Monday, January 29, 2007

The Cambodia Trust Blog - Helping disadvantaged disabled people to break the cycle of poverty

Elizabeth Birkby’s visit to Cambodia
Elizabeth Birkby has raised thousands of pounds in support of our work over the last fifteen years. In September 2006 she visited Cambodia for the first time. This is her account of her visit.

It was with some trepidation that I set off from Grenoside in September, accompanied by my son and daughter, on the long trip to Cambodia . The main purpose of our journey to what seemed a faraway place was to visit my charity, the Cambodia Trust, which I have been supporting for the last fifteen years. The Trust was set up in 1989 in response to the terrible humanitarian crisis which Cambodia faced after the devastation of the country by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979. A forgotten corner of the world, there was no outside aid for ten years and in 1989 journalist John Pilger made a harrowing documentary about the plight of the people during that decade.

Over the years I have been raising funds for the Trust through my singing and have always wanted to visit the country I have learned so much about. This trip was the realisation of a dream and I was not disappointed.

Our first stop, after a whirlwind tour of Bangkok , was Siem Reap in order to visit some of the many beautiful temples there. We watched the sunset at Angkor Wat, a truly magnificent temple and the largest religious building in the world. The following day we visited the Bayon, with its splendid carvings of elephants, which we approached on an elephant, and Ta Prohm which has largely been taken over by jungle—with intricate tree roots snaking over and around its walls and ancient trees growing out of its balustrades. The temples, which were built around the 10th century by a rich and advanced civilisation, are now in ruins.

Another flight took us to the capital, Phnom Penh , a hustling bustling and noisy city where traffic lights are rarely seen and never observed and poverty is evident all around.

The heat and humidity were almost unbearable and we were thankful for the air-conditioning in our hotel. We rode around in a tuk-tuk, a little open-sided wagon with a motor bike in front. It was certainly a good way to see the sights.

Our first day was spent at the Cambodia Trust Clinic where we were warmly welcomed and given a guided tour of all the processes involved in making and fitting prosthetic limbs and the rehabilitation of patients, many of whom are victims of land mines. It was wonderful to see at first hand how the money is used and to see the work of such dedicated staff.

We were fortunate to be taken out by a community worker into peoples’ homes, which was a humbling experience indeed. Each Pat ient we saw had been helped by the Trust in some way, with physiotherapy to enable them to walk after paralysis, the provision of wheelchairs and assistance into employment. Mr Tou Pau has been a polio victim since the age of 4 and had no legs, but he was cheerfully repairing televisions in his tiny one-roomed shack with his wife and small children. Each patient expressed such gratitude for the help they had been given by the Cambodia Trust.

We enjoyed the splendours of the Royal Palace where the Royal Family still resides, and the Silver Pagoda, its floors paved with silver tile and housing the Emerald Buddha, and the exciting markets of silks and local crafts. But perhaps the most poignant of all our sightseeing was Pol Pot’s prison at Tuol Sleng—which had been a secondary school and is now a painful reminder of the victims of that regime who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered.

About three quarters of an hour’s journey out of the city by tuk-tuk brought us to the Killing Fields—where a tall Stipa in the shape of a pagoda has been built as a lasting memorial to the three million innocent people who were killed. On closer inspection the sides are glass and are filled, row upon row, with skulls. Incense burns and an eerie quietness fill the air as you wander from grave to grave.

The highlight of the week was the graduation ceremony of the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, where each year since 1994, twelve graduates have emerged fully-qualified in their new profession to make and fit artificial limbs and orthotic braces for disabilities such as polio and club foot. Students now come from many other countries in SE Asia to train at this successful school inaugurated by the Cambodia Trust and take their new expertise back to their own countries. The ceremony was preceded by a group of children dancing—each one disabled—and most had an artificial limb.

It is impossible to capture the atmosphere of the country in a few short paragraphs, but suffice it to say it was the experience of a lifetime and one we will never forget.

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