Before relocating to Beirut a few realities weighed on my heart and mind: I would have natural, somewhat long, breaks throughout the year and a bit of a miscellaneous budget (which for me typically translates to travel) to work with, and to use either solely for my own benefit would be a ultimately be a misuse of precious resource. I made myself the promise that I would mindfully volunteer as opportunities presented themselves and support various initiatives. It’s a work in progress, like most things worthwhile. I have found several ventures to invest in, one being Kiva micro-finance loans, and am slowly becoming more involved in volunteer opportunities in Lebanon. Tension existed though regarding how to translate this promise and mindfulness into the Spring holiday: did I send funding but live simply in Beirut? Did I physically travel to some other location to get my hands in the thick of something? ”To volunteer during Spring Hols” became the goal. Enter Cambodia, more specifically Foursquare Children Of Promise (FCOP), a NGO that has started and continues to support and monitor over 100 orphanages throughout the country. Yet a twist. I wasn’t going explicitly to volunteer.
Jenny is one of my closest friends, the kind of friend you can have a knock down, drag out argument with, in the middle of the street (which we did), and still be just as good of friends on the other side of things. Her current work is with FCOP and it has easily been five years since we have been in any sort of proximity to one another (yes, Lebanon-Cambodia is closer then most of the other combinations). I was, more explicitly, going to visit her, with the added layer to learn what I could about FCOP’s work and the SE Asia local I really only had an idea of through stories like “The Killing Fields”.
Within 24 hours on Cambodian soil I was talking in terms of “when I come back”. Part of how FCOP supports various orphanages and care for their charges in by partnering with medical, dental, and construction teams world wide who come for a few weeks at a time to volunteer their time and much needed services. I hope, soon, to return as part of a team. And coming from a family steeped in medical and construction know how, the ideas flowed of how those closest to me could also be involved. Add in the breathtaking locations like Angkor Wat, an emerald green countryside, complete with water buffalo, lizards, mango trees, and genuinely hospitable people, and I was hooked, willingly, gladly.
FCOP is one of many NGOs bent on supporting the Khmer people and facilitating health, education, and human rights. Ventures like Common Grounds Cafe in Siem Reap and the Yejj Cafe in Phnom Phen operate with the explicit purpose of providing viable and legitimate training and work experience for street kids, keeping them from other money making ventures such as the sex trade. Other groups, such as Friends International and Ranja Crafts, either work with local artisans to produce and market their wares or teach trade skills to street kids, again providing legitimate work and working to halt debilitating poverty cycles. Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of these various groups is they are not fly by night operations but rather have made long term commitments to those they are working with.
“How was the trip?” It’s the typical post-travel question, sometimes asked as nicety, sometimes with intention. To those askers of the latter category my response tended toward “Amazing, but for reasons I am still sorting out.” There was a sweetness, a rawness, a magic to this short stint that rooted deeply in me. On some very real levels, I needed the time and context more than I realized. I am appreciative of my current reality and work yet know it won’t be a long term fit; it’s, in some ways, a little lacking in reality, for me at least. And to other regards, I’m still sitting with the experience as a whole and listening for what it would speak to me. Akun Cambodia, akun.