In July this year, ANU law and economics student and World Vision Australia youth representative, Jeeven Nadanakumar, spent two weeks in Cambodia travelling with the Global One initiative.
Here, Jeeven shares his insights and experiences from his travels, including the common bonds between people living countries and cultures apart.
From the window of the plane, I was mesmerised by the lush green land sprawling before me, littered with countless rivers twirling like ribbons. From afar, it was hard to tell that only a few years ago, the same land and water was stained with the blood of millions of innocent people slaughtered mercilessly by the Khmer Rouge.
This was the backdrop to our first day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we visited the S21 Tuol Seng Genocide Museum – a former school turned prison – and Choung Ek – the killing fields – where the mass graves of up to 9,000 people have been uncovered. Today, a white marble stupa stands tall and majestic at the entrance. A symbol of hope.
For me, being part of the 2nd Global One trip to Cambodia was an opportunity to see, learn and enhance my understanding of how World Vision’s aid is delivered on the ground, and spend time with the communities who are benefitting from it. I wanted to bring those stories back and share them with the young Australians I work with on a daily basis, to better empower them with leadership, storytelling and fundraising tools to support our work overseas.
The trip turned out to be an opportunity to forge lasting life-changing connections, truly immerse ourselves in the lived experience of poverty, and believe in the power of hope.
Our team of World Vision staff and volunteers – eight Australians, two New Zealanders and three Cambodians – travelled together to visit two Area Development Programs (ADPs): one in urban Phnom Penh, another in rural Rukh Kiri. World Vision has been working in some of these communities for over 15 years and in others, their work has only just begun.
Today, poverty has a new home in urban shanty towns and city slums right around the world. It was insightful to see how this new challenge was being tackled with a unique development strategy in Phnom Penh, and how this ADP was leading the way in addressing urban poverty.
We saw income generation activities that have allowed women to start their own businesses, youth groups taking a lead role in clean-up days around the neighbourhood, and community leaders empowered with advocacy skills so they can negotiate eviction notices with local government authorities.
We visited families living on a dumpsite. Muddy, smelly, filthy. Makeshift homes built on top of rubbish with animals scavenging and competing for food. Amidst that bleak picture there is a little informal school for children conducted by a volunteer teacher who has received training to try and help bring some hope into these kids’ lives.
A short homestay with the families of local World Vision youth volunteers helped us appreciate the daily struggles many in Cambodia face and the daily luxuries we take for granted back home. We were touched by their generosity and hospitality.
During the second week, we explored the beautiful countryside of Rukh Kiri, spending several nights with World Vision staff at the rural ADP office - many of whom are so committed to their work that the office becomes their home.
I was moved by their tireless work to improve conditions in local schools for children, many of which were so remote we could only visit them by jumping in the back of a four-wheel drive ute. We met pregnant women who are benefitting from a strategy to transition away from reliance on traditional midwives through a medical maternity clinic, and saw after-school, youth-led activities aimed at teaching children and their parents the importance of proper hand washing and hygiene.
We also spent time with World Vision youth volunteers by running a photo voice leadership activity, helping them tell stories about their community through photography.
In between, we experienced Cambodian culture - climbing the ancient steps of Angkor Wat, cruising down the Mekong River or holding on for life as our tuk-tuk criss-crossed the bustling streets of Phnom Penh. Each day brought something different - eating at restaurants set up by NGOs to train and employ street youth, disabled people and vulnerable women, and dining on ‘exotic’ delicacies such as tarantula and ants.
What I saw in two weeks sparked an even stronger determination in me to dedicate my efforts to address the unnecessary and unjust situation which millions of people – and especially the young - find themselves in each day.
The most surprising experience was my ability to form strong connections in such a short time with those we met.
I learnt from a World Vision staff manager who has become a respected community leader by building strong relationships with locals, as a way of influencing change. Another, a teacher who earns just $20USD a month, told me our visit had inspired her to become even more dedicated to teaching. Finally, the many children whose excitement and enthusiasm brightened our day as we played games and taught them about life in Australia.
What was it about these strangers that made them seem like friends?
For me, it was all answered in a very common phrase used throughout Cambodia, in the markets and written on billboards: Same same but different. We are truly alike and the human face of poverty was imprinted in my mind, making me realise there is so much more that unites us.
The call to action has never been clearer in my mind and the feeling of hope has never been stronger.
View one of Jeeven’s video journals from the trip at: