Warm, welcoming and touching

“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” [clap, clap]. That’s how we were surprised by an English song performed by the students of an elementary school in the rural area of Pursat. They literally sang themselves into our hearts.

Cambodian students singing for us in English. By Nevena Gunjevic-Radovanovic.

After a long flight, we arrived on Sunday evening in Phnom Penh and collected some impressions of the streets around our hotel. The first two things that we noticed were firstly, the heat combined with humidity and secondly, that the traffic followed different rules than we were used to. On Monday morning we headed to the Save the Children country office where we were briefed on safety and security, and on subjects such as the history, social and economic situation and education system of Cambodia. Some useful statistics helped us to better understand the situation in the country and our later visits to schools and homes.

A lovely meal in Phnom Penh with our hosts from Save the Children just before we left for the province of Pursat. By Manuel Rotzinger.

After a five-hour journey in the afternoon, we arrived in the province of Pursat. During the journey, all of us were staring out of the window and trying to see as much as possible of the surroundings, buildings, and the way people lived, as we moved out of the city of Phnom Penh to the more rural areas.

After our arrival in the hotel it started to rain heavily. We still went out and were led into a restaurant, which did not have windows but was just an open space covered with a roof. The rain was so strong that we could not hear our own words. After sitting down, suddenly we also discovered lizards, spiders and huge cockroaches. Most of us were not so amused by the presence of these little animals, others did not really care. ? This little incident is definitely worth mentioning due to the fact that it was a repeated topic of conversation in the group every time somebody faced similar challenges in the hotel room.

On Tuesday, the day I wish to mainly talk about, we visited one of the primary schools that the IKEA Foundation is supporting through Save the Children. The goal of the ongoing project there is to establish inclusive education for all, especially for children with physical or learning disabilities.

We were warmly welcomed by some students, who greeted us in English and who seemed at the same time very shy and excited to meet us. After an informative introduction given by the principal about the school, and the great impact that the programme has created, our IWitness team split into smaller groups of two to three people for activities with the classes.

Monika and Sylvan playing with a class in the yard of the school. By Marinella Fabris.

I think we were all kind of nervous and did not exactly know what to expect and if the interaction with these children was going to work out. But we were overwhelmed by the energy, interest and friendliness these students showed us. It was a real pleasure to share some time with them, even though the language barrier was sometimes definitely a challenge. So the translators were a very useful help and tried to support us wherever they could. At the same time, it was also possible to play with the kids without much language use, which was in a way very fascinating. We had the chance to see and feel that play and joyful interactions can work without a common spoken language and can build bridges between people of different ages and backgrounds.

Justine and Timon drawing on the blackboard and playing Sunday painter with the students. By Marinella Fabris.

We played games like clapping rhythms together or preventing more and more balloons from touching the floor, which had a very positive overall energy and was so much fun for the children and us.

One class also sang two songs for us in English which was a real surprise. Personally, I was amazed by their English pronunciation. I could see that various children are really talented and I hoped that there is a way for them to make it through the school and advance into a better future. But there is still a long way for them to go.

Marinella, me and Manuel taking pictures with one of the classes. By Save the Children.

The life of these kids is on one side very different from ours. From another point of view we are all very similar. I especially realized this when trying to take selfies with the kids. They loved taking selfies and posing with us. They did this very naturally and with no instructions. They liked to compete, but also to play and to share with each other and with us. They appreciated the possibility to go to school, to learn and to show their respective knowledge and talents. This is so similar to our desires and behaviours.

Marinella taking a selfie with the students. They loved posing for the camera. By Nevena Gunjevic-Radovanovic.
Me in a selfie with some students after school. By Nevena Gunjevic-Radovanovic.

house was at least one kilometre away from the main road. The van almost couldn’t make it to the house because the road was bumpy and unsuitable for our vehicle. Once we arrived at the property we saw a big and warm smile of a mother of three children. She welcomed us under her roof where she lives with the children and her mother. Her husband comes home every 10 days or sometimes even once a month from construction work.

A lovely family in front of their house on the roofed balcony. By Nevena Gunjevic-Radovanovic.

The living conditions of this family were very basic. The house was made of wood and covered by a tin roof. There was no running water. Instead they had three big water tanks to collect the rain water and for use during the dry season. The interior of the wooden house, which was one room on piles, was also very basic with one TV, hammocks and something like thin mattresses.

The mother told us that their only wishes are that they have enough to eat during the whole month, that her children can finish school and that they stay healthy. Her story was so touching—she did not long for any luxuries whatever, not even a better house—just for the fulfilment of basic needs. I could have started crying at one moment. It seemed so hopeless in one way. Both parents are working, yet they still struggle to provide enough food for the family. This is just unbelievable and hard to understand.

The family once received a cow and a calf from an NGO. The story unfortunately didn’t have a happy end because these animals were stolen from the family later on. The tragedy kind of did not want to end in their stories. They also had to sell their rice field to buy some medicine, which their boy with disabilities needed as a younger child. As a result they could not produce their own rice anymore and needed to buy it. Rice is the main ingredient of every dish.

In general, I really carefully listened to this woman and grandmother talking and wished I could help, and do more than just reporting. I felt very helpless. The fascinating part about this was that these two women did not sound frustrated or discouraged. They had the whole time very friendly, warm and honest smiles on their faces. They were not really complaining about anything. The fact that they are so incredibly modest and not unhappy is beautiful—but I still wished we could do more for them. They really deserve more. At the same time, it is very good to know that Save the Children visits this family and makes sure that their boy with learning disabilities can go to school and is integrated into society. The organisation also helps provide for the transport and accommodation when he has to go and get some healthcare in another city.

At the end of our home visit we gave some little gifts to the family like soft toys, pencils and chocolate, which they very much appreciated.

Group picture of the family and us at the end of our home visit. By Save the Children.

The second family visit was also very touching, even though the situation we found was different from the first one. This family had also three children in the household, of whom one has a learning disability. The family situation we encountered was not easily understandable because the woman we met was taking care of her two sons and a toddler, the son of a nephew who lives in Phnom Penh. Her husband was working in Thailand. The house was in a much better condition and they had their agricultural activities, which also supported them in having a more decent life than the first family.

This woman I mentioned took care of everything at home and seemed so strong and willing to face her destiny. As well as taking care of the three children, she brews alcohol from rice to make some additional money. I again observed a lot of modesty. It felt like this woman was a big but silent fighter for the future of all these kids.

This woman and her husband are planning to send their elder son one day to university. This is a very big thing—sending a kid from a rather poor, but hard working rural family to university! It gave me a lot of hope to witness how their hard work is paying off and how they are trying to make sure their son can go to university and have a better life through this education. This family deeply understood that education can make the difference.

Taking care of the adorable toddler while the woman showed us her rice brewery. By Marinella Fabris.

In conclusion, we had the unique chance to have a look into various people’s lives and be confronted with different degrees of poverty and, at the same time, with different kinds of hopes and desires.

Access to education gives students and whole families this ray of hope and we must continue ensuring that they have this access, which can lead families out of poverty.

Playing and laughing students. By Nevena Gunjevic-Radovanovic.