I have been involved with “In Concert for Cambodia” for twelve years now, ever since my brother, Laurent, first founded this youth-based, volunteer initiative to support The Peaceful Children’s Homes. He ran the organization for four years, and then I took charge for the next three, before passing on the torch to other Youth Coordinators: Basia Walczak and now Kyle Burghout. My brother and I were very young when we started, but we were driven in our fundraising efforts by our belief that there were children at the other end of the world, in much more difficult conditions than us, whom we could help through our music. This past June, I finally had the chance to visit the Peaceful Children’s Homes, where these children live, and I am at once gratified and immensely humbled by my experience.
The two Homes were set up in 1994 to accommodate unaccompanied children returning from the refugee camps on the Thai border. Since then, the Homes have accepted children who have been orphaned, abandoned, rescued from the street or human trafficking. Home 2, in Battambang, is now reserved for those attending university.
Home 1, which I visited, is forty-five minutes outside of Phnom Penh, at the turn-off from the highway onto a small dirt track. Inconspicuously tucked away behind a line of trees, flanked by a canal on one side and a rice field on the other, it currently houses close to forty children between the ages of 3 and 15, and it’s an absolutely extraordinary place.
The Homes operate on a shoestring budget (approx. $70,000 US a year). They never know at the beginning of the year if they’ll have enough to cover all their expenses (some years they didn’t). They feed themselves with the crops they grow, the fruit they pick, and the livestock they raise – but it takes just a moment’s glance to see how well the children are cared for in this tightly-knit community. Notwithstanding the presence of adults at the Homes, the children are encouraged to be self-reliant, with small groups responsible for gardening, cooking, and other tasks. Sharing and ethics are also part of the daily routine.
The children are all healthy, they don’t go hungry, they always have clean clothes (including dress clothes, which they put on for special occasions), they read, they perform traditional Khmer music and dance, they go to school. They’re playful and energetic, if a bit shy around strange Canadians coming to visit them for the first time. Some dream of being engineers, others police officers. On the patch of grass between the main hall and the canteen, they play soccer, fly kites, throw Frisbees – and there’s a pond where they all go swimming together. The director and the executive director, who are responsible for managing the Homes, were both raised here themselves, so everyone here is family. The nurse, a Canadian who’s been volunteering at the Homes for the last two years, came to the Homes after a chance encounter with IC4C. He is now so much a part of the children’s lives that when he stepped out of the car with us, three young boys ran up to hug him – they hadn’t seen him for two weeks!
“This is why we call this a Home, not an NGO, not an orphanage,” told me Chum Veuk, the executive director. “Originally, we all had different fathers, but here we only have one father: Son Soubert.” Soubert, a well-known figure in Cambodia, is the founder of the Homes, and he was their Director when Veuk was growing up. It’s a testament to the Homes that things have now come full circle, and Veuk has come back to raise the next generation.
What was most rewarding to me, was seeing the real impact of the work that my brother had started on the lives of these children. Twelve years ago, when we held our first concert, the railings of the dormitories were still made of aging wood, there was no water reservoir, and the old solar panels were in dire need of replacing. The Home eventually lost electricity when the solar panels gave out. Today, thanks to the money raised by IC4C, its musicians and volunteers, the railings are made of cement and no longer present a safety hazard; the dorms have been renovated and refurbished; there is electricity again, now that the new solar panels have been installed; there is a water reservoir and solar pump to provide water at the tap for showers and laundry. The year that the river flooded and the Home suffered a typhoid outbreak, it was the money raised by IC4C that paid for medical treatment.
“IC4C saved our lives,” Veuk told me, and his words have stayed with me. Our organization couldn’t have had smaller beginnings: it all started when my brother, then just 13, got his friends together and decided to hold a concert at MacKay United Church. We sent less than $4000 to the Homes that first year. But the work we’ve done over the years has mattered. And it matters still.
Today IC4C is the Home’s biggest donor. On every building on the grounds there is a plaque with IC4C’s name on it. Our money helps to keep these kids in school, and to send the older ones (living in the second Home in Battambang) to university.
The rolling scholarship which IC4C helps fund has already produced 4 university graduates, including one young woman. This brings the total number of university graduates from the Homes to 73, including 19 young women, all of whom now have jobs. This scholarship is currently funding the education of twelve more students, including five young women.
It’s a humbling exercise to compare my own situation to theirs. These young people came to the Homes as orphans or traumatized children, without a penny to their name; today they are better educated than the vast majority of their compatriots and will form part of their generation’s elite. I’m also a university student, but I was born to an academic family in a rich and peaceful western country, and I never had to worry about whether enough people would donate to my parents so that they could keep me in school.
As my day in the Home was nearing its end, I sat with a couple of children on a cement terrace, in front of the lawn. The youngest girl in the Home was right next to me. She wore a cute black dress and pink flip-flops, and was deeply engrossed in the project of painting her arm. She’s three, so she’ll be off to school soon. I hope she makes it to university. If the Homes continue to receive just enough donations to stay afloat, her future prospects are bright indeed.