makes no sense.
In the midst of the internal chaos of my emotions, I find a small moment of peace – I am glad I came to Cambodia. I was looking for a simple connection with the cause I had chosen. I’m in a lot deeper now. And as much as that connection is confusing me now, I am privileged to have seen what I saw today, and I feel lucky to have the curtain peeled back a little further.
Not the end
Friday came with more surprises. But I’ve written enough for now.