Georgina Cossins - General Care Projects in Cambodia
I shall always look back with fond memories of my time in Cambodia, and because I have so many, I don't know which ones to share with you. I suppose in order to tell you about my journey I need to start from the beginning.
Arrival in Cambodia
In April 2012, after a long and tiring journey, I finally arrived safely into Siem Reap, Cambodia. It took me a good two weeks to get over the jet lag, culture shock, and the hot sticky climate. To put it bluntly I found it very difficult settling into this strange new country I found myself living and working in. But after those first two weeks, I fell completely in love with the country, it's landscape, and especially it's people. Cambodia is a very poor and needy country, but it is also very friendly and welcoming.
Every day I was driven to work on the back of a moped, by a lovely man called Thaily, who later became a wonderful friend and advisor. I worked in an orphanage called AOEO, which stands for Angkor Orphanage and Education Organisation. I started work at 8am, stopped for lunch at 12pm, and finished work at around 6.30pm, but sometimes I found myself still washing clothes up until 9pm (thankfully this wasn't every day).
AOEO is based in the rural outskirts of Siem Reap. When I arrived they had only just recently moved to this new location. As a result I found myself working on a project that had few materials or staff to help with the running of the orphanage and care of the children. Thus I took it upon myself to take up these responsibilities. Every day I swept indoors and out, mopped floors, washed the children's clothes (by hand!), washed the children, checked the girls' hair for head lice (they were completely riddled with the little creatures), and of course I played with all the kids as well. Occasionally I also took the kids to the local dentist and doctor when they were feeling ill and needed to go.
It was hard work at times, but the children made the work worthwhile. They are all so wonderful - no bullies and each with their own characters. They are all, including the boys, full of cuddles, kisses and smiles. I couldn't believe how respectful they were to me, and grateful for me being there, it was an absolute pleasure to take care of them. They used to hate it when I left them at the end of the day, always begging me to stay the night with them, and always afraid I would never return to them. It sounds so obvious, but I discovered out here that all the children need is someone to look after them – to provide security, a clean comfortable home, clean clothes, clean bodies, food, and of course love. This is what makes them feel most happy, and this is what I set out to achieve every day I worked at AOEO.
Think back to when we were all younger, and you went to the beach with friends and family, for example. We would spend the whole day out in the sea and the sand, getting sand everywhere – in our picnic lunch, our hair, bodies, and clothes. And we would have the best day ever! And once the day is over, we’ve packed up the car leaving sandy footprints everywhere, run inside the house, jump into the shower, clean our hair, and afterwards put clean clothes on. And we feel good about ourselves, but we don’t dwell on it, because this is normal for us.
The same applies to all children no matter where they come from, they love to get filthy dirty, but they also love to be cosy and clean. There is no better feeling. And if anything the kids at AOEO appreciated this sensation even more, because it is a new feeling for them – just having someone to look after them. You have to remember that a lot of the children I cared for had previously spent years living on the streets, searching through rubbish bins for food and shelter with only themselves to rely upon. This is no childhood.
Building at AOEO
During my time at AOEO I decided to arrange for a bedroom to be built for the younger boys. The girls live in a brick house with electricity and fans. They sleep on hard tiled floors with no mattresses, but at least it is clean and sheltered. The boys on the other hand used to live in what can only be described as a shack. The shack was in such a terrible state, no better really than a dump for the chickens and ducks to lay their eggs and roost in. There were no walls, mere cardboard, clothes were hung on barbed wire, there was no door, no flooring, just the natural muddy earth, and no electricity. It broke my heart every time I would walk in there. So I was determined to change this situation, appealing to Projects Abroad to give me some money to help build a new bedroom for the boys that will be clean, safe and comfortable enough for them to live in. This building project was by no means an easy task.
The local staff felt that the children were used to living in these conditions and stressed to me their immune systems can handle their lifestyle. Needless to say I was determined and so I tried to emphasise the point that it was not their immune systems that I was worried about, but rather their general wellbeing and quality of life.
Thankfully a very kind Projects Abroad member of staff from the UK came and visited the projects in Siem Reap, and she encouraged me to write a proposal for funding. I received a donation of $400, which was a huge help for me. It was by no means an easy decision to build a new bedroom. I kept asking myself if I was making the right decision – if this was the best way to spend the money. I kept thinking back to when I first arrived, and how I felt when I first walked into that bedroom, and so I knew it was the right decision. The building commenced and I designed a bedroom that gave the boys a proper roof over their head, raised tiled flooring for the rainy season that could also be easily mopped and swept, a front door and a window, decent walls, fans to keep them cool at night and of course lighting.
On the first day of building, the builder showed up on his bicycle, carrying his one and only tool – his hammer – and of course his walking stick as he only has one leg. He didn't speak a word of English and at this stage of the journey my Khmer was at an extremely basic level. I was going to need to some help and so was my one-legged builder. During this project I had to quickly learn about Cambodian building styles, how to barter when buying all the supplies, meanwhile of course continuing to look after all the children. Five weeks later the building was almost finished with only the painting left to do. It went surprisingly well, and the children are all so happy with their brand new bedroom - thank goodness!
After leaving Siem Reap, I travelled down the country to the remote island called Koh Rong Samleon. It is unbelievably beautiful. I lived in a small wooden bungalow, which I shared with another girl from Montreal. The sea was literally just outside our doorstep, and there was a strip of sandy beach which we had all to ourselves. Behind us was a jungle, which is full of snakes, spiders and other such lovely creatures that terrified me.
Cambodia really is such an amazing country when you consider all it has been through. I really hope to return soon, and if you ever get the chance to visit South East Asia make sure you pay a visit.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.