From the very beginning of our Travel Period, me (Stoyo) and my teammates Iulia and Geo, we focused on children’s rights. We would all go to volunteer in projects involving children, so we thought it would be good preparation for the Project Period. However, having this focus hasn’t stopped us from investigating other issues. We left with a well-prepared travel plan, yet with an open mind to anything the travel had to offer.
Before leaving to S-E Asia, we researched about the countries we were about to visit. We found a lot of places and people who could help us understand the topics we were interested in. So before going to Cambodia we were extremely well prepared, we read up on the country and on the issues we wanted to investigate, we watched documentaries, and we planned an extensive and comprehensive investigation. This included sending tens of e-mails to organizations, people and institutions – one of which even granted us a meeting in Cambodia’s WWF HQ!
While planning the journey, I found several warnings concerning the so called ‘orphanage tourism’. This ugly phenomenon is caused by the huge number of visitors that are flooding Cambodia’s orphanages. As a result, a whole business developed: children are kidnapped or bought from their parents in order to fill these ‘orphanages’. So we searched for orphanages that were not involved in that horrible picture. That’s how we came across an orphanage in Siem Reap, and we decided to visit it and spend some time there.
The story of Sitha Toeung and his wife Sreymom was of particular interest to me during my stay in Siem Reap. The couple moved from Phnom Penh in 2009 to run an orphanage owned by a foreign lady. After developing it for five years, the owner decided to run it herself, but she could not manage so the children left it and went back to the street. But Sitha wouldn’t give up so easily, so he founded the Children’s Improvement Organization (CIO) and attracted sponsors to build the orphanage grounds that now host forty children aged 3-19.
‘The youngest one is three. His mother died, his father went to Thailand but never came back…’ – starts Sitha, welcoming me at a table in the yard of his orphanage. It comprises of a kitchen, a building with a cozy library on the second floor, classrooms, and bedrooms for the kids. The whole thing is run by Sitha and his wife – with the significant help of the orphans themselves. Now, the kids go to public school and Sitha’s dream is that they will be able to go to university or to get an internship.
English is very important for Cambodians, and especially so for the ones living in the orphanage. As university education is often prohibitively expensive, the orphans would in the best case end up working in the tourism industry, which would get them a decent job and opportunities for self-development.
The kids manufacture small bracelets to sell to visitors in order to support their orphanage. They sleep in common wooden rooms that rise high in the air and study in a classroom downstairs. In the classroom, one can see the impact left from different teachers –materials, tables, charts, and so on, all devoted to basic English teaching.
Sitha explains that after they reach 18, the orphans leave to find a living for themselves – but it is not unusual that some of them have to return shortly in CIO when times are hard. ‘They will always find a shelter here,’ the organization’s head tells me.
To identify and take orphans under his roof, Sitha is working closely with the chiefs of local villages, and police officers. It is the local authorities that would point out orphans and asses their conditions, before forwarding them to Sitha. Over the years, he has built a certain reputation which means that policemen and chiefs know who to contact when they have a vulnerable kid on their hands.
The Children’s Improvement Organization has been a subject to repressive governmental control. The central government would often accuse Sitha of various faults and force him to pay fees and taxes in excessive amounts. ‘The government is opposing us in many ways, but we have managed somehow to go on’. Given the many challenges and clear lack of finances, it is only the great will of Sitha’s family that CIO continues to work to provide much needed shelter, food and comfort for the orphans of Siem Reap.
Apart from Siem Reap, there is another place in Cambodia that left a deep impression on me. This is the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. For hours we were able to listen to the stories of some of the victims of Pol Pot’s regime. It’s been very difficult being there. The place is a horrifying monument of human cruelty and it shows just how far humans can go to inflict pain on each other.
However, to finish on a more optimistic note, we were very much encouraged by this visit in Siem Reap – we’ve seen people genuinely caring for children and doing their best to go on and help them. It is difficult, but it is possible.
Stoyo – May 2015 Team