WE HAVE MADE IT!
We’ve only been here a few days, but with all of the new experiences and amazing people, it somehow feels much longer. Thida, the Executive Director of the Women’s Development Association, has been an incredible tour guide, neighbor, and stand-in mom. She is such an inspiring person; I think we are all just awed and humbled to be working with her. One thing I was definitely not prepared for is how funny and charming she is. So much of our relationship with the WDA has centered on the needs and hardships of Cambodians, it’s easy to forget that their lives are as full of love, warmth and laughter as our own. Thida has survived the Khmer Rouge and an abusive marriage, yet she has remained more optimistic and resilient than almost anyone I know. It’s an absolute treat to be around her, and I’m sure that we are going to learn much more from her than we had ever imagined we could.
On Saturday we were also privileged to meet with Ann Phua from the Hemispheres Foundation (http://hemispheresfund.org/). Hemispheres is a “social enterprise” based out of Singapore, that works to alleviate poverty in a sustainable, capacity building way throughout Southeast Asia. Hemispheres is not technically a charitable organization (hence the “social enterprise” description). Rather, they follow something more like a traditional business model, except that the profits are reinvested into new projects. Ann is another awe-inspiring woman, it’s no wonder she and Thida have been working together for nearly 10 years now (Hemispheres is both a donor to the WDA and employs the WDA to act as a go-between in their relationships with local communities). As Ann described, their current project is working in the Kampong Chhnang province, where a careful evaluation of the community had determined that homelessness was a huge problem in the area. In response to this issue, Hemispheres has obtained a 1000 hectares plot of land that they are developing into a completely sustainable agricultural community for homeless families. Each family receives a small house and a hectare of land, along with the education required to be able to develop that hectare into a source of agricultural income. The houses are every green architects dream (each house costs approximately $3000)! Human and animal waste is converted into methane gas, which then powers the family’s stove and water heating system. A specially designed water filtration membrane allows the family to purify the rainwater in large batches, and each filter will last for 1-2 years ($40 a piece). At each stage of the process Ann’s team considered the long-term environmental consequences as well as the cultural considerations of the families themselves, thus ensuring that the systems they have designed will meet the community’s needs and actually be entirely self-sustaining in the future. It was great to get to hear all about this new project, but Ann also gave us some completely invaluable advice on the intricacies of large-scale fundraising and fiscal transparency. It was particularly remarkable that this dynamic woman was so ready to share her knowledge with us, even as she was casually mentioning the 2 million member women’s organization that she heads up and the $100,000 donations that she was easily procuring.
After meeting with Ann we paid a sobering visit to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge prison turned genocide museum. Standing in tiny brick cells, and seeing the many pictures of men, women and children who were imprisoned and tortured in the former high school was an apt reminder of the reality of Cambodia’s history. It is such a remarkable testament that people like Thida have continued to work to make their country a better place even though staying in Cambodia must have taken such incredible courage. I think at this point we are all just hoping that a tiny bit of that spirit will rub off on us in the next couple of months.