One of my first days back in Cambodia after Thailand, I woke up to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, arguably the world’s largest religious monument, and, understandably, a huge source of pride for Cambodians.
While eating breakfast next to the temple, two kids came up to the table, barefoot, asking my friend and me to buy postcards and plastic souvenirs. They had blank stares as they repeated the same phrase over and over, obviously having said the same spiel 1,000 times. They looked so tired. I asked them their names and they were caught off guard. This has happened lots of times. It happens in NYC, and it happened all over Ecuador when I traveled there. But this specific scenario at the temple meant something different to me now.
A story from Harpswell
One of my students, named Kimlai, grew up doing this. She was that girl standing at my table, saying she needed money for school. Unsupervised by her parents, Kimlai spent her time from age 8 until she was in highschool, selling flutes to tourists at the very same place at Angkor Wat. I felt overwhelmed seeing this and envisioning her in that position. And at the same time, amazed at how far she has come to now be studying and at the top of her class in college. One day while selling souvenirs, an American couple came up to her and somehow she made quite an impression. They asked her about her school, and told her that they wanted to start paying for her to learn English. Confused, she said she’d have to ask her parents.
The couple drove her to her home. They asked her parents if it was alright if they paid for their daughter to take classes. Her parents were suspicious. They knew how often girls in Cambodia are misled to think they’re getting money for something innocent, and then get lured into sex trafficking. The “opportunity” is a trap. But it was an offer for their daughter to learn English, and they decided to take a risk. Thankfully, this couple was good. They have continued to pay for her to study English for the past 10 years. Now, she speaks fluently, and is studying to be a pharmacist at a top university in the country. Thanks to Skype, Kimlai stays in touch with her sponsors and they tell her about things like Ted Talks to listen to so she can learn more. And it all started because two tourists in the exact same place I was listened to a yearning in their heart to be generous, and do something bold. And, most importantly, they haven’t given up.
Having a dream vacation in Thailand and coming back to Cambodia life caused culture shock, and confusion. But seeing a culture so similar, and their realities be so different put Cambodia in context. Somehow I ended up here even though I’d always meant to go work in Thailand, its wealthy neighbor. And that to me is one example of seeing how God’s plans are better than our own. His ability to see where we are needed, and by whom, when we can not see the bigger picture to even guess how we fit into the puzzle, or into other people’s lives. He can place us where we need to be when we let go of our own control, and sometimes, our comforts, and I’m glad for that. If I weren’t working at Harpswell, I’d feel more overwhelmed by the disparity. I’d feel helpless. Seeing Thailand and Cambodia, what it shows me is the importance of having good leaders.
For that reason, there is a lot riding on the shoulders of the students I work with. They’ve been invested in because they are the smartest female students in their country, which means someone believes they really do have the potential to improve Cambodia for future generations. Unlike non-profits that support education for anyone to be able to go to school, Harpswell exists to give opportunities to the top of the top students to be able to go far. In this way, they have seen a return on their investment by their graduates going on to lead NGOs, become lawyers, teachers, or get Master’s Degrees in America and come back and contribute their skills here. There are many obstacles students here face and obstacles they have already overcome, like that of my student I mentioned before, that I think would have crushed me. And yet they are committed to Cambodia in a way I can’t say I am about my own country.
When I came here, I was excited to be in a place where I could make a difference. But even if I do, I will likely never see it. I am only here a short time, and I am one part of a larger organization that will keep its wheels turning when I’m out of the picture, such is life, no? The important part is, the girls who are here are being empowered to make a difference themselves because they are the ones who will still be here long after I am. This is how aid should be abroad and at home.
I don’t fool myself to think I’m the change, or any one organization is the change. Cambodia is on the verge of something big and even amid the pollution you can smell progress. Together, individuals, and organizations who see the need and the potential here can make change happen from within through educational and economic empowerment. Being here so far, I have already seen how change happens in different ways and at different levels. There’s the couple who paid for English lessons, choosing to invest in one person. There are dozens of restaurants, cafes, nail salons, and massage places that give job-training to former sex workers or trafficked children, so they can get legitimate work, and stable wages. They use the power of social enterprise to help people start over.
And of course I have seen through education how you make an investment that lasts, however cliche that sounds. Now I am so convinced I want to be a professional teacher. Just in the past 5 years, through opportunities for girls to go to school, through the aid of NGOS, the household phrase, “A woman’s place is near the kitchen stove,” has nearly become obsolete. Age-old prejudices are being flipped on their heads right at this very moment over here. Though you may not realize it, because I never thought I’d find myself here, either, now, you too, have a stake in Cambodia’s future because you’ve joined me on this journey.
In 20 years, I hope Cambodians will not only be known for their past, but will be able to take pride in their present. Like the sun rising over Angkor Wat, there is hope on the horizon for this country, which means investment here now is more crucial than ever because there’s a momentum happening that we can bolster. I hear whispers of it in the hallway outside my bedroom, where girls are studying, and developing new ideas.
Before I get all sappy and start listening to Sam Cook’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” I’m going to go to bed.
Love from Cambodia,