Bec O’Brien, guest author and recent participant from the January tour, gives a reflection on her experience.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” – My dad.
You know that moment when a quote really sticks with you? …I guess you wouldn’t know if you don’t know. Because “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Hmm… Well that quote has always resonated with me. My dad said it to me when I was twenty and first contemplating going to University.
It’s not until you learn about something pretty significant that you think, “How did I not know that?”
The time I spent in Cambodia consisted of 500km of cycling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with a relatively new company called Social Cycles. I learnt so much along the way. Lucky it’s my favorite thing to do. Well, almost.
“Social Cycles is a start-up social enterprise enabling people to visit local Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia by bicycle. It is designed for those who want to help, but are not sure how. For the kind hearted and the curious. For the sceptical and inquisitive. For the open minded and the adventurous. Social Cycles brings people together to educate ourselves by helping others.” – Social Cycles.
Social Cycles gave me the opportunity to learn more than I could have hoped for in such a short amount of time. It reminded me of the importance of educating ourselves, as it gives us the knowledge to make the best choices possible.
Throughout our adventure, we learnt a lot about how to be a child safe traveler. I was not aware that the majority of children in Cambodian orphanages, are not orphans. Basically as tourism has increased, so have the number of orphanages. Why? Because people like you and I think we are doing a nice thing by paying to volunteer our time and skills in developing countries. Intentions are great, but in most cases it is doing far more harm than good. Unfortunately, as we all know – where bank can be made, it will be. Rather than empowering families and communities through education, training and support, families are broken because many children are put into orphanages, and often abused. Even in circumstances where children may not be abused, it is a well-researched fact that children deprived of a family bond are significantly disadvantaged.
Each NGO we were privileged to visit was supported by a wonderful campaign called Child Safe Tourism.
“No matter where we are in the world, we each have a responsibility towards children; especially in keeping them safe from abuse. Children in tourist areas are especially vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Sometimes without realizing it, we may do things that inadvertently keep children exposed to a cycle of abuse. So it’s important we know how to take simple actions to minimize harm to children and help create a Child Safe Tourism environment. The Child Safe Tourism campaign aims to arm us with knowledge and information on the simple things each of us can do in order to be a child safe traveler.” – Child Safe Tourism.
It is no surprise that Cambodia have many challenges to tackle due to the tragic history of Khmer Rouge, and the continuous power imbalance of the Cambodian government.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has failed to step up high enough for the human rights of its citizens, therefore NGO’s in Cambodia have taken on the responsibility instead. Social Cycles only met with NGO’s who partnered with, and met the standards of Child Safe Tourism.
First off we met with Friends International for a presentation. Being the first NGO we visited, we obviously learnt a lot. I’m almost ashamed how little I knew about some of the key issues in Cambodia.
“Friends-International and its partners reach out to over 60,000 at risk children and young people, their families and communities each year supporting them to become productive and functional citizens of their countries.” – Friends International.
We were also lucky enough to dine at a couple of Friends International restaurants, in which all the employees have been trained by Friends. It was amazing to be among the magic and see how much Friends have done for many Cambodian people.
Next on the NGO agenda was BeeKeeper. Here we met Koky. He was one special Cambodian born man who grew up in Australia. He was just one of those people that you instantly love. He was so transparent, warm, funny and authentic!
“Our mission is to create products that change the world, do no harm to the environment, nourish and support the people and animals that dwell on our planet, to seek solutions to our environmental crisis, to use business to inspire people to consume less, to do more and BEE MORE and to support BabyTree Projects in its fight for quality education for all children.” – BeeKeeper.
I was stunned to find out how much material wastage occurs and how toxic it is for the environment. Koky’s bags are made from 100% recycled material. They are such great quality and adorable! We were given the opportunity to hang out with Koky in the BeeKeeper warehouse and assist in making our very own personalized backpacks as well as meet the talented people who make these products every day. It was inspiring to see how one human being can make such a difference.
The third NGO we visited was Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) in Battambang. CCT work hard to empower children from local communities to become educated, ethical and enabled citizens. At CCT we met with Executive Assistant Marnie, who was extremely passionate in always doing what is in the best interests of the children.
It was shocking to learn that the Managing Director of CCT Tara’s first experience in Cambodia was volunteering for an orphanage. It was this experience that shattered her illusions, and disclosed the reality of many Cambodian orphanages. I immensely admire Tara for doing what she knew was right in the face of shame and scrutiny. Good intentions are a wonderful thing, but even if your heart is in the right place, it does not mean you’re doing what is right.
This highlights the importance of educating ourselves. Unfortunately lots of the time people who support orphanages find out the truth and cannot bear the thought of it, so their defenses kick in and they keep doing what they’re doing to protect their ego and image. I think it’s safe to say that deep down people usually have a sense of unsettle when they do something they know to be wrong. Nevertheless it happens a lot.
It’s fascinating to recognize that educating ourselves to make the finest decision for the present time is not enough. Because what is right can change. In our meeting with CCT’s Marnie, we realised how day in and day out, CCT are constantly making changes and reconsidering what is right. For example, CCT are currently moving away from providing the identity of children to donors, including photos and names. They are also steering clear of short term volunteering, as instability for children can be detrimental. Marnie mentioned that in years to come, many of the things they think are right now will likely no longer fit.
What was right yesterday, may not be right today. In life, we can only possibly do what we think is right with the level of knowledge we have. As we understand more, our view on right and wrong may change. Just getting out there and truly understanding the bigger picture of what we partake in is the first step.
One of the most memorable NGO’s we visited was Ponleur Kumar (PK) in Battambang. We had locals Borina and Chhanly from PK generously present to us the programs PK run, and take us into some of the local communities to see the benefits.
PK actively promote the rights of children and women through education and advocacy programs on human rights, gender equality, nutrition, hygiene, and plenty more. They also provide skills training to communities and tackle the deepest of issues. PK work directly with the communities that are most in need, and eventually phase out in order for communities to become independent. The extent to which communities develop once they become informed and educated is incredible.
Towards the end of our odyssey was a presentation and tour of Grace House. Grace House was opened by husband and wife from the UK, Alan and Bridget. There is a strong sense of warmth around Grace House.
“In providing opportunities to learn vocational, craft and language skills families will increase their ability to earn an income or run a business, enabling them to become self-sufficient. Grace House Community Centre intends to achieve this by supporting families while learning new skills and setting up new business. Offering access to health care sanitation, clean water, dry homes, safe electricity and micro loans. Educating the children in English Language and ensuring they receive a state education. Encourage inclusion of children with disabilities in Siem Reap Province by enabling them to receive specialist education and a safe, caring environment for respite or long-term care.” – Grace House.
What set Grace House apart from the other NGO’s was the additional work they do for disabled children. Unfortunately there is a general belief in Cambodia that being disabled means you have done something bad in a previous life. Seeing Grace House work towards changing this stigma was remarkable.
Lucky last, and the most touching of them all was This Life Cambodia (TLC) in Siem Reap. I got chills. I think everyone in the group did. What made TLC so special was their confidence in what they do, their ability to back up the effectiveness of their programs with research, transparent audit information, association with the Cambodian government rather than completely taking the responsibility away from the government, and the fact that they ASK the community to prioritize their own needs rather than assuming what is best for them (Australia could take note regarding Indigenous communities). This approach has been proven to work! Funnily enough, speaking English is generally less of a priority, whereas education on domestic violence is a constant forerunner.
“The vision of This Life Cambodia is to help create a Cambodia where people are empowered to access their rights.” – This Life Cambodia.
“The mission of This Life Cambodia is to listen to, engage with and advocate alongside communities as they define and act on their own solutions.” – This Life Cambodia.
The discussions we had with Australian and TLC Director Billy, and Cambodian born Assistant Director Se was magical. As a justice student, I really loved the concept of theirless glamorous program This Life Beyond Bars.
On the last night of this educational and challenging journey we all sat down at another wonderful Friends International restaurant and discussed where we wanted to donate our money. It was the easiest debate in history as we were all on the same page. TLC was the favorite, but we all agreed that PK were also astonishing and could vastly benefit from the funds, so we decided to split donations 50/50 between the two.
There really is so much we don’t know. Life is a never ending learning experience. It should be embraced. It is important to educate ourselves before we participate in things as much as we can. Ignorance is bliss for none other than ourselves, and we’re cheating ourselves if we stay blind to things that matter. From the food we eat to the clothes we buy, knowledge is a wonderful thing. It is easier said than done, and sometimes we don’t have the time to obtain every piece of information about everything. But if it’s something as serious as the safety of children, there’s really no excuse. Organisations such as Social Cycles give us the opportunity to come face to face with reality.
Rebecca O’Brien also has her own personal blog at www.obrienopinion.com