I’ve been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia for seven months now and there are still nights that are unpredictable. You can never know what to expect in this small town.
One of my friends brought my attention to a Cambodian-founded organization called Self Help Community Centre (S.H.C.C.). With about 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia (yes, incredible isn’t it?), the organization already stands out by being started and run by a Cambodian man named Choan Sambat. People can easily get NGO-nauseum living here, and when you meet organizations that are doing the same thing, they often blur together. But Sambat’s story of struggle, relentless persistence and passion for community is really inspiring.
This is the very short version of his story, I really encourage you to read his full story here.
He was born in 1985, just four years after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ended. Hunger and financial poverty caused many problems while he was growing up. He worked long hours in the rice field to earn $0.75 US per day, among other labour jobs while he was a young boy.
Even though he knew education was key for a better future for him, school was very challenging because he lacked supplies and proper transport, so he dropped out for a period of time. He ended up hanging out with people who were a negative influence and he knew if he didn’t change his life, he would end up in jail or dead.
At 16 years old, he moved to Siem Reap and offered to work for free at a pagoda. While he was there, he taught himself English by listening to the stories of tourists who were around. He also heard of an organization called Sala Bai who takes disadvantaged youth and train them in hospitality skills. He got one of the 50 sought-after spots out of over 5,000 applicants.
He found a job right away after training and after five years of hard work, he saved up $700 to start a village school, which classes include English, Organic Farming, Education on Hygiene, Nutrition and Environmental Issues. The school began with 250 students and thanks to international funding, they now accommodate 1,500 students. Every Sunday, the school goes and helps the local community, whether it is building houses for families or roads.
Even more incredible, the school’s budget allocates him a salary but he never takes it. He lives with his family and rides his motorbike that doesn’t work most of the time because he believes that all the money should go to the kids.
The event was held at The Station Wine Bar, the gay-friendly bar in the centre of town. First of all, I love that this community event was held at a gay bar. Second, the feature show of the fundraiser were ladyboys. Third, Sambat said that people think he is gay if they don’t know he has a girlfriend and he really doesn’t care. Awesome.
When I arrived, one of the teachers told me about the beautiful artwork of some of their students. I was very impressed with the detail and quality of their work, I could never produce what they did with all the training in the world. Then I walked in the bar with a diversity of people in the crowd, ladyboys and the lovely staff of SSHC.
People were brought to tears when the SSHC staff sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is one of the most adorable things I have seen in the seven months I’ve been here.