Katie McCallum is on a two-week trip to Cambodia with Tearfund’s Transform programme. She sent us another inspiring update.
We spent the morning digging at the Safe Haven today. It’s 37 degrees outside and the mud in Cambodia is more like clay than the crumbly stuff we have at home. Within the first ten minutes with my shovel I was swimming in sweat, popping blisters on my thumbs, and grumbling. It’s not that I didn’t want to dig the irrigation system that would ultimately allow the children to have a playground that doesn’t get waterlogged every time it rains. I just wanted everyone to know that I was putting myself through considerable discomfort to make it happen.
I was suddenly reminded of the millions of people who spend every single day of their lives out in the fields, digging the earth, who don’t have enough food to feed their children, let alone themselves. Whilst I’m downing my third bottle of water, these guys are drinking disease-ridden stuff from the well they had to walk 10 miles to get to. I shut up pretty quickly.
I also met Sovann today. He’s a teacher at the Safe Haven, or at least that’s his most basic job title. He’s an incredibly cheeky, older Cambodian man with lots of gold teeth. I asked him where his gold teeth came from, and he started telling us his story. Sovann was put in prison when he was about 20 years old, by the Khmer Rouge, a political regime that carried out a systematic genocide during the 1970s, killing as many as 20% of Cambodia’s population. He spent the next three years working on a chain gang, and was often beaten for information that he didn’t have. Sovann showed us a scar across his chin, and told us how he was hit on the back of his head with a hoe by Khmer Rouge soldiers. The force of the blow caused him to fall to the ground, his teeth falling through the bottom of his chin. This was when he acquired his gold replacements. You can also make out the scars of the five bullets that he was shot with over the years that the Khmer Rouge was in power. When Vietnam invaded, Sovann was able to escape from prison. When we asked him how he possibly could have survived, he chuckled; clearly he had no other choice. He’s incredibly lucky to be alive.
The reason why I found Sovann’s story so incredible is the way he walks around the Safe Haven laughing and teasing the kids, talking to anyone who’ll listen to his stories. I can’t find a trace of bitterness in his character, no deep resentment towards the people who hurt him so badly or anger at his experience. Since 1980, Sovann has been one of the best teachers around, and is currently training 384 other teachers how to do their jobs better. He’s also training 110 army leaders in the areas of child trafficking, positive discipline, protecting children from violence and loads more. Here in Cambodia there are loads of issues between the army and people crossing the border to work in Thailand. Sovann is trying to promote understanding and safety through education. That’s a massive job.
This afternoon he told us that there was something really important he wanted us to remember: never hold your head so high that you walk past people without making friends with them. Sovann blew me away; because he saw the need in his country, and he’s working to fix it. This guy who’s experienced more pain and brutality than I have ever endured, is laughing and joking with a bunch of English teenagers, sharing how he’s making his dream for Cambodia a reality.