Students Teaching The Teacher
Aug 19, 2006
|Hi Everybody -
Doing this kind of work with young people in a country like Cambodia is both a blessing and a curse. Back at home, it was so easy for me to read and research the need and impact of economic aid in developing countries. It was almost a joy to find a new document online about the benefits of educating girls and the effect this has on reducing global poverty. When I created a PowerPoint presentation to educate others about CASF's work, I got great satisfaction from being able to manipulate the program so that I could highlight Cambodia as one of the world's few remaining countries suffering from extreme poverty. I thought this would increase the importance of our work to others. In the presentations I have given, I think it has.
But it is a different scene all together when you look away from the books and actually stare into the eyes of a child who is starving. It was not such a joy to be approached by a girl who wants to go to school but cannot becuase she is too poor and it was absolutely heartbreaking to say to her, "Sorry, we cannot help...but good luck." To know that 25% of Cambodia's population lives on less than $1 per day is nothing like actually sitting in the house of a family who earns 1/2 that amount but who, never-the-less, greets you with a few sliced vegetables and a bowl of watery broth. And when I sat with an 8-month old orphaned child who is suffering from an unncessary lung disease, surrounded by 60 other orphaned children, I felt immoral, powerless, almost like I was committing a criminal act.
Yet in all the dispair, ugliness and chaos that is part and parcel of extreme poverty, I have also seen hope; I have seen a way out. You see, for the past several days, I have been traveling to different regions of Cambodia to meet with our students - most of whom fall into the category of being extremely poor (i.e. their family earns less than $1 per day). People who are as poor as this in Cambodia face innumerable odds in their effort to rise above their condition. For example, their's is a government that does not provide systematic programs to help them; their education system requires its students to pay bribes and go to expensive private lessons in order to pass exams and graduate from high school, let alone go to university; the natural resources upon which they depend are being stolen from them by large foreign corporations. I could go on.
The hope I have seen is the promise of education and the power that knowledge and a desire to know more has to change people's lives forever. While I could tell you a dozen different stories to illustrate this, I want to focus on only one student, as an example. Her name is Arun, and she was the first student to be supported by CASF. Arun lives with her mother, brother and sister in small dwelling along the railroad tracks in Phnom Penh. She has no address and there is barely a street. To visit Arun is an adventure.
Five year ago, Arun was working in a nearby household, cleaning the floors and washing the dishes. She had dropped out of school after the 7th grade because her mother could not afford to pay for both her education (uniform, school supplies, lesson plans, after school private classes) and that of her brothers. Her plan at that time was to either keep working as a housecleaner or go to one of the garment factories and get a job; any job to bring money into the family. She had no plans to return to school, even though she wanted to continue her studies.
In 2001, Arun was contacted by CASF on the advice of a friend's aunt. After completing the application process, she returned to her local secondary school and started classes again. Her CASF scholarship, while not a large sum of money, was enough for her to purchase her lesson plans, buy school supplies, get a uniform, and pay for her private lessons. A bicycle we purchased provided her transportation to and from school. When I last visited Cambodia, Arun had just taken the grade 9 exam (the standardized test that all students have to take - and pass - in order to go into the 10th grade) and was awaiting her results. She passed this exam with flying colors.
When I visited with Arun today, now three years later, she was a different woman than the young girl I spoke with in 2003. Most of what I describe above was said by her to me - in English! Just like last time, she is awaiting the results of a state exam; this one will influence what she studies in University. If she passes the exam, she hopes to become a Cambodian doctor so that she can treat the diseases of the poor. She will learn the results in the first few weeks of September.
I asked Arun, quite directly, how being a CASF student has impacted her. She said that she knew, even as a young child, that she wanted to graduate from high school and maybe go to university, but didn't know how it would be possible. CASF has allowed to to go to school. She told me that without CASF, she would, right now, most likely be either working as a maid, working in a garment factory or staying at home doing nothing.
As Arun said this to me, I didn't at first believe her, becuase I had heard the same from other students. Soon after, though, I was introduced to her 24 year old sister who dropped out of school in grade 9 to work in a garment factory. Because of health reasons, she now stays at home doing nothing because she has no skills. Her illness was the result of working at the factory. After a time, her medications started to cost more than her salary, so she stopped working and now just stays at home. She would like to go to beauty school but does not have any money. Arun will try to find a part time job when she is in University to help her.
While unique, Arun's story is not uncommon among the students I have met. In all cases, CASF has been a powerfully positive influence in their lives - without exception. I cannot understate the changes I have seen in our students. The impact of CASF on their lives and the lives of their familes has been enormous. I have even spoken to community members who have said the same. Student after student has talked about how our support has made the difference between going to school and going to work in a garment factory. For those students who were in school before becoming a member of CASF, their teachers have said they are more confident than before, more curious and that their marks have gone up significantly. These kids are going to make a difference. They told me themselves.
I can't think of a way to end tonight's entry, but maybe that is appropriate. I have more students to meet, more stories to hear and more programs to visit (tomorrow I leave for Mondolkiri Province in the far west of Cambodia). There are 13 million people in Cambodia right now, 5 million of which are children under the age of 14. CASF supports 275 students. I've got to go now, there is still a lot of work left to do...