Sydney students impact young lives in Cambodia
Since 2012, Sydney’s Ravenswood School for Girls has offered Year 11 students the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, with boys from Knox Grammar School. All students are required to raise a minimum of $800 for MatesAbroad, the NGO that works with CVCD (Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development) in Cambodia.
While in Cambodia, the students visit five schools run by CVCD, teaching lessons and assisting in the classroom with one-on-one reading. As part of the immersion, students take part in cultural activities and visit places of significance such as the Killing Fields and the Temples of Angkor.
Genevieve and Emma were two year 11 students who experienced the wonder, challenges and beauty of Cambodia this year. This is their story.
Our first morning was spent visiting the Royal Palace and testing our limited Khmer (the Cambodian language) in the Russian Markets. This was followed by visits to Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, sites of horror and destruction in the 1970s under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. At the end of each day, a reflection session was led by one of our three fantastic teachers.
After our first day, the general feeling of reflection was sadness. However, we were all amazed by how warm and happy the Cambodian people were.
The next day we began teaching. Our first school was in a community called Phoum Boun, the poorest that we would visit. We were greeted with the smell of rotting food and dirt. The community is situated to the side of a working train line. The tin shacks that housed our students for the day were in stark contrast to the modern, multi-national company skyscrapers that were barely a kilometre away. We taught two lessons and played with the children after class. While in the community, we also enjoyed a talk with an elder, which gave us a greater understanding of the life and hardships of many Cambodians.
Hard but incredible
Standing in front of a class of 30 kindergarten students was harder than we thought, but it was incredible. We were the last group to visit this community. It will be gone by the time next year’s group visits Cambodia. It was heartbreaking to find out that the Government was going to kick these families out of their homes at any point in time.
The kids we taught were so eager to learn. Their thirst for education was inspirational and their stories were moving. We also stayed in one of the communities for two nights. It was humbling to live in the same conditions the people we were meeting lived in. On our final night, we danced with the kids for two hours. We would sit and laugh along as they made fun of our dancing and games. We would lift them up and spin them around as they squealed.
Our final activity was to visit a pool with a group of boys from the Home of Hope. These boys all had either HIV/AIDS or a disability such as Down Syndrome. We all had one or two Khmer boys to look after and we became very close to them. Their laughter and smiles were constant; it was honestly the most joyful day of our lives.
There was no plan for the day, instead we spent our time splashing in the pools and playing on the inflatables that we had brought. One of the boys who touched us in particular was Tay. He was paralysed, but had the warmest smile and loveliest nature of anyone you could meet.
The mood of the group changed after we left the pool and returned back to the Home of Hope. It seemed a cold and sterile environment for such warm and bubbly boys. We saw that some of the boys were already in theirs beds, sick from their day out. However, the atmosphere again changed after we presented two soccer balls from Australia, as well as a cheque from the proceeds of the premiere of a documentary of last year’s trip. Although it was raining, the boys wanted to play, so we had a massive soccer match on the dirt ‘pitch’ in front of the home. As the game progressed, it became more and more slippery but everyone kept laughing and having a go.
After an eye-opening week in the poorest communities of Phnom Penh, we took a nine-hour bus ride to Siem Reap. Here we spent a day seeing the sights of the impressive Temples of Angkor. We also had a fantastic day in the life of a villager. We assisted a family in planting a rice field and thatching roof panels.
Bonded by helping others
We never thought we would become so close as a group. When we got on the plane as strangers, we started to bond through the love of similar movies, sharing food on the plane and falling asleep on each other. The different personalities all worked together and we all became great friends due to our shared experiences.
The dynamic of the group changed as we became closer. We discovered so much about each other from telling stories and singing and dancing with the children. Everyone had a chance to shine and show their strengths. The friends we made will last forever as our memories link us.
This trip to Cambodia was life changing. To see first hand poverty was confronting and highlighted how lucky we are to live in a country like Australia. It was also interesting to see the Cambodian people’s thirst for learning and to contrast it to our own attitudes. It showed many of us that we need to appreciate our schools more. It also expanded our world view, and challenged us to look outside our problems to other people’s problems, which are so much worse than ours. It has forever changed us.
Genevieve Blenkin and Emma Humphries