I held fond memories of my travels through South East Asia. The grind of city living and 9-5 was taking it’s toll on my natural state of wanderlust. I wanted to explore, adventure, learn – and throw myself in the deep end of a wild experience. My teenage dream to live and work in a developing country was still in the forefront of my mind. As a strong willed young woman, I knew I would see my dream into fruition – I just hadn’t worked out how to yet.
Feelings of hope, simplicity, sincerity and life
Only weeks later I found a small one by one inch advert in the city paper to volunteer teaching English to adults in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in exchange for accommodation and meals. It was perfect! I immediately applied, was accepted, resigned from my job, which I loved, and was on a plane for a three-month adventure – leaving my much loved boyfriend at home also! Little did I know just how much of an adventure it would be…
Cambodia evokes feelings of hope, simplicity, sincerity and life; a stark contrast from the recent history of war, famine, despair and helplessness Cambodia faced only 40 short years prior. I think it’s the resilience and warmth of the Cambodian people that visitors are drawn to. In my many conversations with foreigner’s holidays and living in Cambodia, the draw card is hard to articulate, but it gets under your skin – in a good way.
After a few weeks in country I felt the need to take language classes, to get my head around the Khmer language. My teacher, Pisey, was a small framed and confident Cambodian woman. I was immediately taken by her kind and calm teaching manner, and felt at ease in her presence. After two classes Pisey announced it would be her last class with the group. Curious, I stayed back after to learn why she couldn’t be the one to help me master Khmer, and what she was going to do with herself.
While I had done my research and had experience working with people from differing backgrounds and cultures, nothing prepared me for the challenges I experienced along the way.
Pisey had an opportunity to work as Outreach Coordinator at a new NGO opening to provide women with much needed emotional support and life skills education to women in Siem Reap. I was shocked. It felt serendipitous. Pisey was equally amazed to hear that my career, back in Melbourne, was exactly this, except on a much larger scale. We bonded and became instant friends. It was hard not to with a woman so warm natured, and with a smile that soothed as it radiated.
The very next day I accompanied Pisey to her new workplace, Women’s Resource Center, meeting the then Director, Bouny, a Khmer Canadian who grew up in Canada after her family relocated there as a result of the Khmer Rouge.
It wasn’t long before I was helping out every afternoon after my English teaching. I used my experience with WIRE Women’s Information in Melbourne to help WRC with creating client files and referral documents and trained Pisey in face to face counseling techniques, case management and feminism.
As my teaching term, and time in Cambodia, came to an end I was so proud of my students and their accomplishments, yet felt a deep sadness I would no longer be able to support the up and coming WRC team. To my delight Bouny announced that if I ever wanted to come back to Cambodia to continue training the staff, I was welcome as a volunteer anytime. Little did Bouny know that that was the only invitation I needed. Before I flew out of Cambodia back home, I had spoken to my boyfriend about moving to Cambodia together, to which he excitedly agreed, and booked us one way tickets to Cambodia for 3 months after I landed back in Australia. I had just enough time to earn some extra money to take back to support myself, sell everything we owned, move out of our apartment and throw a farewell party!
A roller coaster of ongoing learning, hurdles, teamwork and successes
That was over five years ago… Today I look back and reflect on the 5 years I dedicated to supporting WRC. I feel it’s been a privilege to commit my time and experience to help build Women’s Resource Center to it’s current position of 11 local staff managing 6 programs operating in center, local schools and the neighboring villages. It has been a roller coaster of ongoing learning, hurdles, teamwork and successes.
Admittedly, I was a naive foreigner setting my sights on Cambodia to serve and contribute to. While I had done my research and had experience working with people from differing backgrounds and cultures, nothing prepared me for the challenges I experienced along the way.
Most significantly to me, I was looked up to highly. To many this could create a sense of self worth and pride. For myself, I was uncomfortable with being looked up to so favorably, simply because I was a foreigner. It quickly became my ambition to reverse this situation and encourage my colleagues to see me as a counterpart and equal. And for them to recognize they are the experts in their culture and people. I made the point that I was fallible and did not hold all the answers, which is a common misconception of foreigners.
The hardest factor I grappled with was the slower pace of everything in Cambodia, specifically in the workplace. While most people would assume this would be welcomed with open arms, in comparison to the fast passed ‘West’, it is a drastic adjustment to have flexible or open deadlines and lesser management. However it soon became evident why everyday tasks need take days or weeks, when emails bounce back, calls go unanswered, meetings are cancelled and the power and Internet drops out weekly. Like most, I arrived planning to have x, y and z complete within unrealistic deadlines. Lessening my expectations and desire to over achieve was an adjustment. Once I made it, it made everything much easier.
Realising my childhood dream and contributing towards sustainable change
Despite the challenges, I utterly love the WRC team of confident, capable and committed staff who are Women’s Resource Center. Without the staff’s dedication and passion towards women’s empowerment and gender equality, WRC could not provide the invaluable services it does; providing women the space to be heard, validated and informed. To be a part of these women’s professional journey and development has been an honor. I can see my impact to the staff directly, and my indirect impact to the women they work with and support so wholeheartedly.
Above all, I knew my main objective was to one day become redundant. Many people saw this as honorable and gracious. For me, I feel it is my responsibility as a foreign professional in the non-government sector, to truly uphold and embody this objective.
I have recently become redundant [success…!!], and have stepped away from a daily role of the center. It is a huge honor to now serve on the board of directors and have the opportunity to continue contributing to empowering women and girls in Cambodia.
Realising my childhood dream and contributing towards sustainable change in women’s rights and empowerment in Cambodia has been my greatest success to date. I still have a full life ahead of me, so it’s now time to dream a new dream, and chase it, because dreams do come true.
Photos of Sally and the WRC team by Sam Jam.
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