This trip marks a kind of full circle with World of Children – from witnessing the impact of free orthopedic care to victims of landmines in South-East Asia, to running the New York marathon and raising funds for vulnerable children, to coming back to Asia – Cambodia, to be exact – with the founders of this wonderful organization to meet just a few of the individuals it honours. Yesterday I was blessed to see the work of Krousar Thmey (‘New Family’ in Khmer), and meet its incredible founder Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon, the 2012 recipient of World of Children’s Humanitarian Award.
Read more about Krousay Thmer here.
One of my favourite picture books as a child was simply titled ‘Heroines’. It detailed the lives of some of the most influential women in history, the likes of Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller. Clearly always a fan of a good biography or twelve, I read it over and over. I hate to think what kind of shape it must be in now.
It was a particular illustration from this book that stuck with me as I grew up – the one of Helen Keller’s breakthrough by the well, the elation on her animated face when she realized that her teacher was spelling out ‘water’ on her hand. It was the moment that the creation of a language opened a door for a girl who would have otherwise spent her life as a symbol of marginalization in 19th century America. Instead Helen Keller, blind and deaf, learned to communicate, to be self-sufficient and to express herself.
I have now not only seen the illustration I so often gazed upon as a child come to life right in front of me, but I have learned the extent of what a single human being must overcome when they choose to stand by some of the most marginalized children in Cambodian society.
For starters, how to you even begin to educate deaf children in a country without sign language? You could put it down to being an impossible task, given the complexity of the Khmer language and the lack of resources in a Third World country, but if you’re Benoît, you create a new language.
You don’t simply transpose a foreign form of sign language into Cambodian society either, and nor do you limit the new language only to the schools which you have built. Instead, you take American Sign Language and use it as a foundation, tailoring it to the needs of Khmer. Then, you get NGOs on board, you form an advisory committee, and you start the process of UNESCO recognition, opening windows of opportunity to thousands of deaf people in Cambodia.
That is enough work for a hundred organisations.
To anyone else this task would seem too astronomical, but somehow Benoît has thought it and achieved it. He makes no secret of the difficulties he has encountered – communication breakdowns, cultural mindsets – but he ends by thumbing through a picture dictionary of Cambodian sign language that his organization has created. He places it next to a stack of children’s workbooks.
It is remarkable to see hope manifested so simply.
The challenges that Krousar Thmey faces could seem endless. In a country like Cambodia, where proper medical care is a distant dream for many families, and children with disabilities are largely overlooked, how do you make sure that your classes aren’t rendered futile by faulty hearing aids?
If you’re Krousar Thmey you realise that you cannot rely on a struggling medical system and so you set up a room where you can repair hearing aids and another where they can be tested. This may not be the image that is conjured up when one thinks of providing education to underprivileged children, but, unselfish as they are, Krousar Thmey plays both doctor and teacher to make sure no child is left behind.
When it comes to the blind in Cambodia, the situation is heartbreaking. Benoît has encountered families that refuse to admit there is a blind child in their house, scared of being stigmatised. There are others that simply will not send their blind child to school, believing it is futile. Cambodia is a chaotic place when you have all your senses, it is pitiless when you are blind.
Educating blind children in Cambodia requires an exercise in careful translation and so, if you’re Krousar Thmey, you do just that. Books that follow the national curriculum are produced in braille, some of the teachers are graduates of schools for blind themselves. The older students read and write with tongue-between-their-teeth determination, knowing that they are no longer confined by their circumstances. The preschoolers play with complete abandon, knowing that they are safe. Simple as it is, witnessing this was amazing.
And so then how do you ensure that these children will not rely on Krousar Thmey their whole lives; how do you facilitate independence and acceptance? Like Benoît, you have a wider vision. Slowly, you integrate children with a disability into mainstream schooling, you lay the foundations for government support and you stand up against injustice. You make sure that your capable children become capable adults.
Before adulthood, however, necessarily comes childhood, and it is wonderful to watch kids be kids. Krousar Thmey is giving children the tools to take on the world, and World of Children are supporting an incredible amount of organisations just like this one. For me, I’m just blessed to be here watching my childhood stories come to life. So thank you Krousar Thmey for your invaluable contribution to this world, thank you World of Children for having me, and thank you to all of my family and friends for your support.
Learn more about World of Children Award here!