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Cambodian Diary

Was there hope for the Children of Hope?

Last June, my husband (Kohn Koeppel, F70) and I traveled to Cambodia as volunteers with American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger, and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion, or nationality. In weekly emails, I shared our adventures with family and friends, ensuring that I would always have a record of this life-changing experience. Here are excerpts:

June 24. Hello Hi Hello Hi. That’s how Cambodians greet us as we wander around, getting to know our home for the next two months. For many of them, “Hello Hi” is the extent of their English. It’s a friendly culture, with the possible exception of the eight-year-old boy who ran up to us, yelled “F*** off!” and exploded in laughter as he disappeared into the crowd. I doubt he knew what it meant.

There are very few white faces around these parts, and no matter how much we try to embrace the culture, we are a constant source of amusement. For example, after the long plane ride, we decided to take a jog around Phnom Penh. Men, women, children, motorcyclists, bicyclists—all pointed and laughed at the sight of us. Turns out that only little boys wear shorts in Cambodia. We also learned that men with pierced ears are laughable, because in Cambodia, young boys are given an earring in the belief that it will help an undescended testicle. So if John was thinking of getting an ear pierced while we’re here, he’s reconsidering.

Food will be a challenge—specifically, being vegetarians in a country where chicken, pork, beef, duck, and all manner of sea-food form the centerpiece of every meal, including breakfast. Most menus are in Khmer with English translations, which makes for some intriguing listings: “bummed egger,” “spare cow parts,” “fried water convolvulus,” and—my personal favorite—“grilled unimaginable.” And then there are the crispy fried crickets for sale on every street corner. I’ve always believed in “When in Rome,” but I’ve had to draw the line.

We are now settled in Pursat, the little dirt-road town a hundred miles northwest of Phnom Penh where we will be working for the next eight weeks. Our assignment is with Kumar Ney Kday Sangkheum, or KNKS, loosely translated as Children of Hope. Its mission is to help the most vulnerable children of Pursat Province. And vulnerable they are—victimized by rape, domestic violence, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, sex and labor trafficking, loss of parents.

KNKS offers tons of services—perhaps too many. They run an orphanage. They train kids in restaurant work, sewing, carpentry, and hairdressing. They teach life skills, literacy, disease prevention. They also advocate—and teach parents to advocate—for child rights such as education, health care, and a violence-free community. In short, they are trying to solve all the problems of women and children in Cambodia with a staff of twelve and a budget of $250,000. Our assignment is to help them hone their mission and programs to better fit their meager resources.

July 1. We have been in Pursat, living on the top floor of a home owned by a lovely Cambodian family, for a little over a week—long enough to realize that KNKS is in dire straits. They’ve raised only $60,000 in grants toward the 2009 budget, and have minimal other sources of revenue. And they have lost much of the income from their Community Villa restaurant and gift shop, where children prepare and serve meals and sell handicrafts, with all proceeds going into a fund for their school fees. The landlord, who had decided to move back in without the required ninety days’ notice, kicked the restaurant out of its quarters. (Being the governor of Pursat Province, he evidently could do whatever he pleased.) So KNKS scrambled to find new space and ended up across the bridge from the main part of town. In this out-of-the-way location, Community Villa has almost no business other than John’s and mine. And the sad thing is, they have the best food within miles.

We’re fighting fires daily and have no sense of whether the organization will even survive. But despite the crisis, we feel blessed to be here.

July 8. We have befriended a young boy, Danit Dai, whose English is perfect. He waits for us to pass his house on our way to work every day, and we chat while his mother stands by, beaming with pride that her son can speak so easily to foreigners.

Danit goes to school six days a week and is absolutely hungry for knowledge. He’s fourteen but looks ten—probably due to malnutrition. And since he’s the only one in the family to attend school, he is teaching English to his younger brother.

One morning, we invited Danit to use the KNKS library, which is stocked with children’s books in both English and Khmer. We told him we’d pick him up at one o’clock, provided his mother said yes. When we arrived, Danit was waiting for us in a clean pressed shirt with his hair parted and slicked down. It almost brought me to tears. He walked with us while his mother followed behind on a bicycle. Once she was at the office and spoke with our director, Sothavy, in Khmer, she was comfortable enough to leave her son there. Danit stayed for two hours and read almost every book for his age group. The next day, he asked if he could bring his younger brother.

Today at KNKS (or “the Kinks,” as John has nicknamed the group, for the British band whose one megahit was “You Really Got Me”), we hosted a coalition of five local NGOs that are applying for a large two-year grant from the European Union. The Kinks will be the lead applicant. The NGOs debated whether they would chip in a thousand dollars each for a grant writer, but since none of them has any money, guess who is now in charge of pulling it all together? Not that I feel any pressure, just because five very worthy nonprofits will either sink or swim based on my performance.

Ketya, the accountant who also serves as our translator, continues to astonish us with his knowledge of English, commitment to the Kinks, overall competence, and patience. In return, we sometimes take him out for a beer after work and coach him on non-textbook English. So far, we’ve covered the meaning of “elevator pitch” and “put it on the back burner”—neither of which is self-explanatory in an elevator-less province where most people cook on a single burner or over a fire. My goal is to explain the expression “What am I, chopped liver?” because I love the thought of Ketya springing it on some unsuspecting Westerner.

July 16. Two misadventures to report: First, at a Khmer restaurant in Battambang, the town to the north of us, John noticed pizza on the menu, and despite warnings about eating dairy products in a country with no pasteurization, he just had to have it. The dish that arrived looked like someone had drained a can of Campbell’s vegetable soup and piled the contents on pizza dough, then smothered it with cheese that had been sitting around, unpasteurized, maybe in a refrigerator, since the last hapless Westerner ordered pizza. John wolfed it down.

Sunday morning, he woke up with stomach cramps so severe he spent most of the day curled in a fetal position. Sothavy, the Kinks’ director, came to our rescue. She loaded us into a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw taxi), and we headed for the private clinic. It was expensive, she warned, but she wanted to make sure John got the best possible care. And considering that John was at that moment turning green and vomiting into a plastic bag, who was I to argue?

John was examined by a doctor, had three lab tests (dengue, malaria, and gastro parasites—all negative), and left with three prescriptions. The grand total: $16.25. And that was the expensive place.

Now for the other misadventure. Last week, we had the bright idea of visiting the Pursat Department of Tourism to drop off flyers I had made for the Kinks’ restaurant and gift shop. For good measure, we invited two tourist officers to lunch as our guests, hoping they would spread the word. They eagerly accepted—but then demanded to know if the restaurant had a tourist license.

John and I locked eyes in despair. Had the restaurant been operating without a license, only to be busted now thanks to us? The license, we were told, cost about fifty dollars. We promised to find out, reminding them we hoped to see them the following Wednesday for lunch. Turns out that the restaurant is registered with no fewer than five government agencies and that the Department of Tourism has nothing to do with the restaurant business—proving what we had already heard: that bribery and corruption are the lifeblood of the government of Cambodia, which does little to advance the lives of its people.

That Wednesday, our new best friends showed up in a nice new car. And after enjoying a wonderful meal prepared and served by the children, they told Sothavy they would “waive” the registration fee (which had somehow jumped to two hundred fifty dollars)—but each child had to attend a workshop sponsored by the D of T at two dollars a head, for which they would receive a certificate. As usual, Sothavy put a positive spin on the whole mess, observing that, ultimately, the certificates would help the children find jobs.

With or without our help, the Kinks carry on. They will end the year with less than seven thousand dollars in the bank—and that’s only because all staff have been on one-third salary since June. They’re betting the ranch on two proposals, one of them the massive, complex EU grant that I have taken on, for which the guidelines alone run to sixty pages.

July 23. On Monday, we jumped back into work, John editing the 2007 annual report (yes, we’re in catch-up mode here) and me wrestling with the EU megaproposal. I try to make sense of the drafts we received from our four partner NGOs, none of which in any way resembles the others in format or content. When I’m not suffering from writer’s block, I swing between two possible scenarios: (1) We get the money, and I am declared the next reincarnation of the Buddha, and (2) We don’t get funded, and my photo is plastered at every entry point to Cambodia with “FAILED” stamped across my forehead. Did I mention that I feel just a teeny bit of pressure?

Sothavy must have sensed my unease, because yesterday she arranged for us to accompany two staffers on their rounds in a nearby village. We witnessed firsthand the high regard in which the villagers hold the Kinks. We visited the home of a fisherman who supports four children on less than fifty cents a day. And we saw the tiny space—literally beneath a house—where a Kinks-assisted school teaches twenty-five first-graders. The villagers have started building a new classroom, but can afford only a roof. They are hoping the Kinks will provide the seventy-five dollars for the floor if they raise the money for the walls themselves.

Sothavy is smart as a fox. She must have known that seeing our programs in action would energize us. And it did. We spent the rest of the day in the office, fingers clicking over keyboards as the words rushed out.

July 31. We’re on the bus to Siem Reap—the gateway city to Angkor Wat—and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” sung in Khmer, is playing over the sound system as I write. With only two weeks before we head to Vietnam as tourists, we both feel melancholy. We have fallen in love with the Kinks—the staff, the mission, the need. And the children most of all. They have suffered the worst kinds of abuse and neglect, and yet they greet us each day with huge smiles, and we hear only laughter coming from the Community Villa kitchen. The meaning of their name—Children of Hope—certainly fits. If only we had one more month . . .

Our plan is to work up until the last minute, doing everything in our power to keep the Kinks solvent. I’ve spent three weeks writing the EU proposal, and frankly I doubt it has a snowball’s chance of being funded. When I consulted with my American Jewish World Service contact in New York, we agreed that I will give the proposal one more week and then turn it over to the partner NGOs to finalize. That will leave me a week to surf the Web for likelier funding sources.

If I’ve accomplished one thing here, it’s to convince Sothavy that trying for a couple of megaproposals is a high-risk strategy, and she’d be better off cranking out proposals to smaller foundations with simpler application processes and faster turnaround.

August 15. We’ve been doing the physical and emotional prep work for leaving KNKS and Pursat. For John, this included getting a haircut at one of the barber stalls that line the streets of town. We picked a nondescript shop at random, and John sat himself down in the chair while the barber chatted in Khmer with his last customer. To our surprise, amidst all the Khmer words, we heard him say “San Francisco.” “How did you know we were from San Francisco?” John asked—at which point the barber tore off his face mask (a common accessory here) and revealed his true identity: Harrit, the father of our fourteen-year-old friend Danit. Of all of the barbers in Pursat, we chose the one who actually knew us! Harrit called Danit, who rode over on his bicycle, and while John got the best haircut and shave of his life, Danit translated as his father chatted away.

Harrit, we learned, intends for his son to get a scholarship to study in the United States, then return to Cambodia to help move the country forward (Danit plans to be a doctor). Then the father surprised us with a question: Would we become Danit’s godparents? We accepted, of course. We also accepted an invitation to a goodbye dinner at their home on Thursday night, two nights before our departure.

We arrived at five—Danit and his brother were waiting in front—and were greeted by an amazing Khmer feast, all vegetarian per Danit’s instructions to his mother. The highlight of the evening was when Danit sang for us in English. The song was something like “Please Come Back”—a love ballad, but we knew he meant us. He had learned it by playing a tape over and over to improve his English. His voice was so beautiful that I’m half thinking he should forget about a scholarship and try out for American Idol instead.

Saying goodbye to Danit and his family was the first of many difficult farewells. Danit doesn’t have Internet access (no surprise there), and his father does not want him to learn to use a computer until he is in tenth grade, as he worries it will distract him from his studies. Now there’s a wise man! Since there’s no mail service in Pursat, we worked out a way to communicate: we will send emails to Ketya at the Kinks; he will text Danit when one arrives, and Danit will come to the office to read it. Sort of a Rube Goldberg version of email. We promised to stay in touch, as we take our godparent responsibilities seriously.

Friday, our last day at the Kinks, was a rush to the finish line, as I crammed to complete two new proposals. But at lunch, all work came to a halt. The cook at Community Villa had prepared a huge banquet of our favorite vegetarian foods, served with cold bottles of Coca-Cola (a big splurge for the Kinks). After lunch, John and I each made a presentation summarizing our work. And then, each staff member thanked us—some in Khmer, with Ketya translating, some in English. Sothavy began to cry, which opened the floodgates for me as well. We agreed to continue serving as advisers to KNKS.

Now, as we travel by bus to Phnom Penh on the first leg of our journey home, we are officially just tourists. My hankie is at the ready. And a song by a certain sixties band is playing over and over in my head—a song that I will always associate with my feelings toward KNKS: “You Really Got Me.”

Postscript. In November 2009, the EU grant that I had fretted over—the one that would have meant so much to KNKS, its four partners, and the children of Pursat—came through. The award is for $750,000 over two years, split among five grassroots NGOs.

SUSAN ROTHSTEIN, J71, serves as interim executive director of various San Francisco nonprofits. After a volunteer assignment in Uganda in 2008, Susan urged her husband, John Koeppel, F70, an attorney, to join her in Cambodia last summer. She holds an M.B.A. from Stanford, is the mother of two Tufts grads (Adam, E05, and Leah, A08), and is a past president of the Tufts Parents Committee.

  © 2010 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155