I have recently been lucky enough to visit Cambodia through uni with an organisation that works with children and their communities. Through developing health, education, housing and agricultural initiatives, their chances of having safe, healthy lives, and of developing sustainable and self-reliant positions are much stronger.
Before leaving for Cambodia, I tried to prepare myself to face the hard circumstances that I may be faced with. I spoke to people who had been there and researched their culture and recent history. However, the experience and the situation could not have been clearly understood until I felt it for myself.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, my senses were hit by indistinguishable smells and confusing sights. I was to observe the first differences between home and this new land. A few scenarios that stick in my mind are the cars that travelled in every which direction no matter where I was. The sides of the roads had rubbish scattered down their embankments and there were children begging, day and night.
I had a burning intrigue and desire to understand this culture and it’s people better.
We came to Cambodia to volunteer our support and services; however we were lucky enough to have a few days to discover the sites of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the surrounding areas. It was in these few days that I was truly touched. I ached at how such atrocities like the Khmer Rouge rein could continue to occur. From travelling through the countryside, there is one image that still stays with me. We were travelling along a built-up gravel road one morning on the team bus, I looked across the green rice fields to see the mist slowly rising from the ground, with tropical trees (nearly palm-like) scattered throughout with the sun sitting just above the horizon. A sense of calm, and peacefulness came over me.
Although we hear and see the devastation of communities and individuals on the TV and radio, I believe that due to the geographical distance and cultural separation, it is very hard to fully comprehend the crisis that these people are faced with.
We travelled to small communities where services such as chiropractic, nurses, first aid and basic hygiene classes had rarely, if ever, been provided. Due to the limitation of health support, we were faced with a variety of conditions and needs, some of which could have easily been prevented with basic hygiene, nutrition and education. One little boy was identified as having heart murmurs. Upon our return to Melbourne, we learned that he had been taken to a medical clinic where it was discovered that his heart issues were due to a thyroid problem and should hopefully resolve with supplements and dietary changes. There were many instances like this where conditions could be prevented by simple dietary changes. However, with the lack of education and necessary food, these ‘simple’ preventions were very difficult.
With close to 33% of Cambodia’s population being under the age of 15, there are many children being raised by one family member, (whether that be a parent or grandparent) other members of the village or an older sibling. In some cases, they are self-reliant. I remember one family from a village outside Phnom Penh. They have five children; three girls and two younger boys. Their main caregiver is their elderly grandmother because their father is often away from home, and since their mother was sold into Malaysia to resolve a debt, they are unsure of her whereabouts. The eldest boy at five years, takes on much of the responsibility for his three year old brother. Due to malnutrition and environmental issues, both these boys appear years younger than their biological age. The three year old is not yet walking and is the same size as a 6 month old Western child. We arrived at this village to find the eldest boy in the comfort of the arms of our team organiser who had visited the village before. He was asleep inside twenty minutes, physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Appearing detached from his social surroundings, he needed comfort and support so he could be a kid again, just for a moment. I do not judge the position of the parents or grandmother, as it is impossible to completely understand their position in the community and its workings. Rather, I hope that with the support from individuals and organisations like these, circumstances such as this will cease to occur.
There were many exciting and uplifting moments throughout my trip where I felt grateful to be alive and happy to share my experience with such heart-felt people. The gratefulness of those we treated was overwhelming.
I believe we all need to speak and share our experiences and ideologies to make a difference for these people as citizens of our planet. The experience was both emotionally and physically exhausting, but my words cannot describe the strength that I saw in these people. We were able to share our knowledge, support and skills, as they shared their strength and spirit.