Focus: Living it Down Abroad: Travel as Vocation not Vacation
There has been an increasing kickback in recent years against volunteer tourism, with accusations that volunteers do more harm than good while abroad, that it's more about the experience as perceived by the volunteer than the people that they're supposed to be helping, and, at its most extreme, accusations that this relatively new gap year/volunteering industry is a new form of cultural colonization, casting the host countries as victims and volunteers as saviours.
In this light, over the past few months eRenlai has decided to focus on volunteering in Southeast Asia. Suspicions about Somaly Mam's background have dominated the headlines over the last few months and undermined the credibility of AFESIP, her NGO which protects women from sexual slavery. eRenlai contributor Clare Tan, who worked for Mam's charity in Cambodia, talks about her feelings about the recent revelations, and her hope that Mam as an indivual won't overshadow the cause. Clare previously shared her ambivalence about her encounters with street children in Cambodia, and the inspiration which Mam had given her. We then talked to veteran volunteer and blogger Leanne McNulty, who has volunteered for long stints in Cambodia, Australia, Vietnam and Taiwan, about the issues surrounding volunteer tourism and her experiences working with HIV/AIDS charity Harmony Home Foundation in Taipei. She also writes about what you can do to make a real difference when volunteering. We also dug through the archives to unearth two articles by Alice Lin on volunteering, the first is an interview with Cambodian psychologist Van Kamol about his work with children affected by HIV, and the second is her interview with Mech Sokha, a Cambodian man who helps rescue orphaned or abandoned children working at the infamous Steung Meanchey landfill, and reflections on her visit to the Center for Children's Happiness, which he runs.
Clare Tan is currently working on a voluntary basis for AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), targeting criminals exploiting sex workers in human trafficking, working on HIV and AIDS outreach, training victims of rape, domestic abuse and human trafficking in vocational skills, and aiding them in reintegrating into society. She graduated from University of Leeds in Chinese Studies and gained an MBA from National Taiwan University. She's currently supporting herself with a job teaching english in order to fund her commitment to her volutary work with the charity. What follows are a series of extracts from her blog, detailing her life in Cambodia, and her struggles in trying to find sustainable ways to help the street children she encounters in Phnom Phen To keep up with Clare's experiences in Cambodia you can check out her blog here.
People scavenge at each waste disposal, working till late for a good day’s pay of 1.50 USD, just enough to get by and not enough to alter one’s own circumstances. It is at this site that Mech Sokha, a Cambodian man who was himself orphaned after the Khmer Rouge regime, has rescued over a hundred children whom were either orphaned or whose parents were financially unable to care for them. The children whom were lucky enough to have been rescued by Sokha, now find themselves in the safe haven of CCH- the Centre for Children’s Happiness.
I set out on a relatively sunny day to CCH and returned drenched in rain. I was blissfully unaware of it as I had after all, the pleasure of spending an afternoon with marvellous Cambodian children and made the acquaintance of a man whose heart was big enough to subdue the odours of the garbage dumps. It was not difficult to recognise Mech Sokha on our first meeting for he had an ageless quality about him, and looked as he did about five years ago on their official website. He smiles quietly as I introduced myself, surrounded by three or four smiling adolescents. There was a very warm and fatherly quality about Sokha and I could not imagine him in any other setting than here in this orphanage.
The orphanage itself consists of one large building with a courtyard and a dining area in the middle on the ground floor, flanked by boys’ and girls’ rooms. On the second floor, there is one large room, which is both classroom and library. In front and along one side, there is a garden. In the back, there is a kitchen, a water tower and a place to wash clothes. The standard of living is not what I’d be accustomed to, but then again my misfortunes pales in comparison. There is a sense of warmth in the centre and it radiates from the children, Mr. Sokha and the working staff, enough to make one wonder- just how does one do this? From garbage-picking at the Steung Meanchey landfill to the comfort of the orphanage, it is hard to imagine a present and future so full of promise for the children.
The children at CCH call Mech Sokha ’Papa Sokha’ for a reason, he has been the children’s main source of parental attention for the last seven years. When he is not in Phnom Penh and working with the children, he is overseas raising money with Friends of CCH. Ravuth, currently the head of the boys dormitory tells me with love and concern in his eyes that " Papa Sokha is tired, he works too much..." We studied Sokha from afar and I had to agree.
It had not occurred to me that Sokha was only human, and needed more than a couple of helping hands to run an orphanage of so many children. He is however, not alone in taking in Cambodian children in precarious situations, orphanages such as the Lighthouse Orphanage and the French ’Pour un sourire d’enfant’ are all dedicated to caring for the many children in need.
From 2005 to the end of 2008, Kamol conducted a project to help children infected with HIV, usually acquired through birth from HIV-positive parents.