Home with a heart for Cam­bo­dian or­phans

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence - MUR­RAY WAL­DREN

WHEN you least ex­pect it, along comes a life-al­ter­ing mo­ment. For re­tired IT ex­ec­u­tive Tony James, in Cam­bo­dia’s Siem Reap to see the tem­ples of Angkor Wat, it came in a two-storeyed house be­side a dirt road, its dusty yard scat­tered with bikes and echo­ing with the sound of chil­dren at play.

Hav­ing been will­ingly hi­jacked by his tuk-tuk driver to the home of Long Sedtha, Tony had spent two hours meet­ing the en­er­getic Cam­bo­dian, his fam­ily and the 20 or­phans who lived with them.

The lively, or­ganic na­ture of the place im­pressed him, as did the in­tegrity of the founder of the Build your Fu­ture To­day Cen­tre. Long was 16 when the mur­der­ous Pol Pot took power. Soon af­ter, as with all ur­ban- ised Cam­bo­di­ans, his fam­ily was evicted and trucked to sep­a­rate ru­ral work camps. When the Viet­namese in­vaded Cam­bo­dia four years later, Long es­caped, set­ting out for a refugee camp near the Thai bor­der, tak­ing with him 24 young or­phans on an ar­du­ous 15-day trek.

Over the next two decades, he be- came a kick­boxer to sup­port the or­phans, then var­i­ously a teacher, UN co-or­di­na­tor and di­rec­tor of a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal, along the way es­tab­lish­ing BFT as a way of help­ing the poor­est vil­lages in the coun­try .

The or­gan­i­sa­tion, with a staff of six paid and 21 vol­un­teer Cam­bo­di­ans, plus up to 20 West­ern vol­un­teers at any one time, fol­lows the fish­ing line rather than the fish phi­los­o­phy — the aim is to move vil­lages from to­tal poverty to self- suf­fi­ciency via four-year pro­grams, and the suc­cess rate is grat­i­fy­ing.

The holis­tic fo­cus is on com­mu­nity build­ing, san­i­ta­tion, mi­cro-fi­nanc­ing farmer groups, erect­ing schools, ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren, adult lit­er­acy and re­duc­ing in­fant and ma­ter­nal mortality. While West­ern na­tions do­nate about $6 bil­lion an­nu­ally to Cam­bo­dia, rel­a­tively lit­tle gets to the source; as an NGO, BFT is not part of those pro­grams but 95 per cent of all monies it re­ceives from do­na­tions and sup­port­ers goes to the 25 vil­lages in which it is ac­tive. Beyond that, BFT af­fects 50,000 peo­ple di­rectly or in­di­rectly.

Tony and his wife Stephanie, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive for an in­ter­na­tional or­thopaedic com­pany, were sea­soned trav­ellers over many decades, for both work and plea­sure, and not eas­ily awed, yet both de­cided they had to be in­volved. ‘‘I could see he needed help, and he was some­one who was mak­ing a real difference,’’ Tony says of Long. The cou­ple did due dili­gence on BFT, re­turned to Syd­ney for a course at TESOL in teach­ing English as a for­eign language and then did a six­month stint at the cen­tre in Siem Reap as teach­ing vol­un­teers.

Tony also set up a travel agency re­lat­ing to BFT and be­came chair­man of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s board. Now back in Cam­bo­dia for an­other teach­ing stint, the Jame­ses are hum­bled and en­er­gised by their ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘‘You get to see the real Cam­bo­dia that most tourists don’t, and there’s a strong sense of achieve­ment,’’ Tony says. ‘‘The main re­wards, though, are not quan­tifi­able — it’s in what the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple teach you.’’

cen­ter-bft.org/

Young­sters learn English at a vil­lage sup­ported by the Build your Fu­ture To­day Cen­tre

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