Messenger Deputy Editor spent two weeks teaching English to poverty stricken children at the Cambodia Community project. This is her story:
"CHILDREN grin from ear-to-ear as they play chasey and fly kites made from twigs and discarded plastic bags.
One little boy hits a balloon in the air, dust flying as he chases it across the paddock, squealing with laughter when it falls to the ground.
A group of teenage girls pull their bikes into the schoolyard, gossiping and giggling among themselves."
This is the school in Mondul 3, a village which lies between the bustle of Siem Reap and the wonder of the ancient Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia.
The scene appears happy enough, until you look closer and realise starved bodies, bloated, malnourished bellies, threadbare T-shirts and tired eyes are these children’s uniforms. Most children have just one parent or none at all, with fathers killed while serving in the army and mothers dead through sickness and disease. They have no money for books or uniforms and many are needed at home to run households while parents or older siblings work.
Until the project opened in December 2007, there was no school, so most residents have no formal education or vocational skills. Instead, more than 300 girls in the village make a living as 'Karaoke' entertainers. These girls, many no older than 14, gather in groups on the dusk-lit roadside in front of their Karaoke bars, applying make-up and brushing their hair, preparing for the dark night ahead. I watch them as my tuk tuk - a motorbike with seated carriage on the back - chugs down the pot-holed dirt road after my first day as a volunteer English teacher.
I had decided to volunteer in the hope of making a positive change to our global community. I chose Cambodia a place I had long wanted to visit.
'I have an education, a family that I can feed I want to give other people that chance' the director says. So he opened the project, a two roomed grass hut offering free language education to locals of all ages.
I have been here just a few days and already I have witnessed a mother, tears streaming down her face, begging the project staff to take her tiny newborn because she is unable to feed him. I have met a one-year-old who will likely not live to see his fourth birthday as he has HIV and TB. I have watched an elderly man lying, waiting to die the hepatitis so bad his skin and eyes are a bright yellow.
And that afternoon I meet Srey’s father, smelling of alcohol and slurring his words, demanding his son back so he can sell him and, with the profits, search for the wife who abandoned them.
Srey clutches a hand: 'I don’t want to go, he hits me.'
A monk calms the man down and convinces him to leave.
But my time as a volunteer has been far from gloomy.
I have seen these children squeal with genuine delight at the most simplest of life’s little pleasures. One day a group of us go out to the village armed with Aussie toy-tattoos and stickers and are quickly surrounded by a hoard of giggling children shouting 'Aussie, aussie, aussie, oi, oi, oi!’.'
I have seen the mothers, who get up at 4am every day and work through until midnight just to put food on the table, who are thankful for even the smallest of opportunities to turn their lives around.
At the end of each class I teach, several students, palms pressed together, bow their heads and say: 'Thank you 'cher (teacher), see you tomorrow'. Others run and wrap their arm arms around me: 'I love you `cher!'
I start to understand what the director means: How could anyone see this and not help?
Last month, the project provided 95 families with 1550kg of rice, soy sauce, seasoning and fish sauce. This may be the only food these families eat for an entire month. About 15 babies, whose mums can’t produce breast milk, were also given formula. 'It’s hard, we have to make choices every day about who gets on the rice list, which children get taken to hospital,' the director tells me. 'It’s a choice between the sick and starving and the more sick and starving.'
The project also gave away four bicycles, allowing families to collect rubbish to sell for income, ride to school and to reach the local markets.
'This is why we want to build sustainable projects, such as a fish farm to provide income to support the community and thus enable families to start their own micro-businesses for long term security.'
'The rice list is simply to stop people from dying, or selling their kids into the sex trade. But our real vision is for long-term sustainable projects.'
On my second to last day in Cambodia, Tim, 30, a volunteer who was born in Siem Reap but fled with his family to Adelaide in 1980, takes me out into the village one last time. 'This could easily have been my fate,' he says. 'Now it’s my turn to give something back, to give these people the chance they deserve.' We are both in a sombre mood. Srey has had blood tests to see whether he, like both his parents, has HIV. The results arrive tomorrow. Until then we must wait.
Tim takes me to meet Srey, 24, and her newborn baby Srey Mon, who is just four weeks old. Srey’s parents were murdered during the Civil War. She lived on the streets until she eventually found her way to a public orphanage in Siem Reap. At the age of 20 and with no education, Srey left the confines of the orphanage to wait tables seven days a week, until she met who she thought was the 'love of her life'. He promised to look after her and marry her but, when she told him she was expecting his baby, he beat her and abandoned her.
She wandered the streets of Siem Reap with no money, food or water, until a security guard from Mondul 3 took her home to his family. Srey now resides in the old school building and the project has employed Art, a sprightly but homeless grandmother, to help the family. Srey will attend English and vocational classes and now has regular food and shelter, thanks to sponsorship by an Adelaide couple.
The following evening Tim brings me news of Srey’s test results: 'He’s negative for HIV, for hepatitis, for everything. Nak didn’t know what all the fuss was about, he just smiled quietly, not really understanding.'
But for those who volunteer their time and their hearts to those in Mondul 3, this news is a precious gift.
The gift of hope.