You can use it to empower
You can abuse it to dismantle
It is a fine line yet a huge difference
The key to empowerment
Does it lie in education or financial support
Or is it more of an inner characteristic
A value of how we treat others
The selfless act of honor?
Honor doesn’t ask for authorization
Honor doesn’t say I have power, you don’t
Honor doesn’t request perfection
More than anything
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A petite woman standing in the middle of some rough villagers, her fine voice giving instructions about what was to be done. The sun is barely over the horizon. Her sleeves covering up to the fingertips, with lots of confidence she points at where the soil is supposed to be moved to. I am mesmerized by her determination. As one of her first tasks at ICF Cambodia Channa was asked to help me with translation on the construction site – which is not much more than a hole and some heaps of soil back in 2015. Surely, if someone told her some weeks ago she’d end up on construction, she would’ve playfully slapped that person.
“In fact, I always wanted to become a florist, a broadcaster on TV or an ambassador for the country. My dreams were inspired by movies and my relatives who pushed me towards a career that would make some serious money, hopefully. My strict parents raised me and my three brothers with the main focus on education. Besides going to school there was no reason to leave the house. Not even playing with the neighbors was really allowed.
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Born about 30 years ago in the province of Siem Reap, Chamroeun grew up with five siblings around rice fields, cows and water buffaloes. His parents were farmers at first, then worked on construction and at the market after they had sold their land. More than anything, they were survival artists. Within his many relatives, there are stories of human trafficking and such despair that one relative even was left for adoption into France and just recently “found” again – thanks to prayer and Facebook.
I know Chamroeun as an especially loyal, enduring person. From working in my team – a long time ago – he has become my brother who has an outstanding gift of empathy. He knows me well, somehow he always knows where I’m at. Often, he sends me short encouraging text messages at the perfect time. Sometimes I wonder how that farming child turned into a highly successful caseworker.
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Or so I thought. Yesterday, I was supposed to leave Cambodia. Due to the Corona pandemic life seems to be postponed for about a month or two, the outreach is canceled. Not even 24h before my flight would have taken off, the borders of the Republic of the Philippines were closed for foreigners with immediate effect. Closing the chapter of my beautiful story in Cambodia was, therefore, put off, too.
Let’s start at the beginning: Almost six years ago I had moved to Cambodia, wanting to taste life in Asia and work as a volunteer at ICF Cambodia for a year. I was up for the challenge of learning a new language, getting to know another culture, and of course hoping to be able to impact other people’s lives. Little did I know that I would be learning heaps, fall in love with a people, a nation, a oh so foreign culture – simply គួរអោយស្រឡាញ់ – literally translated “you gotta love it”. I wanted to fit in and realized how inspiring the Cambodian culture is. A culture with values that I love, based on community rather than individualism. Quality time with people has become my favorite thing to do. I guess I had always been a people person, however, I really discovered this passion here.
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Illiterate. Uneducated. A nobody. “Survive” is his whole to-do-list. “Career”, “Bright Future”, “Great Potential” – words that have no meaning. Only exist in his wildest dreams – if at all. And probably meant to stay there.
He is 23 years old, husband, father of a baby boy. Smokes 2 packages a day. Construction worker since 10 years. An anniversary no-one celebrates. No-one notices.
He is poor. But he is not empty-handed.
In our construction season 2017 he was one of 50 seasonal workers. I only knew the outstandingly good and bad ones. He belonged to the first group. Weeks in, he surprised me more and more with his commitment. He was always giving a hand, volunteering for the difficult tasks and most importantly had a smile that rarely disappeared. No matter the heat. No matter the sweat. No matter the hard work.
It captured me.
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I don’t know, if there is many better things to do during Christmas time than actually organizing a KIDS CHRISTMAS PARTY for hundreds of Cambodian Kids. Another event we’ve never done before. And the first biiig event on our Campus. I love pioneering. Challenges keep my life running 😉
For Khmers, Christmas might be just another ordinary day. However, for us it’s a great opportunity to spread LOVE, JOY, FUN, …..
Read here how you can add your own part to the this year’s Christmas story:
go to GIFT IDEAS
Yesterday evening, I hit upon the bright idea to create a film of already existing material. For many hours, I was working and totally forgot about the time. Tiredness came, but motivation stayed. As I finished the first draft, I had three hours left to sleep.
Over the whole film I went today again – with filled energy and concentration tanks. It’s purpose is mostly to show the beauty of Cambodia. I tried, to capture the cambodian daily life. A big challenge was to make an end. I could easily expand it to three hours, however, that would cause one or the other eye from you to be tired and my computer to crash. But who knows, there might be another creative night and another sequel …?
All situations are no fake. Nothing was prepared or discussed (apart from the water buffalo which I tried to convince to walk into the water which sadly didn’t help).
It’s said that silence is golden.
Well then, I just want to say:
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Needless to say, that the culture of Cambodia is totally different to those from outside Asia. Even within Asia itself, it varies a lot. Like in any other countries, it originates in a mix of other nations influence, history (read it here), religion, regimes and their rules. Additionally, positive and negative experiences as well as new trends can change habits in a process which takes years, decades, centuries. Cambodia’s culture is extremely complex and consequently not always easy to understand. I’ve heard, seen, experienced, read already a lot and now I want to try to give you a general idea. Furthermore, I will try to explain some backgrounds, most of those will be my personal view. Please understand, that all in all everybody is different, thus there are people matching these descriptions but also some who are in some parts visibly different.
How some characteristics are
They don’t shout at each other. The more important something is, the quieter they speak. For example, when you’re haggling over a price on the market, you’d rather lower your voice. In that way they’ll show much more respect towards you and you’ll have more success. I can easily imagine that this comes from the past: Cambodians had experienced so many different, cruel regimes and wars during which they probably always got shouted at (e.g. orders). And now, this has turned 180° – as if to set an example for seeking the opposite.
Also helpful is being patient and not in a rush. The more you wait and hesitate the more they discount for you. Time has another significance here than in the business world in the west. What you can’t finish today, do tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the week after. I love these two characteristics, they make life so relaxed. However, it also means that they don’t really care about punctuality and that’s a thing which Swiss people are famous for …
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The past of Cambodia is full of tragedy, war, cruelty, murder, fight. It is a true story about people slaughtering their own neighbours, about kings and their pursuit of keeping together a chaotic and restless country. Sadly, they don’t teach a lot in school even though there is a lot worth knowing. Read here the most important milestones in a summary.
Very little is known about the early years Before Christ and Anno Domini. It is likely, that there were various smaller and bigger settlements and kingdoms scattered around South East Asia. Each was fighting against others and intermarrying with other tribes in order to enlarge its territory. Thus it more and more became cohesive. That time, India not only influenced the trade but also the religion; beside Buddhism was Hinduism widespread. Due to the development of wet-rice agriculture, the population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap banks.
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First of all, I hope you’ve read the entry “my first time travelling” as this has to do with it. As you might remember, I spent some time in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Matter-of-factly, I visited there the NGO and Church ICF Cambodia. The Swiss family “Strupler” has been there since summer 2013 and was starting ICF Cambodia. Wondering what was happening there I met their still small team on a Sunday morning during an input from ND. I felt immediately comfortable and since I didn’t have a tight plan – or rather not a plan at all – I asked them whether I could help in any way for a few days. ND, the team leader, went he wouldn’t know yet, but tell me if there came something into his mind.
Two days later, he called me and set this task: Print the Khmer (Cambodian language) numbers 0 – 100 and go into the city and take either a photo or a short video of each number hold by a local person. Afterwards intercut between the different scenes and create a Countdown. He didn’t mention more details, trusting on my creativity. Positively surprised, that I got such an interesting project to do even though he didn’t even know me well nor if I would like such thing or not. Well, I did love the idea!
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