March 2017- Our holiday and Karen and Steve’s visit. By Jake
A story of two families, and how together they are inspiring each other to make a difference in this beautiful world.
For Stevey this is the 3rd time he had touched down in Siem Reap and for Karen the 4th. And certainly by the sounds of it, by a long way, not the last.
After an amazing holiday together we were recharged and ready to hit Siem Reap with a fresh set of eyes and ready to feed off each other’s passion about continuing to give back to the amazing Cambodian people. A side note, the cruise, which initially made me anxious due to the ‘old person’ connotations and lack of communication, turned out to be the most beautiful opportunity to disconnect from the never ending emails, Facebook updates and phone calls and instead connect as a family and re-discover the beauty of conversation when everyone is 100% engaged without distractions.
Now back to the important aspect of this email, Cambodia. Coming back from Singapore, as the plane started to descend through the clouds to reveal the relatively dry and baron landscape this time of year, it is impossible not to have a sense of excitement when the whole family is together (excluding Scotty, sad face) and ready to explore. It was only a matter of a few hours, hotel check in for Karen and Steve, throw the bags back home for us, then we were straight into it.
What started as a catch up with Pheakdey’s beautiful growing family turned into a summary of all the exciting opportunities for Karen, Steve and I to catch up with all our epic scholarships students and to challenge ourselves as we do every year to understand more about who they are as people and their amazing families.
This all started the next day when we loaded up the tuk tuk with 50kgs of rice, the parents, myself and Pheakdey and headed out to our school village to see our newest scholarship student Theorum. As I have mentioned before, the most inspiring little dude ever, with an intellect for technology that must surely be unmatched considering his life circumstances. Behind this little guy is a very positive set of smiley and excited grandparents who seem to be there for him every step of the way. Not to mention his little sister and brothers who are around with smiles and in his sister’s case, sitting quietly doing her homework for the week ahead (a future scholarship student I am sure). The purpose of the visit was to pay for a new thatched roof and deliver their monthly slab of rice (50kgs) to help the family save money for more nutritious additions such as meat and veggies (some already being grown in the grandad’s garden, of which he seems very proud). After we said our goodbyes we decided, instead of taking the tuk tuk, to walk back through the village to our increasingly beautiful village English school. Although the physical beauty of the school is rapidly increasing, with ongoing renovations bringing it to a very high and practical standard for our students the real beauty lies within the walls of that school!
Only a few weeks before Karen and Steve’s arrival I was invited to a community event which our school hosted on our land. All the officials of the commune/village were invited with the purpose of sharing information about what we offer to the students in the area. The usual speeches followed, but the most exciting part for me were the comments from the brave students who stood up in front of the 100 strong crowd to express how thankful they were for the help we all have provided them in starting to learn English. This was backed up, by perhaps the most heartfelt of all, comments from parents who said that they encouraged all remaining parents to enroll their students if they hadn’t already due to the importance of education in this day and age.
Over the past week, Karen has taken on the school as a little bit of a side project, going out their independently whilst I was at my paid work, to work with Soury our amazing morning teacher to learn more about her as a person, but also to make sure she had all the resources she needed to teach the class effectively. If there is something Karen does well, it is giving people the opportunity to be open and to share their story, without judgement and with the kind and heart on the sleeve type of conversation she is so well known for.
Soury spoke to Karen about her family and the struggle she experienced as a young woman who wanted to push herself to get an education against the traditional view that woman should be at home. Something she has achieved beyond any expectation, she said to me yesterday, which cemented this, for the first time ever her dad said to her on her last visit home that he was proud of what she had achieved. The fact that as a 22 year old, increasingly educated woman, who has found meaningful work with us and able to now provide some financial support for the family, meant that she was right in chasing the dream of more.
Karen continued throughout the week popping back out to the school to catch up with Soury and Chai (our afternoon teacher), delivering each time new exciting resources that her and Steve had searched for high and low throughout the local books shops!
As the days went on, our next stop as an entire group was to visit the village which houses Angkor Kids Centre, which was my first real insight to real Cambodia so many years ago and still today where the bulk of our scholarship students live or lived. The idea of the visit was to give each other an insight to the lives lived by each other and also for us to spend time together as a group meeting the families of many of students and exploring another beautiful part of this amazing country. Those who are now residing in the city, loaded into tuk tuks and headed out to be greeted by the rest of our amazing group who where waiting for us at the village.
I could write all day about each and every family we visited that day. But rather I would like to talk about the experience as a whole. Generosity and kindness is the first two words which must be mentioned. Every one of the 5 or 6 families we visited radiated this, with big smiley welcomes, offerings of coconuts or a small feast – whatever was available they could give you. We don’t do any of this to get anything in return – as much as I do enjoy a free coconut, we do this because we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to better themselves! Of course we can’t offer this opportunity to everyone, but what I think we have achieved is supporting an amazing cross-section of young people from this village. We are supporting the most inspiring group of young people who each have a unique story and dream, but together are without doubt going to change the face of this village and Cambodia as a whole.
Another thing which cannot be ignored by our visit to the village is hardship. Of course kindness and generosity is the first thing you see in Cambodia, but in too many situations this is the light shining through from a deep darkness, which is the hardship they have all endured and continue to endure everyday. Life isn’t easy, harder for some than others, but generally life is a bit of a challenge. This isn’t met with complaints though, but rather determination and excitement for the future. With every generation that comes, there is hope for more. Whether it be a student who grew up only with grandparents, or a student who had to work at 15 to try and buy a pig for the family to make a sustainable income, or a student who still lives in nothing more than a thatched hut, they all have hope. The most inspiring thing of course is the combination of these qualities. Hardship, determination, generosity and kindness. I offer ponder what makes Khmer people unique and I think I have just answered by own question. The unique combination of the four words above is what makes them unique, the hardship this country and these people have endured is vast. But rather then dwelling in the past they, without deviation, look forward, because what is to be gained for feeling bad for yourself, they replace this with positivity and determination and along the way never forget about the hardship others face and therefore the importance of generosity.
Perhaps a nice time to say I think this too represents a vast number of our donors. Not the richest of the rich and often with backgrounds that could easily be considered super difficult, but they too want to share what they have, in whatever way they can, to give people not just in Australia but those who really need a helping hand here in Cambodia, a chance of a better future. And believe me this is being achieved each and every day.
Perhaps the perfect end to our time together here in Siem Reap was the experience we were lucky enough to be part of last Friday night.
There is an amazing lady whose name has come into our lives over the past few months, her name is Thavy Thon and she is the author of a book called “A Proper Woman”. In short it is a book which talks about her own challenges and the challenges of woman generally in Cambodia, in gaining access to equality in all areas of their life, most notably education. As I mentioned briefly with Soury’s story, too often it is the expectation that woman will stay at the family home, or at least in the village, and often live a life of a housewife and mother. Thavy from a young age rose up against this ideology and wanted more from her life. Although she was blessed by having a supportive family, she is aware that too many do not and wanted to write this book as a reference point for the countless woman out there who are going through the same challenge. Two of my favourite quotes from her book, which were highlighted to me by Pheakdey (1step champion country manager) are these:
“If you are a woman I hope you will find inspiration and encouragement to do what you love and be who you are. You are not alone as you experience the unfairness and inequality all around you”
“If you are a man I hope you will gain a better understanding of how it feels to live under such unfair and rigid social realities. Not only just to understand the issues, but to take action, to pay better respect to woman, your wife, your mother, and your sisters, and to speak up in support of equal rights”
Thavy was coming to Footprint Cafes (my previous employer) to do a book reading and signing, the higher powers (can choose your own) set this date on the last day of Karen and Steve’s trip. (Karen had already read the book and her and my Aunty Jenny had decided to buy each student a copy of the book!) So of course Pheakdey gathered all our amazing students (those who didn’t have evening exams or other engagements) to join us to hear the amazing stories of a strong and powerful force, that is Thavy. It was so great to see our 12+ students in the front row staring at Thavy listening intently to her story of rising up against inequality and how she continues to push the boundaries of what was considered impossible to carve out a future for herself and her family. Gender inequality is an issue everywhere in Cambodia, but from the inception of 1step it was something at the forefront of our minds. At the moment (and always) we have an equal gender balance in our group of students, believing that providing both genders with fair opportunities is without question the only way of operating. Something I found especially inspiring was the fact that of our many students who attended Friday night (always optional) there were more males than females. When I was listening to Thavy and her thoughts on Cambodian men, I thought although correct on the whole, I was proud of the fact that the males we support have never radiated anything other than respect for our female students and all seem to value woman as the equally strong and incredible force which they are.
This brings me in a full circle back to a story of two families. When I grew up and still today my family have always supported me in every way they can. From the crazy ambitions that Scott and I have had in the past and continue to have now, my Mum and Dad each and every time threw 100% support behind us. My whole life I saw parents who supported me and specifically a strong woman (mum) who everyone respected and who didn’t let her gender or anyone’s outdated opinion influence what she did in her own life and the support she provided to her sons. Equally, Stevey, not a young dad by any means, still a Dad whose mind has been more progressive and inclusive then people 40 years his junior in regards to his sons, has provided support in a completely different set of ways to us without question our entire life.
This has led to 1step1life being not just an NGO, but a family. I couldn’t have it any other way. These young people aren’t just students, they are part of our lives, we aren’t sponsors, we are family. And a family that will support any dream, no matter how big, no matter how crazy and no matter how much it challenges the norms of society. Equally a place where students from all genders, from all life backgrounds, from any subset of society will be welcomed, encouraged and loved.
To Mum & Dad, the biggest thanks for the past 3 weeks, it has been incredible!
To our students, keep doing what your doing, don’t change a thing and never give up on your dreams
To my wonderful two aunties and nan for their ongoing support for 1step.
To our sponsors, making this possible is deserving of more thanks than I can ever provide. But hopefully the stories of progress and passion you see from our students is the most powerful thanks in itself.
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