Alex – farewell for now

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Alex Brkljacic is an Australian volunteer who has never been afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in. Alas, her bowl didn’t quite make it – but she is an indelible part of the SOC story.

Alex Brkljacic is the model volunteer, and has been pure gold for the last five months in Cambodia.  Don’t ask how to pronounce that surname, it involves consonants mixed liberally with phlegm, so it is no wonder that everyone just calls her Alex. Visitors, staff members in Savong’s organisation and the kids – the children of the SOC who adore Alex for her patience, her engagement, her humour and energy. She is their big sister.

Alex first came to Cambodia a few years back with a Melbourne family, the Palti clan, who arrived in a blizzard of activity and helped really energise the whole project. Their influence is felt to this day, and among other things the Palti family instituted the first day trips and longer for the SOC children – taking them on excursions that have marked their shared stories. Kulen Mountains, a great water fall swimming spot, and further afield.

Alex, who was a teenager at the time, was seduced by Cambodia. She has since returned multiple times. On her recent stay Alex has primarily served as a volunteer co-ordinator for the SOC, though that’s a rather drab title for the sheer value she has given the organisation. Co-ordinator, communicator, facilitator – she has been a kind of social glue who has bonded dozens of visitors with the NGO.

I only met legendary Alex for the first time just a month ago and was struck by her sharp observations, her quiet ‘let’s nudge this forward’ way of operating and her real humility. I have to say this (and this is hard for a Kiwi) but Alex personifies everything that’s great about Australians – the bigness of their hearts, their optimism, their egalitarian outlook and their generous helping of energy.

She is adored by the children, and it is fitting that on her last weekend in Siem Reap (she’s taking a short break in Thailand,) Alex shared her Sunday with the SOC students on a journey to Kulen Mountains. It is a great ritual: the drive, the hike to see the Buddha, the picnic and then the swim in those deliciously cool waterfalls – and this journey was punctuated by a flat tyre on the way home and a long wait in the heat. It was a feast for the tiger mosquitoes.

Alex’s blog remains cheerful as ever. She’s going to be missed for sure, but the Melbourne Cup bookies are already taking bets about how soon she’ll be back.  Alex is studying for a psychology degree – she has a wise head on her shoulders – but Cambodia keeps calling.  Alex is in no unnecessary hurry to finish uni and join the rat race. Not yet.

Follow her blog. LOVE IN CAMBODIA

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The FaceBook in the paddy field. A journey through time to Kampong Kdei.

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The photo above shows one of the new sponsored boys at the children’s home supported by my friend Savong’s organisation: SOC. The main objective of the organisation is to provide free education to students in order that they reach their academic and vocational potential. The language school was always the primary activity, but since 2008 Savong has provided a home for students whose parents are unable to support their children through school. Just recently 7 new students asked for such housing assistance.

Asked for? One of the boys, Mouencheat had found us via the family cellphone which in Cambodia is cheap enough ($20 something US dollars) but also smart enough that he was able to FaceBook us to make initial contact while he stood in a rice paddy during planting season. I’ve documented Mouencheat’s story elsewhere; how after he contacted me I asked Savong to make the trek out to the village, 40 kms away, and to interview the family. Circumstances were tough for the mother and we found a kind sponsor in Singapore, Nicholas, to provide the educational support.

Two things happened. While Mouencheat was finishing off his academic year at his local high school, he told a few friends about what he had tapped into. A few of his friends also needed help.

Meanwhile Savong considered where the best academic help might be found for this diligent “Gang of Seven.”  Back in Bakong where the SOC has its home, the local High School (now renamed the Han Sen Bakong High School – clearly a flagship for Cambodia’s Prime Minister) as well as Savong’s School with its scholarships to University are both going from strength to strength. I’m guessing; but I doubt if there are too many rural districts in Cambodia as well served educationally.

So in the circumstances Savong discussed with the families about the students transferring to the SOC in Bakong for the new academic year. They did this willingly and so far, just a few weeks after moving, the students have settled in easily.

Last weekend I joined these students to visit their parents in Kampong Kdei, a journey we made in a seated pick-up truck. Between the students, their SOC friends, two drivers as well as volunteer Alex and myself we numbered at least 20: pretty standard in Cambodia.

We took off in the morning and headed East along Number 6 Highway which links Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to visit the parents and families one by one. The photo above comes from the first visit. We sat inside the one room farmhouse and what you see in the photo is pretty much all there is.

With the son’s help translating, I learned of their family livelihood – rice farming and of the mother’s hopes, beyond anything else that her children might get a proper education. I asked if life for her would be harder without her son home to assist, but she just repeated her belief that the children’s education comes first.

In fact she hoped that next year the SOC would be able to help her 15 year-old daughter as well. That’s the girl’s study area below.

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What I was most conscious of on our journey was the sense that time and progress palpably slip backwards the further one travels from the cities. Kampong Kdei is the Cambodia I saw 10 years ago. Progress has not reached even this 40 km distance in that time. What we’re offering by bringing their children within reach of Siem Reap is an opportunity to go to University (give it two years: the students are in Grade 10). Between Mouencheat’s use of the internet, and our NGO we’ve helped speed up progress.

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The boy’s mother was very generous – as were the parents of each student. We were plied with fresh coconuts, the milk tasting as sweet as dessert wine, and graciously treated. It was extremely humbling, but I am glad of this journey because it highlighted the importance placed on education. We owe it to these seven families, as well as those others we serve, to do our very very best to support them.

If you’d like to be a sponsor or want further details, please contact me. duncan@kudos-dynamics.com