It’s Saturday night and I venture into the expat bar across from the guesthouse I’m staying at. I prop myself up at the bar. I make eye contact with the man next to me. We start to talk. For the next hour, he tells me his wife’s story and about the organisation she founded and which they currently run (albeit from abroad). Only in Cambodia can you walk into a bar and sit next to the husband of a CNN Hero. His wife has such a hard luck story it’s almost tempting to believe he made it up: she loses all her family during the Khmer Rouge reign, apart from her mother who then dies from cancer when she is a teenager. She takes care of herself, gets an education by sticking to a grueling schedule that leaves little time for sleep, learns English, finds work with various international NGOs and aid organisations who are, at that time, flooding into the country. She earns good money. Buys a house and a car. Takes care of distant relatives and puts them through school. She enjoys a degree of independence and wealth she never dreamed possible. And one day she is having lunch at Phnom Penh’s upmarket riverside with her friend. She eats her roast chicken then throws away the bones. She watches in horror as the street urchins, the begging children run into the trash and retrieve the bones and suck them. This is the moment of transformation for her. She sets up her foundation in the slums. It’s a school/boarding house for kids too poor to go to school. She wins awards and makes headlines. “It’s all about women and children now. That’s where all the money from donors is going,” my new friend tells me. I pick his brain on Cambodia – but why do these people – those in the slums with no house, no job, no money, reproduce if they are in such dire circumstances? “It’s survival,” he tells me. “They are living for today, they don’t even think about tomorrow. Surviving another day is the only priority. They’re not educated. They don’t think ahead. They’re almost like animals who do what they need to just to survive.”
It’s happy hour at the Italian pizza place and we are slugging back two-for-one mojitos. It’s me, another volunteer from New York and Alice, a former-volunteer-turned-staff-member of the organisation I volunteer with. Alice just got back from L.A. where she returned to sell up and move back to Phnom Penh to take on her new role – as a kind of innovator and leadership coach. She is in her 50s, petite and attractive and dresses in expensive cotton with long, flowing scarves and pure silver jewellery. She used to live “in Europe” and it shows. I never would’ve expected to meet such a cosmopolitan person here, with properties around the world, a resume sprinkled with Fortune 500 companies, several authored books and a rolodex of all the wealthiest people on the west coast. Since I have very little face-to-face contact with the western staff members of the organisation, who beaver away in an office in a different neighbourhood from the centers I work at, I take this opportunity to fire questions at her.
“But what about kids with special needs, does the organisation take them?,” I ask.
“I’ve never met any. I don’t know. It seems that it’s survival of the fittest out there and if there’s something wrong with you, you won’t survive. These kids we have, their immune systems are so strong. They never get sick.”
“And what about psychological services and support for the kids? Is there any?”
“I’m not sure, but they seem to heal so quickly when they become part of a center. It’s one big family. In the States, we have such a therapy culture – we psychologize everything. We hold onto everything. We can’t get over things. We can’t let go and move on. My nephew’s parents died in an accident, over fifteen years ago. He can’t get over it. HE CAN’T GET OVER IT!”
She is exasperated and finishing her fourth mojito. I look her in the eyes. They are watery. She is crying. “If you saw behind the scenes, if you knew what some of these kids have been through. It would break your heart. I have slept on the floor of their homes as we negotiate for a child’s life. If you knew, it would break your fucking heart.”
It’s 34 degrees outside and 3.30 in the afternoon on a weekday. I am being driven back to my guesthouse by the driver. I have company today – one of my students is going back to the central center where she lives. We make small talk in the back as we bump along. I love this student – she is the youngest in the class of freshman but so much wiser and more mature than the others. She’s 18 and a little bit like Lisa Simpson, with sensible clothes and glasses. She has made documentaries and short films that have won awards. Because I am nosy, I broach her on her life story:
“We lived in the riverside slums before the government made us leave. I went to school during the day, but at night I worked in a restaurant for tourists as a traditional Khmer dancer. I had to make some money for my family. Then, one night, I met the founder of the organisation. He arranged for me and about eight other children to be the first ones in the foundation. He wanted to help up. Now, I live at the center during the week and I go home to stay with my mother on weekends. She lives near the center. She doesn’t go outside. She is 60 years old and gave birth to 12 children, but five died during the Pol Pot regime. I’m the youngest.”
And then I ask her what all annoying teachers ask their students, what she wants to do with her life.
“I’m going to be a producer and director of films. Hopefully I can get a scholarship to attend the animation school here and then study abroad later. I want to tell the stories of Cambodia.”
I have seen some of her work. She will go places. And then, we talk about her time in the States, meeting Tony Robbins at his Leadership Summit, with youth from all over the world. It is incredible to think that just 7 years ago, she was working as a dancer to help her family and now she is taking on the world and being a trailblazer.