The first-timers were accompanied by Fr Mark Hackeson, Ian Boast (Great Yarmouth) and a small group of other ‘veteran’ visitors to Cambodia, from other parishes in the diocese.
These new friends and companions helped ensure that we felt safe and full of enthusiasm for what we could achieve. But nothing could have prepared us for the warmth and welcome of the Cambodian people – their genuine faith and optimism for the future and the innocent, heartfelt ambitions of their older students.
All this against the backdrop of the genocide, as evidenced at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the ‘Killing Field’ in Phnom Penh. This raw experience quickly brought to life our mission; to show solidarity with the Cambodian community and to witness the Cambodian determination to remember in order to reconcile and heal was humbling.
We carried with us over 200kg of medical supplies, education resources, white school shirts, baby clothes, toothbrushes, toys and books, including pencils, pens and the St Edmund’s children’s Christmas gifts so kindly donated by families. Spectacles were also donated and professionally prescribed by two visiting opticians from Lowestoft.
Very generous monetary donations from the Parish and people across the Diocese was used to provide equipment such as a computer, a white board, floor covering, building maintenance and wheelchairs.
At Peak Snaeng, Siem Reap, the salaries of two teachers and their continued professional development, was ensured. But an even greater impact was the crucial cash for hungry children who were fed at the soup kitchens in each school. The equivalent of £5 a day can feed just over 40 children with hot soup and sometimes eggs, vital to their well-being and ability to learn.
As Fr Totet and his team look to the future for their parish at St John’s, their hard work is fired by the faith that this generation will be able to use their education to fulfill their dreams of equal opportunity and reduced poverty in their home country.
Home again we reflect on our visit, editing our photographs of ancient temples, villages and schools; looking at the faces of those innocent school children, earnest students and dedicated teachers, wondering what they must have thought of us. Their faces express such a graceful gratitude just for our presence alone – their hope and relief that they have not been forgotten.
On our return a thoughtful email from the director of a student hostel summed up the impact of our visit:
“On behalf of all the students of Tep Im, I would like to thank your group from Bury St. Edmunds very much for your kind visit yesterday. It was a graced and inspiring time for the students where they felt valued and encouraged in a tough society where they have to struggle hard to advance in knowledge and wisdom.
“I myself was indeed surprised at the “spiritual energy” of the encounter considering the wide disparity of age and culture but something special happened and the students were in super form after the encounter.”
As we stare at the digital memories on our computers it is heartening to know that so many in the diocese didn’t need to meet the people nor see their villages to give so much help, to donate the vital funds that were put to immediate, practical use – it has already changed so many lives. So many schools and other groups are willing to work hard to help right now. It was a privilege to represent the kindness of so many of you.
We would all encourage others to join such a trip if your health and stamina is good; be prepared to recalibrate your own life and values
Throughout the season of Lent the children and families from St Edmund’s school, will be fundraising to support the continuation of the provision of a soup kitchen. As part of their ongoing work as a Rights Respecting School they are developing the children’s knowledge of the UN Rights of the Child.
Throughout this fundraising project children will be focusing on Article 24, the right for children to have safe water to drink and nutritious food to eat and also Article 27 the right to food and your basic needs being met.
The children will focus on the empowerment and importance of their involvement in supporting other less fortunate children around the world to access the rights they’re entitled to.
Pictured top are three boys from the village enjoying rice soup at Peak Snaeng School, Siem Reap.