“If I make it through this, I’m going to help the poor in my country”
Previously published in Enfants du Mékong magazine, Wednesday April 2014
Sochea’s story is just one of dozens… hundreds… thousands of success stories made possible by the support of Children of the Mekong (some names have been changed).
Article: Yves Meaudre, Photo: Antoine Besson
A child aged about 10 sits on the decking outside the hut where he lives. He swings his legs back and forth, contemplating the sunset over the paddy field. The buffalo immersed in the ditch opposite could be mistaken for watchful crocodiles as they blow into the water. White birds use their horns as perches. This is a happy child, a child with no harrowing story to tell, but also a child with no future. Beside him, sitting with her legs curled up beneath her, a shaven-headed Bonze woman in an immaculate sarong, her teeth stained with betel, offers the boy gentle advice about life, wisdom and the happiness of contemplation.
“Sochea, who has no clothes but the shorts he is wearing, climbs onto the truck. His fate has been transformed.”
A pickup arrives, a puff of golden dust billowing up as it comes to a halt. The people of the region are familiar with the little pennant that flies from its roof. From the truck emerge a Belgian, Pierre, a young French woman, Élodie, and an older Cambodian man, Savouth. The lady calls them over.
“Look at this child,” she says. “He is very intelligent”.
“And very handsome, too” says Elodie, beaming.
“Is he always top of the class?” asks the Belgian.
“No, no, he doesn’t go to school.”
“Then how do you know he’s very intelligent?”
“I just know!” She spits out her betel and places her hand on the child’s shoulder.
“Go with them. You’ll have a bright future.”
With a disconcertingly uncomplicated air, Sochea, who has no clothes but the shorts he is wearing, climbs onto the truck. His fate has been transformed. That is the way things are in Cambodia: very simple. Such confidence in children is what Children of the Mekong is all about. The charity’s work is built on the close rapport established between its staff and the local population. The population take responsibility for shaping their own destiny, and COTM gives them the means to do so. It was in this way that, aged 10, Sochea embarked upon a new life. And what a future awaited him!
He went to school. He worked so well that he completed two school years in one. He was so successful that, after his high-school diploma, he was awarded a place at ITC, the prestigious engineering school in Phnom Penh.
Then, tragedy struck. An enormous tumour was found in his lung, plunging everyone into a state of panic. At the time, there was insufficient surgery provision in Cambodia to attempt such a high-risk operation. The tumour spread to his aorta. Elodie fought hard, searching high and low for a solution. Finally, she persuaded a professor in Toulouse to operate on the young man. Moved by Sochea’s story, the surgeon offered his services free of charge, but the costs of transporting him to France and of a lengthy stay in hospital were high. COTM organised a huge concert with soloists from the Paris Opera, the French National Orchestra and the musicians of the Garde Républicaine. The event, entitled “La beauté sauvera Sochea” (“Beauty will save Sochea”) was an immense success. This great generosity shown by those who contributed had a profound effect on the young student. “If I make it through this,” he vowed, “I’m going to help the poor in my country.”
The child you educated is now helping to save his country.
Sochea was given the all-clear and returned to his studies with great zeal. Four years later, he graduated as one of the highest-ranked students in the country. The young girl who had followed him since his childhood was thrilled. She put him up for a place at ENGREF, a prestigious engineering school specialising in water and forest engineering in rural areas, and he got in with disconcerting ease, his characteristically calm, humble, joyful smile never far from his lips.
With another qualification under his belt, and speaking French and English like a native, Sochea’s future appeared to be all mapped out. He seemed destined for a career in a major agrifood firm or an international institution, with a monthly salary in excess of what a Cambodian family might earn in twenty years. There were plenty of enticing offers.
Sochea, though, wanted to help the poor people of his country.
As he is a very practical person, his guardian angel put him in touch with an engineer from Lyon and he went on to found a very simple, very intelligent and much-needed NGO. The aim of his organisation was to supply villages with pure water, disinfected using ultraviolet rays in small processing plants powered by solar panels. He set about installing such plants in remote, isolated villages. In Cambodia, 20% of children under 10 die from water infections. Many of them catch dysentery. To address this problem, Sochea and François have now developed their extremely simple, economical and ingenious idea throughout Cambodia, as well as in Madagascar.
Sochea has been recognised as one of the ten most promising youngsters on the planet, receiving the award in Antalya! An entire page was devoted to him in Le Monde. A dinner jacket was hired for him for the ceremony, which had all the pomp of the Oscars or the Nobel Prize. As he received his prize, he answered the questions of the French daily with disarming candour, and gave thanks with the same dazzling smile and unfazed and modest demeanour as ever. He replied to the journalists with the same calm, simplicity and kindness he had when he was 10. While he meets all the gold, pomp, palaces, prestigious awards and press attention with good humour, they ultimately leave him completely indifferent.
His mind is focused on one thing alone: helping the poor.
The poor boy who we helped with his education is now helping to rebuild his country.
Yves Meaudre (This is a translated version of the original article.)