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Jun 6, 2018

Developing a Khmer Network

Painting our wall by CUS
Painting our wall by CUS

Hello dear friends of our school,

Thank you all so much for your kind and much appreciated support of our school.

I thought it would be nice to write a report on a lesser known part of our program, which is our Outreach and Networking program with other fellow Cambodian students and foundations, as well as other lesser known activities our school does.

As you might perhaps know, our school has in the past performed abroad on numerous occasions, including festivals for  the development of friendship between Vietnam and Cambodia, but also in Europe and in Qatar. We have also welcomed foreign foundations such as the Finnish Sibelius Academy, the US Marine Band and high schools from Qatar. In special workshops we have learned about each other's cultures and performing arts and we have shared our knowledge, giving joint performances to celebrate both our diversity and our Oneness.

We have also used our main hall to house exhibitions looking into painful topics such as the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia, or inviting the Documentation Centre of Cambodia to come and talk about the Cambodian genocide and show documentary films. We have shown award winning films and opened our doors to the Cambodian public, so that they can have free access to learn about their history and hopefully find some relief from painful memories. For political reasons the Cambodian government has not allowed much information about the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) to be given to the public. Many Cambodians also suffered dreadfully under the secret mass bombings ordered by President Nixon, but have not had much information or closure on this part of their past. Our aim is to share our resources and invite specialists to come to our school, so that Cambodian people can learn about and begin healing from their past.

As perhaps the only centre focusing in the revivial and preservation of traditional Khmer culture in Kampot Province and Southwest Cambodia in general, we also attract attention from Cambodian universities and groups. We are extremely pleased at this quite recent development, because it means that young, educated Cambodians are interested and respectful about their own cultural heritage. Many are also compassionate and responsible young people, who demonstrate a genuine interest in our school and our children's well-being. 

Each month we have one or two University or Cambodian foundations visit our school. For example we recently had a visit by the University of Economics with links to France. The university students came for a cultural exchange. Our students performed traditional Pin Peat and Mohori music, classical Cambodian dance and Yike. The university students spoke about their studies and interests. They donated rice, noodles, cooking oil and made monetry donations.

We also had a visit from former Cambodian university students who had studied in Japan and a further university group with many young women students who spoke with our children and emphasised the importance of education as a way out of poverty and as the key to a good future. We are particularly grateful to these young people for their encouragement and the positive role-model they give. In rural Cambodia especially, we face an uphill battle where once girls reach adolescence, they are considered as a bargaining chip to be used in marriage or sent to factories. In very dysfunctional families, they are sold into prostiution. We have direct experience where extended families are neglectful and unloving, even cruel to orphaned girls when they are little and are only too glad to put them in a school such as ours, but once the girls are bigger, they develop a sudden, avid interest and want them back again. Then we are faced with the dilemna of a young girl who is progressing well with her school education, who has dreams about becoming a doctor or a professional artist and who is free. Suddenly she feels opressed by age-old family duties expected of a young girl and feels torn whether to be obedient, or to live out her own life.

Visits by young university students really help us by reinforcing the ethics of fulfilling one's deepest dreams, of becoming all that one can be and of not being afraid to be different. Our children receive many positive benefits from these role-models.

Some universities like the Cambodian University of Specialities have been incredibly helpful. Last weekend they came, a whole class of them from Phnom Penh and wonderfully painted our school wall. Given that our school grounds are large, that was a lot of wall to paint. We are so very grateful to them.  Our school has four buildings in large gardens and given the tropical climate, everything is constantly needing a lick of paint, or repairs.

We welcome Cambodian student groups rather than expatriate volunteers, because we share the same cultural understanding and sensitivity. We speak the same language and understand socio-cultural traditions and protocol in the same way.  We are also able to do background checks on the universities and students are under supervision from their tutors. We have a strict Child Protection Policy which does not allow foreign volunteers, this also includes tourism-volunteering which we consider harmful. Our policy is in place in order to safe-guard and protect the well-being of our children and the harmony and peace of our school as a whole. 

We have also been witness to some well-meaning foreigners, perhaps unconsiously escaping personal grievances, or those who have come to Cambodia with unclear ethics and in these cases they create more harm than good. There are some expatriate volunteers alas who come to Cambodia with the idea that because they are Western, that they "know better", and they can be quite heavy- footed and insensitive. Of course most of this is unconsious behaviour and the majority of people only mean well, but.......

On International Children's Day on the 1st of June our children enjoyed games and fun and a Cambodian delegation came from Phnom Penh and through our staff gave gifts to each of our children.

Looking across the two and more decades that our school has been running, the involvement of Cambodians themselves in caring for and participating in activities that support disadvantaged children and in taking an interest in their own culture, is a very positive step. It is a step towards a country becoming more responsible for it's own citizens and looking out for those less fortunate than themselves. There is still a long way to go, especially in rural Cambodia where there is still much prejudice and isolation towards the disabled, people with HIV and orphaned children, however we are very happy at this positive step from young, educated Cambodians. 

Lovely painted wall at our school!
Lovely painted wall at our school!
CUS student painting our wall
CUS student painting our wall
Former Cambodian students from Japanese university
Former Cambodian students from Japanese university

Links:

May 17, 2018

What is going on in Cambodia

KCDI students performing at Kampot Arts Festival
KCDI students performing at Kampot Arts Festival

Dear friends of our school,

Thank you all so much for continuing your vital support for our school. We send you our gratitude and warmest regards!

In this report I would like to focus on our blind children, but before doing so I feel it is important that you all know about the current situtation both in Kampot where our school is and in Cambodia as a whole.

In July Cambodia will hold elections. However the prime-minister who has been in power since 1980 (except briefly after Cambodia's first free elections when the opposition party one),  has imprisoned the opposition, whilst others have gone into exile. Many human rights activists are also in prison. Some environmental activists have been killed, as well as one political activist who exposed corruption within the ruling family. Many newspapers and radio stations have been closed down, including the Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Cambodian journalists including an Australian journalist have been arrested and are in prison

In the past Western countries had a significant influence on Cambodia's freedom of speech and the press was relatively free. However in the last five years the role of China has increased ten-fold, with a donation of 500 million US Dollars for "Cambodian development". This sum has dwarfed any Western contribution including the USA, reducing any voice the West may have had on democracy, the environment and human rights. Chinese development includes the building of large dams, power-plants, rubber plantations, garment factories, the Chinese tourist industry and so on. The negative effect on the enviroment that these developments have had, have been well noted, but continue none the less.

In parallel to these developments, Cambodian society has also begun disintegrating at an alarming rate, with Cambodian youth particularly at risk with widespread drug-use and glue-sniffing addictions, as well as alcohol and gambling addictions in both young and older generations. New very dangerous drugs continue to be churned out with seemingly little control or ability to stem the tide. Kampot which is a micro-cosmos of Cambodia has also been much affected by these unfortunate developments. The drug problem is now so serious in Kampot that some families have invited the police to arrest their children in order to save them from further drug use. There are even some police who have been arrested for meths use. Tuk-tuk drivers offer drugs to foreigners and several tourists have died in Kampot from drugs cut with sand or cement. The drugs problem is so overwhelming that we are all reeling and have not yet any statistics or figures to hand. We now have to be very careful that our own adolescent children from our school don't get involved in drugs through some fellow school-friend, when they attend state school for their scholastic lessons.

Exacerbating these severe social diseases, has been rampant, uncontrolled tourism. Many tourists are now coming to Cambodia for it's reputation of cheap drugs, as well as pedophillia and the sex-trade. As Thailand has been clamping down on these unsavoury persons, so they have turned to Cambodia. Many tourists then settle down in Cambodia on longterm visas and places like Kampot are now tragically full of alcoholics and people of dubious background.

If one can immagine what effect this must have on a society still overcoming deep trauma from the effects of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war which lasted until around 1999, then one can understand how devestating it is.

Paradoxally many foreigners in Phnom Penh come to do business and major business companies are now part of the capital city. Very expensive, private schools stand next to slums, there are luxury resorts and golf courses and many foreigners and wealthy Cambodians live well, quite cut-off from the tragedy which is unfolding in the rest of Cambodian society and possibly oblivious to the poitical state of the country.

Another fall-out is from well-meaning, more respectable tourists "pitying" what they think are homeless children and giving them dollars, gifts and food. Encouraged by this wealth, children are abandoning their families and becoming sucked into the horrors of life on the street. Many get stuck in gangs and become addicted to glue-sniffing and drugs, whilst their families are desperately looking for them. Unwittingly tourists have contributed to a very serious social problem and made it worse.

 In the midst of all this, our school sits in Kampot town and we are blessed with being on land that was a former Pagoda, where we have a large garden with flowers and trees and our staff do their very best to give loving guidance to our children, to protect them and keep them well and safe. It is a challenge and we are deeply worried about what is going on outside our school. We stay positive and focus on that which is good, but we remain aware and alert.

Having been in Cambodia for twenty-seven years and with my school since it began for twenty-four years, I am profoundly saddened with what I see. It feels a little like walking in the darkness and searching for a light to see the way ahead. This also applies to the never-ending search for funds to support our children's needs and run our childcare, education and arts programs. My staff are wonderful and are always making efforts to help our school by growing some of our own fruit or vegetables, spices, making shadow puppets to sell and so on, but these efforts though valient are not enough to support all our needs. Yet although the world has moved on from Cambodia and taking care of orphans is no longer "in vogue", there are children at our school, more than at any time in our history, who have endured tremendous suffering and have nowhere else to go, making it imperative that we help them.

Our blind children are doing well. Since they began nearly three years ago, they have developed in their music studies wonderfully and are able to perform with great musicality Mohori, Pin Peat and Yike music. We would also like them to learn the Chapey Dong Veng instrument and we will look for funding to enable them to do so. 

They are also progressing well with their academic studies and being assisted by their Braille teacher. We thank the wonderful NGO "Krousar Thmey" for supplying us with Braille paper and paper-punching frames, abbacas for maths and so on. Our school of course sponsors our Braille teacher and all other expenses. Our secretary Miss Sophea also teaches them English and computer studies, meaning that they have the widest skill learning range possible, so that even if they don't choose music as a subject when they leave school, they will have other important skills as well enabling them to work in the civil service for example.

Thank you all for your marvelleous support.

With best wishes from us all at our school!

(Photographs by kind courtesy of Steve Porte, taken with our childrn's permission)

Performing the Takhe instrument
Performing the Takhe instrument
Doing maths
Doing maths

Links:

Mar 8, 2018

Reaching out to the Community

Painting together
Painting together

Hello dear Friends and Supporters of our School,

 

Thank you so much for your wonderful support during our December End of Year Campaign. We raised over $10,000 for our school which is an enormous help and keeps us open and running for several months. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Normally in these reports, I write about our students who come during the day for their free arts lessons and our resident children who are orphaned and some of whom are blind. Today I would like to tell you about the Kampot Arts Festival which was held for three days in January in coordination with Epic Arts and Sarawasati Press.

The idea of the Kampot Arts Festival which will also be held next year, is to support Cambodian artists by allowing them a voice and a platform on which to perform or show their arts. The emphasis is on tradititional arts, but also embracing contemporary arts too. More than at any time, are Cambodian arts and culture, especially traditional arts, in danger of dying out completely. There is such an overwhelming wave of Westernization, capitalism and rapid destruction of architectural and cultural heritage that there is no time to be lost in putting measures in place to conserve Cambodian arts.  The artists themselves are finding it harder and harder to make a living and their rich and ancient heritage risks being trampled underfoot by ignorant tourists and rampent real estate development, as well as unprecidented overeach by China into this small country.

With an opening ceremony held at our school, both our resident children and outreach students performed the "Robam Chuon Puor" (Blessing Dance), traditional Mohori music performed by our blind students and fantastic shadow puppet theatre. The wonderful contemporary arts NGO, Epic Arts gave a beautiful dance performance with their young adult students who are deaf and some also wheelchair users. The local Youth Club gave a performance of Folk Dance and one Epic Arts Studentsinterpreted all the different speeches in sign language. It was truly a special event. 

The next day our school opened it's doors to various shared activities with Epic Arts, these included painting and modern dance workshops, but also traditional dance, music and shadow puppet workshops given by our masters and oldest students. We were so happy when a large queue of young Cambodians came to learn about and participate in the arts. One of the most popular was the puppet-making workshop. It gave us hope for the future of Cambodia's culture when we saw so many young people joining in with such enthusiasm.

Then at the very beginning of March we welcomed Cambodian University students from the American Stanford University in Phnom Penh. They came to our school for a shared lunch with our resident and outreach students and our teachers.Then after a performance given by our students, they talked about the importance of higher education and striving towards creating a positive life. They were very good role models for our own children. Their visit is one of several that we have had in the last few months, encouraging an exchange of ideas amongst our school and other higher education institutes.

(Photos by Steve Porte. Permission was granted by all those photographed)

Performance on Opening Night
Performance on Opening Night
Epic Arts student interpreting a speech
Epic Arts student interpreting a speech
Puppet making workshop with Master Samoeun
Puppet making workshop with Master Samoeun
Students from Stanford Uni with KCDI
Students from Stanford Uni with KCDI

Links:

 
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