Category Archives: Sponsorship

Writing Through Cambodia – A Retrospective

One of the youngest learners, Battambang provinceFor three months this year I had the privilege of leading Writing Through workshops in Cambodia, teaching children sponsored by Enfants du Mekong (EDM) how to write poems and stories in English. Fifty lessons, hundreds of poems and stories and six “big events” later, almost 200 children have received a ‘magic pencil’ and with it the new experience of writing creatively in English.

The workshop represented a lot of firsts. It marked one of the first large-scale projects funded by Children of the Mekong – the UK division of EDM. It was Writing Through’s, largest roll-out so far, and one of the first times founder Sue Guiney handed over the reins to her carefully devised workshops. As for me, it was my first formal experience of teaching, and my first time in south-east Asia.

The biggest first of all was for the students. Answering a questionnaire before the workshop started, almost half of them said they had never written a story before, whether in Khmer or a foreign language. Just 28 per cent said they felt they “had something important to say” and only 17 per cent said they “felt confident” before the workshop started.

Their reservations were understandable. The workshop, which includes group work, speaking in front of the class, creativity and spontaneity, differs from the typical Cambodian education style, which relies on rote learning and places a high importance on respecting the teacher, rather than freedom of expression.

Added to this, reading for pleasure is not common in Cambodia. The national literacy rate is around 73 per cent, and even lower in the poorer, rural areas where EDM’s sponsored children come from. On bumpy bus rides between EDM centres in Bantaey Chhmar, Sisophon, Samrong and Preah Vihear, I did not once see someone reading a book, or even a newspaper.

Reading out loud, Prear VihearThis context can make teaching a challenge. Tell a group of English, French or American seven year olds to write a story about anything they want, and most of them will start scribbling away. Asking a group of 12, 15 or 21-year olds they are about to do the same, and I was met with many blank, or plain terrified, faces.

Here is where the careful structure of Writing Through comes into its own. Through brainstorms, group discussions and visual prompts, the students are gently nudged towards writing for themselves. As in any classroom, confidence, ability and enthusiasm varied across the children, but by writing first as a class and then individually or in small groups, students were able to learn at their own pace.

The theme of each workshop was “Taking Risks”. Before each session, I showed the class photographs. Some showed physical risks: a woman climbing a mountain; a girl who had fallen off her bicycle; a man smoking a cigarette.

Some were emotional or intellectual; and harder for some of the students to identify as ‘risks’. In many cases, these inspired the most interesting work – an image of a boy crying on his friend’s shoulder led to discussions about emotional risk and how the students dealt with their problems. A picture of a Khmer couple on their wedding day prompted initial exclamations of “Sah Aht Na!” or “Beautiful!”, but often produced discussions about arguments, poverty and even alcoholism and violence.

The students I taught ranged both in their ages and their abilities. So did what they wrote about. For younger children, talking animals and ghosts in the forests were perennial favourites. University students in Battambang wrote an impressive anti-smoking poem, including the catchy line: “When we smoke, we choke”. Traffic accidents, remained a constant, and quite understandable, theme across groups.

The capacity for conceptual thought also varied. In Preah Vihear, EDM’s newest centre, the Grade 11 and 12 students were shy about speaking out in class and tended to base their stories and poems resolutely within their own province, often in their high school.

In Sisophon, EDM’s longest-standing Cambodian centre, the confidence and ability of the students was more developed. My final groups wrote sophisticated, Bollywood-inspired stories featuring poison, disguise, revenge and romance across enemy lines. For them, several years learning in EDM had made an obvious difference, as had regular film screenings and a well-stocked library. I am confident that within a few years the students of Prear Vihear could be at the same level.

Post event celebrations, Preah VihearIn every centre I was particularly touched by the student’s enthusiasm for learning English and their apparently boundless curiosity about England and my life there. They were surprised that I did not live with my parents, concerned that I did not usually eat rice every day (or even every week), and were shocked that, unlike them, I did not consider 6am to be a lie in, and in fact would have happily slept until 1pm when I was their age.

In turn, they told me about their siblings, families, ambitions, favourite foods. The boys sang mournful warbling Khmer songs after dinner, hand on heart, while their friends sat with their heads bowed. I mastered my own interpretations of both Let it Go and My Heart will Go On, and came dangerously close to believing that my singing was as “Sat Aht Na!” as they claimed it was.

One girl, Sali, a Grade 10 student in Sisophon, told me that she was one of seven brothers and sisters. Her youngest brother was “too lazy” to go to school, she told me, with the classic distain of the older sibling. Her oldest siblings were working in factories or at home with babies. Her 17-year-old brother wanted to continue to learn but had no bicycle with which to travel the 20 km to the nearest High School.

As the only one in school, her working siblings sent money to help with her education. She laughed as she told me that that is why she was the first to go to bed in her dorm, and why she always missed the centre’s film screening on Sunday so she could study. She brought out library books she was reading in English to show me and we talked about our favourite characters in Harry Potter. She told me her aim was to learn “all the languages”.

In some ways, Sali’s knack with languages (she is also doing well at French) and herwillingness for swapping Bollywood for biology make an exceptional student. But, time and time again, I was struck by how seriously the students took their education, how welcoming they were of me and how receptive they were to learning. It frustrates me that there are those like Sali, living in villages in Cambodia, that could be bursting with the same creativity, academic potential and willingness to study, but are not given the same chance.

At the end of each Writing Through workshop, the children read out their work to an audience. This often took on a party atmosphere; in Samrong we had a traditional Khmer band, in Preah Vihear we spent the afternoon making decorations and there was singing and dancing afterwards. In every centre, there was an abundance of quite disgusting durian- flavoured biscuits. Each child received a magazine with the work produced during the workshop, complete with illustrations drawn by the children and some photographs of our time together.

Asked to evaluate the workshop afterwards, 89 per cent said they planned to write stories and poems by themselves and 88 per cent said they would now feel more confident going to their English lessons. Nearly every child said they would like to participate in the workshop next year. Asked if they had anything else to add, one student in Preah Vihear wrote: “The workshop helps us to have self-confidence. We learn to be brave, to persevere and to write. We think that things are difficult but after we realise that we can do it.”

There is a certain Khmer art to telling the listener what he or she wants to hear. In the space of a week, I saw each child progress in confidence and ability, whether by a small or large amount. For some, I think our week together will be the start of them using writing to express their thoughts and ideas. For others, I hope the workshop has opened up new ways of thinking about the world and has taught them that learning English can be inventive and fun.

Watching the big event, SisophonAs the workshop drew to a close, it was clear that Sue’s theme of “Taking Risks” was a very pertinent one. It is a risk for an NGO to prioritise a programme that teaches poetry and stories; whose focuses on confidence and conceptual thought are subtle and difficult to measure. It is a risk for these children to express themselves in a language that is foreign and in a style that is unfamiliar. To think in new ways; to stand up and share their work; to write.

I believe it is a risk that has, and will continue to, pay off. I thought it would be fitting to end with a short poem, written by Sompha, Hom, In Chhorm and Sith, Grade 10 students in Samrong centre.

Today we are very happy

Because we study with

Teacher Katy about poems

And short stories

The first time we feel afraid and

Have difficulties with this

Now we don’t feel afraid about learning

Because we have no problem

We can write

A short story and poem

And then we can read

For our friends

And each other

And everybody

Listens to us

We hope that

We can be successful!

Interns wanted!

We are looking for interns to join our team for fall (September to December).

interns_wanted

About the role

Where? : Lavender Hill, London SW11 5RL (Southwest London)

When? : All year long, 1 month minimum (ideally 3 months).

Working days: Monday to Saturday, 9.30-6.30. (5 days a week)

Paid? : Unpaid. Transport allowance of £50/month.

What does it involve? :  Both work in the charity’s office and shop.

1) In the office: Coming up with new fundraising ideas and organising them, helping create and re-phrase reports, newsletters and blogs on the charity’s progress, preparing grants applications, and running the charity’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

2) In the shop: Running the till, providing good customer service and making sales, organising and pricing stock, keeping the shop tidy, keeping track of the shop‘s accounts; and eventually acting as shop leader: delegating roles to other volunteers throughout the day and being responsible of closing and opening the shop.

What do I need to do this job? : No specific work experience is required. However we do ask that candidates possess the following skills.

Good English writing skills and the ability to use Microsoft Office are necessary for a lot of the office work, whilst creativity is especially helpful for coming up with suggestions for new fundraising ideas or ways to improve the charity.

Basic arithmetic skills are also required to keep the accounts in order and work the till.

Above all, punctuality, organisation skills and a good work ethic are required to ensure that work is done on time and always to the best of your ability.

Why it is a great opportunity for you? :

  • You are helping the children in need in South East Asia,
  • You will learn various tasks,
  • You will part in a great team and will work in a good environment.

If you are interested, please send your CV and Cover letter to Eugenie Prouvost

info@childrenofthemekong.org

PS: We are always looking for volunteers!

6 month update!!

Can you believe it’s been six months since we opened our charity shop in Clapham – how time flies!

In those past 6 months things have constantly been changing; from new interns and volunteers to the donations we receive in our our shop. But there has been one person who been there from the very beginning, and that is Eugenie – our Operations Manager.

ep

Eugenie the Operations Manager

Eugenie has spent a lot of time and effort with Children of the Mekong and has been here from the beginning! All her hard work has paid off; since opening the store we have raised over £18,000 from selling donated items!! The money raised has helped fund projects in Southeast Asia including Samrong, Cambodia where volunteers and project managers are currently building an education centre for 360 children.

Being a charity shop we receive a wide range of items: from quirky items like wigs, an old school suitcase to extravagant ones such a Dolce and Gabanna sunglasses and a chandelier! The donations we receive never cease to amaze us!

In addition to the shop the interns have helped organise events and activities to help raise extra money. In March we teamed up with LK Bennett in Clapham where we had a fundraising event. LK Bennett donated 10% of the total proceedings they made which totalled to £150!!

 

More recently, we have started making street collections! So if you’re around Clapham you might see two green dinosaurs roaming around. Street collections will help us become a more established charity in the local area as well as help us raise more money for the charity, so it’s a win win situation!

We have a lot of exciting events coming up in the next few months. For starters, Children of the Mekong will be taking part in the British 10K run again this year. Last year 15 runners participated in the race and raised over £15,000! This year we hope to emulate the same success.

Moreover, we hope to start a brand new project in Cambodia. The project is still in the planning phase but keep your eyes open and we’ll be updating you with details later on in the year.

full intern

The current interns at the Children of the Mekong. Clockwise from top left: Julie, Eleonora, Harry, Andrea and Dayle.

 

If you thought the last 6 months were great then you’re in for a ride as we have a lot of upcoming events for you to support starting with the British 10K run. For the second time, Children of the Mekong with be participating in the British 10K run. Last year we raised over £15,000 and we’re hoping to do the same this year.

The money raised from the 10K run will be used to a brand new project in Cambodia. The project will be organised by the interns with Eugenie so everyone is really excited! We can’t tell you too much as this stage except that it’s for preschool children. We will keep you posted with more details in the near future!

That was just a short update six month update about the Children of the Mekong! Make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up-to-date with our progress and please do send us your thoughts and opinions.

We are always on the lookout for more interns and volunteers so if you are interested in joining our team (even if you can only volunteer for a few hours a week) send us an email. You can also get involved by sponsoring a child for £24 a month which will contribute towards his or her school fees, supplementary food and medication, hygienic products as well as pocket money. We also accept donations, no matter how big or small as we sell a wide range of items in our shop.

Thanks for reading!

Children of the Mekong enters the British 10K race!

It’s time to do sport!

On the 12th of July, the British 10K will take place in London. This race is really popular and once again Children of the Mekong will be participating. Last year, our fabulous team of runners raised over £15,000 which contributed to the building of a foster home in Cambodia.

Some of the runners before the race!

Some of the runners before the race!

 

This year, we have 12 runners and we’re still looking for more! We give you the opportunity to join our team and to run for us. This year we aim to raise at least £15,000 which will be used to support the construction of two new classrooms in the village of Ban Homephan, Laos.

 

 

Group photo

Group photo of all the runners

 

If you would like to run for us, please let us know as soon as possible so we can register you for the race. Or if you can’t run but still want to get involved, ask your friends to join our team. Last but not least, feel free to come on the D-Day to encourage our runners!

 

 

Your green t-shirt is waiting for you!!

Written by Harry

Tha Kong, nurse and midwife in Northern Cambodia

IMG_0510Today, I’m going with Tha Kong to Samrong hospital.  This young woman, aged 24, has already been studying for two years to become a nurse.  This year she’s going to specialise so she can become a midwife.  Kong is sponsored through Children of the Mekong and comes from Oddar Meanchay, an extremely poor province in the far north of Cambodia.  She entered the COTM education centre in Samrong when she was at high school.  Having passed the baccalaureat, she took an examination and was accepted at the school of nursing in Battambang, a large town in the northwest.  Every year during the summer, she does practical placements at the hospital.  She loves coming back to Samrong, and her dream is to work here when she qualifies, in a year’s time.  It’s here that I meet her.IMG_0511 IMG_0489

This morning, she’s taking me to visit the hospital where she is doing a placement, a few steps away from the EDM centre where she lives.  First of all, the health centre where pregnant women are monitored.  Kong seems very much at ease as she takes the blood pressure and measures the abdomen of the pregnant women.  At the beginning of pregnancy, each woman is offered tests to check for symptoms of aids, malaria or syphilis.  These diseases can prevent the foetus developing properly as well as jeopardising the health of the mother-to-be.

In reception there is a new-born baby, just one day old, with his father and grandmother.  Kong does not hesitate for a moment when asked by the senior midwife to vaccinate the baby against hepatitis B.  Her actions are precise and assured.

The atmosphere is calm, even cheerful.  The children of doctors and midwives come to work with their parents when they aren’t old enough to go to school.  They laugh and play happily in the corridors.  One of them, the 2- or 3-year-old daughter of the senior doctor in maternity, even comes and gives me a hug!  I’m surprised, because the children here aren’t used to seeing “baraings” (white people) and seldom dare to come near them!IMG_0500b

Kong, along with another student whose dream is to go to Paris, takes me to see the maternity ward.  There I visit the labour room where women give birth, not so different from those found in Europe.  I also visit the young mothers who have recently given birth, an opportunity for me to learn how to say “congratulations” in Khmer: “saum abaarsossae”.  There are between 4 and 10 of them per room, each in bed cuddling their baby who is wrapped in the traditional karma to keep warm despite the ambient 30°.  The families are also there.  I meet a row of grandmothers sitting on the floor against the wall of the room.  Each one, with a huge smile, points out which one is her grandson or granddaughter.  I am very moved to see them so happy.  Fathers are there too, getting used to their new role, tentatively – the first time for some of them – dressing their little one, cradling it in their arms.IMG_0496

The visit comes to an end.  Kong, pleased to have shown me her future work, asks me about medicine in France, the hospitals…IMG_0495  She loves taking care of people and dreams of coming back to her native province to work.  She is an example of how Children of the Mekong would like to see each of their sponsored children develop.  Kong has managed to leave poverty behind, take up studies and become a self-confident young woman, someone who is helping her country and hopes that her brothers and sisters in Cambodia will do so too. She is the embodiment of hope.

Thank you to all those who hold out this hope by supporting the actions of Children of the Mekong.

 

Text and photos: Aksinia Boiret – Overseas Volunteer in Samrong, Cambodia

Why so many choose to volunteer?

In recent years, university graduates face the toughest jobs market in recent memory. Nowadays, just a good academic degree is not enough to stand out from the competition. As a graduate or student you must always try to improve your CV by seeking work experience, voluntary work and look for ways to enhance and gain new skills. This will give you more chances to get noticed by employers when you apply for jobs, and you can justify your words with real facts. A great way to gain this valuable experience is through volunteering for charities, either by helping in their fundraising activities or by working in the charity for the area of your study, whether this is marketing, finance or law. The team at www.evergrad.com has gathered some important reasons which showcase the benefits of working for charities, both on a personal and professional level for university students and graduates.

volunteers1Volunteering is not only a great way to gain practical experience. It can help you stand out from the hundreds of candidates that apply for the same job. It can also contribute towards your personal development, for instance your organisational skills and confidence while it also gives you the opportunity to contribute to something you really care about. You will learn, enhance, expand your knowledge and gain some real world experience.

Volunteering and helping others who are in need of your services can also be very satisfying on a personal level while it can also teach you skills that are essential to potential employers.

Have in mind that you might be offered a full time paid job at the charity you volunteer with. Thus, a voluntary work has always the potential to turn into a permanent full time contract if you impress the organisation. Many charities offer a variety of job opportunities, whatever your chosen career.

Voluntary work in a charity can look great on your CV. If you have obvious gaps on your CV then this will not make a good impression to the companies you’re applying for. Working for charities it is an excellent way to fill this gap and enhance your CV while showing that you have been active.

After including charity work on your CV, the chances of being called for an interview instantly volunteer-11112302increase. The interview, is your perfect opportunity to impress your potential employers by mentioning your experiences and skills you have gained, and giving examples of what you learned throughout your voluntary work for the charity you worked for. Employers are well aware of the advantages of volunteering and working for non-profit organizations and appreciate the devotion and initiative that is required by volunteers.

Lastly, working for charities will give you the chance to meet new people, make connections, try new stuff and meanwhile have some fun!

Are you convinced yet?

If you or anyone you know might be interested in working for charities, then head over to www.evergrad.com where you can find a variety of related jobs!

Sochea’s Story

“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 image

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.)

At the heart of the plight of childhood AIDS

Previously published in Enfants du Mékong magazine, Thursday 5 June 2014

Aids 1

Mathilde, a ‘bambou’ volunteer in Laos, tells us of her intense discovery at the Baan home hug Centre, which takes in children who are victims of AIDs. A poignant experience.

The Baan home hug Centre is situated close to the town of Yasothon in Isan, the region bordering on Laos. Considered to be one of the poorest regions of Thailand, a lot of Thai people leave to look for work elsewhere. Many fall into prostitution in Bangkok or Pattaya then contaminate their families when they return home. This is one of the most AIDS-affected regions in Thailand.

The centre was created around twenty years ago with the primary aim of taking in orphaned victims of AIDS. It was founded by Mae Thiew, an extraordinary woman of a rare kindness and generosity. Today the centre is home to 55 children, with ages ranging from 18 months to 22 years. All these children have something in common: they are orphans. Their parents have died, abandoned them or are unable to look after them properly.

 

“When I arrived at the centre, I wanted to know each child’s story. But I soon realised I would have preferred not to know”

 

17 children are infected with AIDS. Moreover a large number of the other children have a link to AIDS since one or both of their parents have died from the virus. Sometimes these children also have brothers or sisters who have died for the same reason. The centre does not solely care for children affected by AIDS; it also takes in children who have lived in an unhealthy or even dangerous family environment. For example, they have been exposed to violent parents, drug addiction, or alcoholism. About two weeks before this article was written, a young girl came to the centre to escape child trafficking. Now the centre is her new home.

Aids 2

Everyday 13 mothers called ‘mé’ (‘mum’ in Thai) and 4 fathers called ‘po’ (‘dad’ in Thai) look after this troop: they take care of the children night and day. This kind team is charged with raising the children, caring for them, and loving them. These mothers and fathers genuinely consider the children to be their own; it is very touching. Incidentally, when I asked a ‘mé’ if she had any children and how many, she replied without hesitation that she had 55. Some of them have always lived here because they were taken in when they were very young. The first thing that struck me upon my arrival was the discovery of such alert children. They watch over one another and look after each other as if they were brothers and sisters.

 

“The centre’s founder said something which has really stayed with me. She told me that she did not pity these children but she understood them”

 

As soon as I arrived, I found myself surrounded by 3 or 4 children. Without fear, they took me by the hand and showed me where I would be staying. For the duration of my stay, they gently and kindly tried to explain to me what to do and what not to do. These children’s levels of maturity and problem solving ability are incredible! The older children start to look after the youngest ones from an early age. For example, a little girl of 11 is in charge of bathing the youngest child, aged only 18 months. A toddler of 2 explained to me how to put on her nappy and where to find her pyjamas. As soon as possible, the team of mums and dads teach the orphans how to be responsible and take care of things themselves. When they cry, they have to learn to soothe themselves. I have rarely encountered such affectionate and smiling children. When you least expect it, they come and stick to you like glue. Even someone who is not overly fond of children would fall for them. It’s truly magical!

You quickly forget where they come from and what they have been through.

When I arrived at the centre, I wanted to know each child’s story. But I soon realised I would have preferred not to know. Everything I heard sent shivers down my spine. Some of the children had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere when they were very young, or even when they were 7 or 8. At this age they knew exactly what was happening to them. I am completely astounded by these children. If I hadn’t know about their backgrounds, I wouldn’t have imagined that they’d lived through any horrors. They are such happy, smiley and funny children! They are incredible! The centre’s founder said something which has really stayed with me. She told me that she did not pity these children but she understood them. Her solution to try and bring some relief to these children is simply to bring them love and tenderness. “Baan home hug is the place where we give and receive,”, hence the name of the centre. Those few days at the centre passed very quickly and I would have like to stay longer. The days were very busty. My stay at the Baan home hug Centre has given me one of the biggest life lessons I have ever received. The centre is concrete proof that with tenderness, joie de vivre and smiles, we can really make a difference.

 

Text and photos by Mathilde Levivier

This is a translated version of the original article.

Myanmar, the country of thousand smiles – A newsletter by Sylvain, overseas volunteer in Myanmar

An enormous statue of Buddha, a smothering and humid heat, posters covered with hieroglyphs, smiles revealing teeth reddened by betel, cars from another epoch, a sudden but refreshing rain, umbrellas opening, men wearing long skirts, streets congested with fruit and vegetable vendors, the night coming too early, buses overcrowded with passengers, new smiles, faces of women with the cheeks covered of yellow make-up, “hellos” emerging from the permanent noise of the street, a procession of monks meandering along the pavements barefoot, fixed phone lines put on small tables at the corner of the streets, small restaurants in the way, a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi along a portrait of her father, the general Aung San[1], a gold-color pagoda shining all over Yangon, boiling-water vapor coming out of huge pots put straight on the pavement, shouts mixed laughs or maybe laughs mixed with shouts… These are my first sights of Myanmar, barely out the airport, the eyes still full of sleep…

One month (Three now :p) after my arrival, they are now part of my everyday life. Little by little, I understood them so that now they make perfectly sense.

Living in Myanmar, it’s living in the fifties…

Sunset over the pagoda of Kyaik Kha MeeIn Yangon, the former capital, the British colonial buildings are still there, devastated by the humidity and the running vegetation, like the silent witnesses of a country where time stopped. Yangon lives with the sun, and its face changes along the day. At dawn, the teashops where the fish soup based mohingas – the traditional Myanmar breakfasts – can be savored open one by one. Then the huge maze of tiny streets gets full of all kind of vendors spreading their goods – vegetables, fruits, flowers, fishes, meat, hacked CDs and DVDs, flip-flops – on their mats straight in the street. The distracted passer-bys will not notice that the morning fruit stalls are replaced by clothes stalls in the evening. At twilight, plastic chairs and tables invade the streets and people rush to eat rice, noodles, skewered chickens, fishes. Shouting is the right way to order and the conversations going along with “Myanmar Bia” – the national beer – are loud. And then around 10pm, everything stops, people go home, the vendors clean their stalls before lying on them for the night. The silence fills the city before everything starts again the next day. But Yangon, it’s also this huge pagoda, Shwe Dagon, covered with 700kg of thin gold sheets, which as a lighthouse lights up the town when the night arrives. Despite the hundreds maybe thousands believers coming to pray, to make offerings or simply to stroll around, the atmosphere is very quiet far from the agitation of the street at such a point that it almost becomes disturbing.

It’s a life in which everything is different, and also in which everything takes more time. A life in which the price of a cab is bargained, in which taking a public bus is a major achievement, in which hot water is only use for cooking, in which electricity blackouts still occur frequently, in which patience is required to get connected to the Internet, and in which copies of famous brands all imported from China can be bought for a handful of dollars.

Living in Myanmar, it’s liEgg and fruit vendor in a bus at Mawlamyineving in a country where everything changes very quickly.

In June 2011, under the pressure of the international community, a democracy took over the military dictatorship with at its head an ex-member of the “Junta”. In November 2012, Barack Obama’s visit aimed at negotiating the price of democracy with American dollars. Since then, quick changes has been occurring. Very quick changes. Maybe too quick for this archaic society. The “black areas”, before forbidden to foreigners, open one after the other. Not so reliable cash machines appeared and credit cards can now be used in the most prestigious hotels. The most famous European and American brands appeared in the everyday life. Coca-Cola taking the lead invades the stalls of the teashops.

Living in Myanmar, it’s discovering its people…

The first impression is surprising, almost disturbing. But the kindness of the Myanmar people[2] is obvious! Strolling in the streets of Yangon is discovering people looking at you and smiling at you. The smile of these men wearing longys, their umbrella hanging from the waist, chewing betel all day long reddening their teeth and that they spit out afterwards. The smile of these women with their thanaka-shining cheeks – the traditional Myanmar make-up! And the smile of these children! The smile of these pupils squeezed in the public buses on the way home, the smile of these boys playing “Kimbo” –  a mix of football, volleyball and tennis – the smile of these students who after school repeat religiously their lessons, but also the smile of all these children working in the streets, selling all kind of things, flowers, newspapers, bottles of water, and so many other who will never go to school. And there is this little girl, “Nimalé” – literally younger sister in Myanmar language – who works in a noodle restaurant down my street where every morning I take my breakfast. With her eleven or twelve years, she cleans dishes all day long. And every morning when she sees me, she smiles at me. Her smile lights up her tired face whose cheeks are covered with thanaka. Every morning, I look at this little girl. Every morning, I contemplate the sadness of her look contrasting so much with the beauty of her smile. Every morning, I smile back at her. And every morning, my noodles arrive but I am not really hungry anymore.

One day, in a small shop in a remote village, I met a man whose poverty is obvious. But as every people in Myanmar, his face is filled with a smile, and it’s naturally that he starts talking to me. His English is perfect. I learn that several times, he fled away to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to make a living to survive. He speaks fluently Myanmar, Malaysian, Chinese and English. I share with him my feelings about the kindness of the Myanmar people and their incredible smile. He answers in a mix of shame and fatality: “It’s the only thing we have left.”

Fifty years of military dictatorship turned this country, which used to be rich and powerful, into one of the poorest and the least developed in the world. The fear of contestation from intellectuals pushed this regime, often considered as the most repressive after North Korea, to ruin the education system keeping its people in a permanent state of ignorance and subjected to the craziness of the astrologers[3] of the general Than Shwe…

Of course, Myanmar is changing towards a better future. But the wounds are deep and the mentalities persistent.

Nowadays the school is free.

But it’s not compulsory. Within the poorest familipupil of Kadu near Taunggyes, the children will only know the way to the paddle fields along their parents. Among those already attending school, many will not make it until the end. For the others, many will not pass the “10th standard” – the Myanmar high school diploma. The classes given in the governmental schools are simply not enough. Expensive evening classes will be required to have a chance to get in university. But the future of the graduates from Yangon and Mandalay universities is not very promising either. In this country where there is no job for them, for their level of education, most of them will prefer going back to their families, to get a low paid job rather than taking the opportunity to go abroad.

Today all the hope of the Myanmar people is embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi but the actual Constitution prevents her from being candidate for the next presidential elections in 2015. Waiting for a more promising future, thanks to the action of Children of the Mekong, thousands of children can still go to school. As for me, I get used slowly to this culture, so different but so spellbinding. And more than my work for Children of the Mekong, I endeavor to be this presence and to give this reassurance and this feeling of existing that all these children miss but whom nothing would be able to steal their smiles.

Sylvain

kid myanmar
Visit our website if you would like to sponsor a child: www.childrenofthemekong.org 


[1] Leader of the independence of Myanmar, the general Aung San is assassinated on July 19th 1947, six month after the end of the British colonial empire. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old.

[2] The Myanmar people encompass actually 8 ethnic groups: the Bamars – or Myanmars, the Shans, the Môns, the Karens, the Kayahs, the Chins, the Kachins and the Rakhaings. The ethnicity is usually more important than the nationality.

[3] Following the advices of the astrologers of the general Than Shwe, the two wheels were forbidden in Yangon, and the driving side was shifted so that Myanmar is now the only country in the world where the cars drive on the right with the steering wheel on the right! The climax of their craziness is reached in 2005 when an entire city, Nay Pyi Taw, is built from scratch with the only goal to become the new political capital of the country.

Bow ties are cool

“Bow ties are cool.” 
– The Doctor, ‘Doctor Who’

21st April saw the graduation of one of our most hard working students, Mark Ando, who graduated 3rd out of a class of over 80 students. Mark has been supported by a number of sponsors since he was young and after 8 years of self-questioning, patience and determination, he is now qualified as a doctor of medicine. The award ceremony was celebrated with great pomp in the American style; academic robes and caps, a hail of flash photography, make-up, young women in high heels, young men in suits… It could not have been outdone by La Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival!

grad pic 03This doctorate is a great achievement for Mark, but it is only one stage of his qualifications, as he still has a long road ahead to go until he can be a practicing doctor. After 2 weeks of rest, Mark has returned to the busy hospital pace, stethoscopes and all. After a year of interning in different wards, mark will sit the “board exam”, which is the national examination, a necessary and compulsory step before becoming a recognised practitioner.1st month as PGI in mactan doctors

At the moment, Mark doesn’t know whether he would like to take another course to specialise his qualifications, but the coming year of intern experience will give him plenty of time to think about it. For now, he will be concentrating on his practical work and revision for his board exam. Despite the exam being almost a year away, he has already drafted up a revision schedule! Talk about organisation skills!

Regardless of his very busy life, Mark still manages to make a few visits to the Children of the Mekong Cebu Centre, the university centre he attended. Acting as an affectionate elder brother, Mark takes the time and care to talk to everyone, sowing concern and providing reassurance to the younger students.

My parents and me

Both mark and his parents will be forever unboundedly grateful to all of his supporters. His success and achievement is a perfect example of the difference a sponsorship can make, and the help we can provide.

As people say in Cebu, Salamat kaayo!

Thank you very much…!