A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

I was going through some 2011 photos today and found this rainy day shot of Buntheourn. He is now an auto-mechanic but at the time, two and half years ago was still at high school.

Buntheourn has always been modest, helpful – everyone’s idea of the perfect son. Today he is on the brink of being an independent adult, but he remains much loved by the younger children at Savong’s children’s home: the SOC. It made me very happy to speak to him briefly on Christmas day and to learn that he was going to the big party out there.

That brief conversation made me realise how supporters and sponsors of the SOC students will forever have a bond with adult citizens of Cambodia: people we come to know first as students, and then to form bonds as adults, even simple bonds through Skype or Facebook.

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Prize Giving – 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Prize Giving - 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Savong in white – 2005. This was his first prize giving ceremony a director of Savong’s School. Today he has 20 times the school roll compared to 8 years ago.

The photo was taken on a film camera and developed poorly so it has the ancient Kodachrome look about it, but this scene is at Savong’s father’s house 2005 when Savong held his first prize-giving for students at his original classroom. That year the school in Bakong was currently under construction (it would open 3 months later) so this is truly an “old school” photo. The prize for the top student was a bicycle – a gesture that gave that put that student on the road to personal advancement. I wonder what happened to that student. Where is he today? I do know this: back then there were 25 in the class. Today Savong’s School has more than 500 students enrolled.

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

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I’d love you to join the audience thanks.

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!

A visit from a Hong Kong family

One day while at the SOC Alex (on the left) and I had the pleasure of meeting a delightful Hong Kong family who had kindly chosen to visit and make a donation to the children’s home.

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It was hot that day, so we took shelter in the office – fan powered by a solar unit on the roof – and we discussed a lot of things. I guess its true that when strangers from other nations meet, we quickly find common points of interest. We talked about China and its differences with Hong Kong, and about different forms of education. The son, a bright student of 14, was I’m sure, looking at the circumstances he was seeing in Cambodia and imagining what it would be like growing up here.

For my part I was thinking about my mother in law, who lives with my partner and I, and the life she had seen growing up in mide-Century China, near Gaungzhou. She witnessed the Japanese invasion and walked, as a child, hundreds of kilometers to find safety.  I think it was a visit to her home village in the mid 1990s that prepared me in some way for my first journey to Cambodia in 2004. Everything connects doesn’t it?

A highlight of the visit was when we introduced the family to student Kimsan and we asked questions about her life, and about her hopes and ambitions. Kimsan took the photo above.

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Our visitor from Hong Kong. We invited him, if he ever considers a ‘gap year’ initiative to stay in touch.

After the family made their kind donation – Alex records all gifting: out system is making our income streams transparent – we walked around the children’s home (the children were having lunch) and said our goodbyes, though the offer was made to leave the son here in exchange for one of “our” students. No?

But seriously, we did invite the visiting student back given that his high school – as is practice with many Asian high schools – will probably require him to undertake a ‘social good’ project. He would be most welcome.

It was a real pleasure to meet this generous family.