There May Be Hope After All: An Afternoon at New Hope Cambodia
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA- After spending a week in Cambodia and learning about its history, current affairs, and the all around destitution of the people, I was really at a loss as to how to “fix this thing”. Everywhere else I’ve been in the third world has reflected a country that is on the upswing: Vietnam, Indonesia—these might be third-world countries by our standards, but their economies are revving and the 15-year outlook for general-living-conditions-of-the-populace looks good. Cambodia is the one place where this is decidedly not the case. This is largely due to the destruction wrought upon society at every level by the Khmer Rouge and is compounded by the continued abuse of the people and their rights by the current government. Hun Sen, the current prime minister, has effectively led the country since the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and put him in power. The funny thing about Hun Sen is that he was a ranking official in the Khmer Rouge, and only fled the country in 1977 when in a fit of paranoia Pol Pot began executing those he suspected of conspiring against him …so the regime that is in power today, in 2015, is headed by an individual intimately involved in the previous destruction of the country.
The government literally pillages the land, selling off contracts for natural resource development to favored firms and pocketing large portions of the money that exchanges hands. Corruption is ingrained in the leadership structure and government officials extract bribes for nearly everything. Land sales, oil wealth...whatever it is, they take a cut and little, if any, of the money collected makes it into government coffers. The majority goes into the pockets of the officials while the rest of the country starves, literally. Oftentimes, a rice surplus will be sold off to neighboring states, with the government pocketing the cash, while the people go hungry.
So Cambodia finds itself caught up in a vicious cycle of impoverishment: a government that steals from its people, using the stolen goods for personal gain and failing to use those goods to provide to the people the basic services necessary for rudimentary economic development. The people, stuck without the capital to pay bribes simply to send their children to school or purchase enough food to feed their families, are often forced to recruit their children into the labor force at heart-wrenchingly young ages. Children as young as four or five can be seen wandering the streets, begging for food or money or selling bracelets to tourists. The children are often kept at home to help with the rice harvest, since without their labor there won’t be enough food to feed the whole family. What can be done in a situation like this? The people need some sort of starting block to lift them out of the cycle of poverty in which they find themselves, and the government sure doesn’t look like they are able and willing to help. It’s a quandary I gave a lot of thought to with no reasonable answer, until I paid a visit to New Hope Cambodia.
New Hope Cambodia is a charity that is only a few years old. Started by a local living in a village in Siem Reap, the gateway town to Angkor Wat, just exactly what NHC does is difficult to describe. It’s part-school, part educational-advocacy center and part-vocational training institute, but 100% committed to finding a way to help Cambodians help themselves. Run entirely on outside charitable donations, NHC provides local families with a monthly stipend of food as long as they send their children to school. Instead of needing to keep their children at home to work in order to be able to eat for the month, they now need to be able to send them to school to be able to eat. It’s a simple yet genius reorganization of incentives that appears to be working wonders in a few short years. Since 2007, NHC has grown from a small school with 30-odd children to a large compound replete with an on-site restaurant that trains the teenagers for a career in the food-service industry. To Western outsiders this may seem like an unskilled job, but in a place where a large portion of the population has no tangible, marketable skills, it is a direct path to a better life.
Sokhon, a member of the tourism department who appeared to be about 17 or 18 years old, gave me a tour of NHC. He was one of the first kids to attend school at NHC, and he was wildly enthusiastic about the progress it had made in his community. He has been given the opportunity to learn English, and now gives tours of NHC in preparation for obtaining a job in the tourism industry around Siem Reap. He could not speak highly enough about the volunteers and administrators who run the place and the opportunities available for the younger kids.
Showing us the band room, he explained that musicians from around the world have come to volunteer their time and teach the kids the basics of Western music—but only in the morning. Afternoons are reserved for traditional Khmer instruments. Apparently there is a band that’s formed out of the various workers and volunteers at NHC, and when asked whether he played any instruments Sokhon responded—“of course, I am singer!”, and proceeded to perform a soulful rendition of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. In addition to the music room, there is also a section that trains the kids to work in the garment industry, one of the main opportunities for work in Cambodia. On display are the various dresses and uniforms, made in that very room, of which the students are most proud.
NHC also has a small health clinic that provides basic medical services to the village. We visited during the lunching hour when things were quiet, but I was told that come 2pm the place would be in full swing, filled with patients, doctors, nurses and volunteers trying to address a multitude of issues from malnutrition to family planning. The clinic is staffed largely by first-world volunteers looking to donate their time, energy, and precious vacation days to those in desperate need of expert care. Adjacent to the medical clinic is a three-story structure currently under construction, and it’s clear that Sokhon is incredibly excited about and proud of this new project, which will be an actual school-building able to accommodate almost all of the local children. The construction of the school was sponsored by the CEO of a company whose employee volunteered at NHC…when the employee returned home, she told everyone about the good work being done at NHC, but stressed how they are still in dire need of outside funding and support. The CEO of her company expressed interest in contributing to the cause, and subsequently arranged to finance the entire construction of the school building.
It would be difficult to pay a visit to New Hope Cambodia and not dine in the restaurant run entirely by NHC kids. They take obvious pride in what they do, and that makes the experience all the more special when you know the meal you are eating is not only homemade and delicious, but the very ticket out of poverty for the person who made it for you. Spread out for sale near the register are recipe books which you can purchase—all of the featured meals are served at the NHC restaurant, and each was specially selected by a member of the staff as his or her personal favorite. Listed next to the dish title is a photograph of the chef, and the reason why the chose that particular meal…it’s amazing to see them take such pride in what they do. In their smiling faces I see the future of their country, and realize that perhaps this place is not as devoid of hope as I once thought.
New Hope Cambodia is doing wonderful work, but there is obviously still a long way to go. They are funded entirely by outside sources, and their operating budget is unknown from month-to-month since it’s never certain how much they’ll be able to raise. A food-for-education scheme is a brilliant way to start, but it’s not going to fix everything. The most important mission that NHC is serving is to start with the youth of Cambodia and show them that there is a chance for a better life. Perhaps it means that they will be a chef, or a tour guide—but these will be professions they’ll be able to take pride in, and be able to share a part of their culture and heritage with others. Perhaps some of them will be inspired to pursue a career in the medical care industry, though it’s obviously a much more difficult path in a place like Cambodia. NHC does not offer the all-encompassing solution to fix the problems which plague Cambodia, but it’s a damn good start to work from the bottom up and ensure that a portion of the youth have the chance to be something more than a beggar or a rice farmer. The catch is that it’s up to people like you and me to help make that happen.