Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

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I have been in two minds about writing this particular post. I’m uneasy about portraying individual children as poster examples of poverty or hardship, and don’t mean to tread on the privacy and interior life of these individuals. On the other hand there is a role for photojournalism to share stories about the human condition and to provoke action from those who read the stories and see the photos. So I hope you’ll forgive the story. I’m not going to name or identify the girl in the photo except to say that she lives in Cambodia and that she is 15 years old.

Her life has been unimaginably hard. When she was an infant, she was more or less abandoned by her mother who has alcohol problems of her own. For this girl, the only family she knew was her grandmother who raised her, cared for her and gave her the love that every child deserves. They lived in the house you see pictured above. Last week the grandmother died, leaving this 15-year-old girl virtually alone in the world.

Well not quite. At the funeral a few members of the extended family showed up, and so did the mother – still with her severe alcohol problems. She offered to take up care of the girl, but it was pretty obvious to Savong, who visited the family, that the mother neither has the resources or the reliability required to raise a teenage daughter.

The girl has a sponsor, and he has offered to underwrite whatever it costs to ensure that the girl receives a good education. She is a good student. Savong has openly offered her a place to stay with other high school students, and to provide the food shelter and funding to ensure that she fulfils her potential.

But if you were this 15-year-old girl, what would you do? if you had nobody else in this world other than the mother who abandoned you, and now she was back in your life, would you now turn your back on her or would you choose to live with her and see if things work out?

These are the horrible dilemmas faced by impoverished children. Rather than growing up in a world that is for them safe, caring, and geared to providing support; this girl has grown up in a world where support has been a scarce commodity at best. For most children in the situation, there is no government agency stepping in to help here. There is no extended family with the capacity to take the girl in to be cared for.

In this girl’s case, it is only luck – the luck that an NGO happens to work within her village – that has provided the girl with the option and choice she now faces even as she suffers the grief of having lost the one close person in her life.

Savong is not pressuring this girl. She knows she is welcome to stay with him; just as he knows that she has every motivation in the world to see if she can work things out with her mother. What an emotional dilemma.

Working in Cambodia often blinds people like me to what I call the romance of poverty. We are beguiled by the elegant simplicity of rural lives, and warmed by the egalitarian welcome we receive when we are invited into the homes of those we hope to assist. But occasionally, stories like the one about this girl remind us that poverty takes young people to the edge of an abyss. There is no romance about that. You can see the reality of poverty etched on her grief stricken face.

The sad story of Savong’s older brother. Click here.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

 

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Photo of Farmhouse Interior – Kampong Kdei, November 2013

Photo of Farmhouse Interior - Kampong Kdei, November 2013

One of the families I visited in Kampong Kdei lives in very simple conditions – a house with thatch walls and roof which is very comfortable during the hot months, but how about in the wet season? The boy is sponsored through High School and if he shines there, then Savong will make sure he gets the support he needs to undertake higher education in Siem Reap. His mother misses her son (he stays at the SOC in Bakong) but told me through an interpreter that her only concern is that her son gets a good education.

You are just a step away from this amazing young woman.

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This young Cambodian woman focuses on what she can achieve – and her goal is to earn a university degree.

In my country, New Zealand, the Government has just been handed a damning report on child poverty and the document makes disappointing reading for a nation that once, literally, led the world in child care and education standards. So hardship has been part of the public conversation recently – though notably, the topic is absent from the various Ministers responsible for child care. They walk a narrow road and appear happy to step over those in need.

But in the midst of this context, this public debate about poverty Savong emailed me with a photo of a young woman who resides not far from the school her runs in Bakong, Cambodia. “Brother,” he asked. “Can we support her with a university scholarship. She wants to study for a degree.”

At first when I looked at the photo my reaction was – wow, she already has a laptop – but it was only then that I noticed she was tapping the keypad with her feet, and that she lacks hands and arms: through a birth defect. What unimaginable hardship. Every sentence is a labour of love for her.

Savong’s request also came in the context of some recent discussions we’ve had about the goals and objectives of his school and scholarship programme. These remain: to help poor rural students to reach their potential and to help them achieve positive, fulfilling employment.

Yes, we are also trying to run the school and the scholarships to a tight budget (and we know we cannot serve every needy person in Cambodia,) but now you have met this young woman, and when you hear her desire to attend university and to complete a degree: when you hear that, and you examine your organisation’s objectives – how can you just walk away?

Tomorrow Savong is interviewing her in-depth to work out her needs and her details. She is from a poor family and somewhere along the line has found a supporter who gave her the laptop. But in principle the decision has already been made. There is just no way we can morally walk away from her.

This is the new paradigm of charitable work in the internet age. Years ago we used to be told of “the starving millions” and at school we felt remote from this sea of needy humanity. But today the needs, and the personalities of those who need help are a mouse-click away.

The other consequence of our highly connected world, where you are now just two degrees away from this young woman, is that she is now part of your life. I don’t in any way mean to objectify her, or to lay a guilt trip on you – far from it. But the road we travel individually is now the internet highway. We meet more people experiencing the extremes of life. Do we merely step over them?

I’m hoping you can stop a moment and consider helping her achieve her mighty goal.  Contact me and we can put you more closely in touch so that your can personally sponsor her progress.  duncan@kudos-dynamics.com

You can make an immediate PayPal donation if you like. CLICK HERE.

For moe about how out scholarship scheme works: CLICK HERE.

Hong

Hong

Hong (on the right) has been sponsored for a few years now and he’s working his way toward a qualification at the well-regarded L’ecole Paul Dubrule, a French sponsored hospitality school that trains young Khmer students to world-class standards. 90% of their graduates find immediate employment. One day I went with Hong for a coffee to the fabulous Mother Home Boutique Hotel to experience top quality service. We observed the little details, the fold of the napkins; the eye contact. And there we met another student (left) who is completing his Dubrule course. I was reminded how important it is for our own school to help connect students with potential careers. I thank Dilshad and Amir, supporters of Savong (and the guests who introduced me to Mother Home) for their discussion about our need for a career focus. Hong’s story brought it home for me.  Elsewhere – meet Kadang, who has found his niche as well.

How we assisted this dedicated Cambodian student.

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Hey, a big thank you to Nicholas in Singapore for responding to our recent story about Moeuncheat (above) a high school student who lives 50kms from Siem Reap and whose family situation meant that he could not afford to go to high school to extend his education.

Moeuncheat contacted me via friends of friends on Facebook, and I was able to post his story a few weeks ago. The first step: Savong went out to visit the boy and his mother, in order to verify the story and work out how best to help. (We wire the money from the Savong School account – and Savong’s Scholarship Supervisor phones the school and Moeuncheat on a regular basis to track progress at the high school.)

With all the paperwork in place it was gratifying to receive this Facebook message the other day:

“Hi Duncan How are you looking today ? Today i want tell you that i was get money from Savong school ready it’s 40$ .thank you very much that you hilp me.”

I look forward to see where Moeuncheat’s story takes him. I admire his determination and his detective work to find a way through his schooling dilemma. How many thousands of young Cambodians face the same obstacles? That’s why I admire the systems and solutions set up by the likes of Savong’s School, and other NGOs such as the Ponheary Ly Foundation. They are dedicated to helping students overcome the barriers that stand between themselves and their future potential. As Nicholas has demonstrated – any of us can help an individual student. You interested?