The library at Savong’s School: A place for children to enjoy their imaginations.

The library at Savong's School: A place for children to enjoy their imaginations.

My earliest reading experiences go back to when I was 4 years old and I was taken to the library in Brown’s Line, Etobicoke Toronto. The librarian would read us stories and the first story I recall was Madeleine – the girl in the post-war Parisian orphanage. The library was a place of wonder. I was reminded of this on my recent trip to Savong’s School when I saw children making themselves at home in the library. In village life there is really no space for children: no place where they can let their imaginations soar and take them to foreign lands, or to ancient times with dinosaurs, or to enjoy worlds of fantasy.

The library is such a place, and it fulfills the very same purpose as the Browns Line library did for me, 54 years ago. Sometimes a school is delivering best when it chooses to be silent and to listen – carefully – to the voices we hear in books.

A short piece about the two supporters who built the library – sight unseen. Two heroes.

Meet student Heak. I love this guy

I love this guy

Heak is a wonderful student at the SOC children’s home in Bakong, Cambodia near Siem Reap. Gracious, kind to other students, intelligent, helping the little ones – this photo was taken in 2011 and today he has grown taller and so have his responsibilities for it is he who drives the big tuk-tuk to the school each day, saving the students a hot dusty walk. I am convinced that he will go to University within a few years, and I wait in anticipation of what he will choose to do with his intelligence.

If you would like to know how to assist a Cambodian student through University, click here.

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

True Confession: What Prince Charles must feel like

There were a few moments in Cambodia recently when I felt like royalty. On my first morning out to see the children at SOC, Bakong, we drove out and Savong had arranged a reception at the gate where all the children were lined up. I’m welling up as I write this because those children applauded me as I entered the grounds – a sustained applause that made me feel both humbled and also exceptionally proud. I shook hands with the children, and high fived them – first down one side of the driveway, and then down the other side. I wanted to give something back.

I’ve been in the position of receiving honours before – in my work for example, or at high school – but this experience was on a whole different level: it was emotionally very charged.

Ten days later the school prize giving was held, and afterwards gifts were given to attendees and I helped share these out. Theavy borrowed my camera and took this photo, and to my horror I realise that slowly – through age, girth and those ears – I’m turning into Prince Charles. There’s something very: “And what do YOU do?” in my posture. But the truth is, I was treated like royalty and yes, I’m endlessly interested in the students and the hopes and dreams they possess. That greeting at the gate: honestly, that is one of the most special moments I’ve ever been treated to in my life.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

One of the standing jokes I have with the SOC students in Cambodia is how I mysteriously lost two toes on my right foot. I offer all kinds of explanations (tigers, sharks, crocodiles) but none of the students ever believe me. “You lie!” they laugh at  me. “Tell us what really happened.”

One day I met the parents of one of the students – on the left – and his father showed me the scars he suffered as a 16 year old when Pol Pot came to power. A bullet wound had fractured his wrist, while sniper fire had ripped a scar across a calf muscle. And even his right foot bore the marks of the conflict – a landmine I think – because his big toe was missing. The student and his friends urged me to show his dad my foot – so I took off my sandal and revealed my own tragic right foot. The two of us men laughed in recognition (he’s almost the same age as me) then we stopped laughing as if on cue. Clouds gathered over our cross-cultural “snap!” moment. They were the clouds of war, and of terror and of bitter memories. On the surface our wounds were similar, but mine were superficial, while his went right back to his heart.

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 boy who was nearly sold.

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A small kid with bigger dreams. Kadang was nearly sold and put into full-time work at age 10. Today he’s looked after by Savong and at 16 has found his niche. He wants to train to be a mechanic.

I know him as the boy in red, because of a photo I took in April 2009 of Kadang, pictured above. He has a compelling face, a mischievous smile and a clear sense of direction.

I first encountered his story when he was age 10. A slight boy, who comes from an utterly poor family, Kadang first approached Savong in his role of headmaster at his Bakong-based school. “I need help,” Kadang said.

The boy told Savong the awful news of how his mother was facing such poverty that she was going to take the only option that she could see open to her: to sell Kadang to a family in town. I’m not talking human trafficking here in the cynical sense – I’m talking about a woman, desperate, and willing to engage in a social contract that her son would be looked after by the other family.

But contracts come at a price, and Kadang would have been put to work, full time work, perhaps in a cafe, clearing tables or in a laundry. I hope somewhere decent. For girls the prospects are less certain.

To his credit Kadang wanted to stay with his mother if possible, or at least stay in Bakong to be near her, and he didn’t think it was fair to be put to work at age 10. “I’m just a child,” he told Savong. “I should be at school.”

And so Savong considered the situation and really that was one of the triggers in 2007/2008 to build a children’s home which he did thanks to funding from the Quill family in the USA. Today, with extensions and new toilet facilities it houses more than 50 children in situations not dissimilar from Kadang’s. Kadang was among the first students here, and when I met him in 2011 he was heading home the next few days because he was missing his mother. She lives around 1km away.

One particularly vivid memory was of one evening in April 2009 when we took Kadang to Siem Reap one evening for a medical check the next morning. He’d been feverish and so Savong asked me to make room on the seat of the Honda because we’d take Kadang on the motorcycle as well.  It was evening and Siem Reap was lit up for New Years festivities, and Kadang’s eyes were large with wonder as we journeyed through the streets.

Now the story has a slight twist. The SOC children get plenty of schooling – morning classes followed by schooling at the local primary or secondary schools – and volunteer Alex passed on a verbal comment made by the staff at the local primary school: about how well the SOC children are doing. They tend to be near top of their various classes. But having fought for schooling over fulltime work, Kadang never proved all that fond of schoolwork. He preferred working with his hands.

So what of little Kadang today? Well, he’s still in the care of the SOC though he’s 16 now, and free to leave school. What he’s doing now is an apprenticeship with a garage in town, working on cars with fellow SOC student Buntheourn.

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Now at age 16 Kadang has found what he really want to do – he’s immersed in learning all about auto-mechanics, and he loves it.

Same mischievous face, same winning smile but definitely now a young man who is enjoying his work. When I pulled up to the garage he was up to his elbows in sump oil, and helping strip an engine back for repair. He was in his element. On another evening I was driving past the garage when I spotted Kadang pulling up on a motorbike; the young man fully engaged in his work. He’s the one piloting the bike; no longer the little guy hanging on to the driver as he did in 2009.

Make no mistake, he has a way to go. Apprenticeships are not easy and there is plenty to learn. But with a burgeoning number of cars on the Cambodian roads, and with an awful environment for motors (the heat, the dust, the accidents) that can only mean one thing for Kadang’s trade, and within a few years he’ll be on an income of $300-$400 per month, which is very good by local standards. And he’ll be happy.

I’ve always admired Kadang because he had the courage to fend for his own future back in 2008. He saw a problem and brokered a solution for himself. I’m not fond of referring to anyone as the “poster child” for this or for that – but Kadang is as close as I’ll come to saying that Savong’s organisation has a poster child. He illustrates the hope and the options that open up to children who, on the face of it, lack both.

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!