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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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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