Below is an article I wrote for the AYAD Exchange Magazine which was printed in the February-May 2012 issue.
I’ve really come full circle, haven’t I? From AYAD Communications Department headache to a scruffy poster boy, of sorts.
For those of you wondering why I’ve returned to Cambodia, I think this pretty much sums it up, in a nice, safe, edited way.
“You are a very good person with good soul and I am very proud that you want to come to Cambodia to help build our country and help the young generation”.
I can think of at least one thing wrong with the above statement. I’m not really a good person – I like the band ‘Wings’ and the first album I ever purchased was ‘Sleeping with Past’ by Elton John (although it did include the foot tapping track Club at the End of the Street’). These are not the traits of a ‘good man’, in fact they are far from it.
When Phirun, a co-worker, softly spoke those very kind words late in my assignment my heart transformed into a black hole sucking every good natured gesture and warm humbling experience into its pit. I was genuinely afraid it would expand, heave and under the enormous strain, explode leaving poor Phirun dripping with entrails.
This was not something I expected to feel in Cambodia. It’s not something I expected as I applied for the AYAD program, resigned from my job and definitely not something I expected as I hopped on a plane to settle into my new sticky Cambodian life.
As it turns out I was to experience many of these black hole moments during my AYAD assignment and I solely blame Friends-International, my host organisation.
How dare they?
How dare they do such incredible work?
How dare they employee such wonderful people?
How dare they encourage me to leave my desk and experience, first hand, the hardships and joys of Cambodian life?
I find it very selfish on their behalf, almost disgusting.
Thanks to Friends-International I became so much more than a web developer (I gained a tan for a start, which in itself is unusual). I was actively encouraged to travel with the outreach teams to view and experience the work performed in the field.
Travelling with the outreach teams allowed someone like me, who would predominately be seated behind a desk, to experience life ‘on the ground’. Not only did it give me an appreciation of my work and the people it would ultimately have an effect on but it also opened my eyes to the daily struggles of many Khmer families and children.
Several times upon my brief return back to oz my friends would rib me and say things such as “Oh yeah, Al just went over and saved the world via Twitter” (usually in front of a very attractive young women) to which I could only sit and smile. There is no way I could express to them or my family the journey I’ve been on.
How could I possibly describe the feeling of sitting in a displaced community speaking with a mother who had recently lost her first born? The pure happiness of watching 12 children shampooing their hair in a sun drenched alley laughing and playfully teasing each other? Or the sadness of watching young children injecting drugs moments after being given clean syringes?
It was during these outreach trips and visits to the Friends-International vocational training centre, Mith Samlanh (‘Friends’ in Khmer), where I really fell in love with this place. I fell in love with the warm orange blanket sunsets, unstoppable energy of the children – all of them, the wave of incessant smiles, the god awful sewer smells and of course, the work of Friends.
With each visit to Mith Samlanh and journey with the outreach teams I learnt more about Friends programs. I travelled with the drug, migration and education teams. I learnt about home based production and vocational training. Sitting and speaking with children and parents directly affected I heard incredible stories of heartache but also beaming stories of amazing resilience and achievement.
Working in Cambodia with an organisation that has such a positive impact on the lives of so many gives me a sense of pride and satisfaction that is just so damn addictive. Each day I arrive at the office in the knowledge that my work, no matter how small a task, will have some impact on the organisation which will eventually filter into the programs helping the marginalised children and families of Cambodia.
That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? That’s why we applied for our AYAD positions. I don’t really want to use the AYAD slogan ‘Making a Difference’ but that’s what we all really hoped to achieve. Go on, admit it.
Travelling to Cambodia with no previous non-government organisation (NGO) or aid experience I had no idea what I was walking into. Who would’ve thought the self loathing hipster from Melbourne would be in Cambodia post assignment continuing his work with Friends minus the skinny black jeans and checked shirt?
There is an infamous quote by Joseph Mussomeli who was the US Ambassador to Cambodia, “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”
Fortunately my heart is still in tact save for the frequent black hole episodes that see me twitch and convulse like a man riddled with heat rash.
I have fallen in love with Cambodia although it frequently breaks my heart. There are good breaks and bad breaks. The bad breaks are the moments you can’t explain or express until you’ve lived them… come to think of it the good breaks are moments you can’t explain or express until you’ve lived them either.
Fortunately I’ve suffered proportionate breaks of the good and the bad. Just when I think my heart can’t take anymore, people like Phirun approach my desk and inadvertently softly remind me not to be such a spoilt jerk.
Careful, I can feel another black hole moment coming on…
Allan has returned to Cambodia to work with Friends-International as an Australian Volunteer for International Development.
The Friends-International Communication, Design and IT team. Young Phirun bottom right in a spiffy new shirt.