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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

I volunteered to build houses in Cambodia

A postmenopausal, empty-nest, middle-class woman, looking for something useful to do in the third act of her life, decides to volunteer in Cambodia on a house-building project. Call it a cliché if you wish. Or cue the laugh track of friends and family who know how useless I am with a hammer.

Volunteering internationally, I learned even before leaving, is the ultimate good deed for anyone sharing my own fortune of time, resources and health. Everyone I told about my plans thought it was noble of me to be giving back in this way.
It was hardly a selfless act, though. It was the exact opposite. At this crossroads in my life, it was an opportunity for a unique cultural experience in a country I had never visited before.

Part of my giving back, in fact, was to the project’s team leader. She happens to be an inspiring woman from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., who spent years living overseas. She has organized seven of these journeys to Cambodia for families and individuals like me. She also, in the past, put those same organizational and volunteer skills to good use supporting my own work. So this was an opportunity for me to say thanks.

The project was for a homegrown organization: Tabitha Foundation Canada, an NGO based in Ottawa, with its Canadian founder at the helm of headquarters in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Tabitha has helped two million Cambodians in more than 15 years of operation, working in the poorest parts of the country where the average family wage is less than $1 a day.

Unlike projects in other poverty-stricken regions of the developing world, there is an extra layer of despair when volunteering in Cambodia. It is a country that has seen years of civil war and a horrifying genocide of more than 1.5 million souls.

Tabitha’s formidable and indefatigable founder, Janne Ritskes, makes it mandatory for all volunteer house builders to visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh (the converted high-school campus used by Pol Pot for torture), then to see the actual Killing Fields (where those who survived the torture were brutally murdered.)

As well as providing us with the cultural context for our work, Janne made another point perfectly clear: It’s about the Cambodians, not us. In no uncertain terms, we were told to never complain about anything and to keep our emotions in check at all times. Our first real test of the latter rule happened during our visits to the memorials of the genocide.

Thankfully, Janne had also scared us during our briefing on workplace safety before we left Phnom Penh for Kampot province in the south, where we would be working. The temperatures would be hitting close to 40 degrees, among other health considerations (malaria, dengue fever and heat stroke, to name a few). So when we heard the word “water” shouted out on the half-hour by our team leader, it was not a call to drink: It meant to come and have a bucket of it thrown over your head so you don’t faint.

Over the course of the project we built 18 houses, basic shelters on stilts with one door and a window. I spent my days hammering in the floors.

There was a wide range of ages and life experiences on our 18-member team, from a 15-year-old girl travelling with her mother (the young woman never muttered a word of complaint, except perhaps to her mother for taking so many pictures of her), to a seventysomething retired educator who had bicycled through Vietnam with his wife before our work began. As we shuttled between our work site and the jungle eco-lodge where we were staying, the dynamics of the team made the conversations always stimulating.

And hilarious. As unexpected as that might sound, we laughed a lot. Although I wasn’t too amused by the captured, caged rat that fell out of my hut’s ceiling a foot from my toilet on our last morning, I had the presence of mind to take a picture of it with my BlackBerry, knowing that no one would ever believe me.

I certainly laughed at myself at the experience of leading a half-dozen women, desperate for a bathroom, to a Cambodian village storefront in search of relief. Confused by my request using the universal sign language of washing my hands, I shamelessly squatted down in front of the female shopkeeper, mimicking the Asian way. Mission accomplished.

On the final day of the project, when the houses are completed, it’s tradition to have a handover ceremony. Each family receives a quilt for their new home made by Tabitha’s own handicraft industry, another part of the foundation’s work in Cambodia. I found it harder to control my emotions during that ceremony than I did holding back my tears at the Killing Fields.

The sad history of Cambodia was too huge for me to get my head around. But watching the families happily take possession of their new homes, which by Canadian standards give new meaning to the word basic, was incredibly moving. What we had accomplished was so immediate and right before our eyes.

Who cared if a few nails didn’t get hammered in perfectly? We all could feel the difference we had made in the families’ lives. And in our own lives, too – even if that was against the rules.

Robin Pascoe lives in North Vancouver, B.C.
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Woman helps rescue boys from sex trade

Jen Jewett says she's nervous about how she'll react to seeing children as young as toddlers being sold for sex.
Jen Jewett says she's nervous about how
 she'll react to seeing children
 as young as toddlers being sold for sex.
 (Courtesy of Uptown Saint John)

Jen Jewett, of Saint John, will travel to Cambodia next month

A Saint John woman will travel to Cambodia next month to help with efforts to get children out of the sex trade.

Jen Jewett will spend five weeks with an organization that's setting up a safe house and training program for boys who have been rescued from brothels.

About 60 per cent of children living in brothels there are boys, but it's seldom discussed, she said.

"In their culture, men are basically like untouchable. There's a saying that men are like gold and they can't be tarnished and women are like cloth or something and once they're stained, it's done," said Jewett.

"And I was reading about how government sometimes, if they take boys out of brothels, they will just throw them back onto the street because they don't want to acknowledge that boys have been in there too.

"It's just sort of ignored and pushed aside because they don't want to deal with that."

As a result, there are currently no safe houses designated for boys in Cambodia. That's why the missionary group, Iris Cambodia, decided to set one up, said Jewett.

"It's just a place that we will provide a safe area for them basically to try to rehabilitate themselves and teach them other skills they can use so they don't have to sell their bodies," she said. "So they can sew, or cook, or something instead."

Daunting task
Jewett won't be part of the raids on brothels, but she will help rehabilitate the victims back at the safe house.

Still, she's a bit nervous about how she will react to seeing children as young as toddlers being sold for sex.

"I love kids so much and…I can't imagine that this is happening to kids, you know, which is why it's something that I want to be involved in, but it's also really scary, the thought of what will happen when I see that. I don’t know how I'll react."

Cambodia, which borders Thailand, has one of the highest rates of child sex trafficking, said Jewett.

"It's just so common that it's not hidden, it's everywhere," she said.

"It's just part of the mindset. If parents need to provide for the rest of the family, they sell one of their kids, or kids are kidnapped into it sometimes, or sometimes they think they're going to a real job and so their parents send them off but then they end up taking them to a brothel instead of a farm or something."

Still, as difficult as the experience may be, Jewett felt compelled to get involved with the organization, whose founders she met five years ago while volunteering at an orphanage in Africa.

"I feel like it's just, you have to do something about it. It's something that's so wrong, you can't just pretend that life goes on as normal, you know?"
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Head of Research Center Addresses Tribunal Over Documentation

Chhang Youk is scheduled to appear before the Trial Chamber on Thursday.

Youk Chhang, a leading Cambodian genocide researcher, shows a copy of the Cambodian version of a Khmer Rouge history textbook to teachers in Takeo province.

The head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has provided hundreds of thousands of documents to the Khmer Rouge tribunal, addressed the court on Wednesday to vouch for the accuracy of the research.

Defense attorneys for three jailed regime leaders have challenged the authenticity of documents from the well-established organization, which has collected documentation on Khmer Rouge atrocities for nearly 15 years.

Chhang Youk told the court that documents were thoroughly vetted and that the age of the paper, dates, signatures and other proof are used to verify their authenticity. Chhang Youk is scheduled to appear before the Trial Chamber on Thursday.

He told the court Wednesday he had established the center for the purpose of national reconciliation in the wake of Khmer Rouge atrocities and that he hoped the UN-backed court would provide accountability for the leaders of the regime.
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