It feels like forever since I was in Cambodia. I’ve since passed by five other countries - currently in Seoul, South Korea! I’ve been wanting to take some time to write a few words down to try and articulate to everyone why Cambodia means so much to me. So here goes…
Four years ago, I did some volunteer photography for KNGO, an organization in a small village outside of Battambang that provides after-school English lessons free of charge to students of the local government run schools. English is one of the keys that will help these kids open doors down the line. When you ask some of these kids what their greatest dream is in life, many of them will respond modestly by saying they wish to be a tour guide. A tour guide! This is their wildest dream! Comparing that to my greatest wish of playing in the NBA, I would say that the dreams of these kids is rather attainable. Private English lessons would be out of reach for these children’s families, so the free service KNGO provides is invaluable to them.
Two years ago, I heard of another organization back in Canada called Rotary Wheels for Learning run by the Gravenhurst Rotary Club. Their mandate is to provide bicycles for needy kids in rural parts of Cambodia so that the children are able to continue with their studies. The physical distance to school is often a huge hurdle to children wishing to access an education. A simple bike eliminates this hurdle. As a donor, you donate $50 CAD and that gets one child a bicycle. You get a tax receipt and a photo of the child who is the recipient of your generosity.
So I connected with the Rotarian responsible for the Rotary Wheels for Learning program and told them about KNGO. I thought it was a natural fit for them to provide bikes to kids attending this school. To my surprise, my generous friends and family helped raise enough money to purchase 80 bicycles for these kids at KNGO! Amazing!
This year, I wanted to assist the Rotary Wheels for Learning program with a bike distribution in Cambodia – so I joined the team for five days and helped assemble and distribute over 200 bikes in three different villages near Battambang. I was put to work – putting on pedals, baskets, adjusting seats, troubleshooting tire problems, and trying to take photos when I could. I never knew I was so handy with an Alan key and wrench. I was fortunate enough to work with over 20 volunteers who donated their time and money to help these kids out. It was an incredibly humbling experience to be part of and I hope to be able to do it again in the future. I would also recommend this to anyone looking for an enriching experience.
During my visit to Cambodia, I also got the chance to revisit KNGO and speak with a few of the kids who received bikes last year and to pick the brain of the Director of KNGO Sun Saveth, asking about the changes to the program over the last four years. He had begun to build classrooms on his personal plot of land in hopes of moving the kids from the government schools to the classrooms on his property. It doesn’t seem like a significant thing to simply move to a new space across the street, but getting to witness it firsthand, I noticed that there were simply too many distractions at the government school and that the ones attending class on KNGO grounds were much more switched-on and attentive. Saveth’s goal was to eventually move all the classes to his plot of land.
As I was wandering around, I noticed one classroom was not in use. Saveth told me that the classroom was ready but he didn’t yet have the money for basic plastic chairs. Remembering that my good friend Tasso from Toronto had given me some money to gift for a good cause, I offered to split the difference with Tasso and so together we gave Saveth the money to purchase the chairs. Amazingly, Saveth sent me photos of the classroom full of kids only a few days later. Thank you Tasso.
Over the years people have asked me why I care so much about this country. Why I seem to have a stake in this place and its people despite not being Cambodian or having any ties with it. The knowledge I have of this beautiful country comes from the books I’ve read and the four trips I’ve made here dating back to 2003. It is an incredible place with a lot of problems that are difficult to solve and hard to grasp as an outsider. The answer is you cannot read about the history of this place and experience its people and not care.
The Khmer Rouge. Genocide. For three years, eight months and 20 days, ending in 1979, Cambodia experienced a genocide unprecedented in history. Pol Pot, probably one of the worst people ever in history, lead a regime that was responsible for the death of 20% of Cambodia’s population. It targeted the country’s elite - the intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, professionals, academics, even people who wore glasses or had soft hands - basically anyone who wasn’t a rural farmer. They emptied the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, and placed them into reeducation camps or prisons. Many who perished were buried in one of the over 20,000 mass graves uncovered in the country.
All of this is just words and numbers until you meet someone whose sister starved to death in a reeducation camp. It is just words and numbers until you meet someone who looks exactly like his father - the one he grew up never knowing, not even having a photo of - because he was taken by the Khmer Rouge. It is just words and numbers until you see firsthand how it has led to social and economic problems that still exist more than 35 years later.
One of these problems is the lack of access to quality education. If you think about how the genocide took away the most enterprising portion of the population, it makes sense that the quality of education starting from the teachers and trickling down to the students is quite low. It will take generations to recover, but it starts with educating the youth there NOW.
So yes, I do have an affinity to this country and its people. I can’t know what I know and see what I’ve seen and not be moved by this special place. Until we meet again…