An Aussie Visit

Last week, I had absolutely nothing written on my schedule. I thought it would be a quiet week, but I ended up joining a visiting team from Australia here on a "discovery trip" (our term for a team that wants to see SP's work and get their hands a little dirty). I even had some new experiences, which always surprises me, after being here 2 years.

We started the day at the new satellite office SP started this year in a district about an hour's drive from Poipet. The main project run out of the office is the BSF project, or bio-sand filter. The BSF is a great tool for providing clean water to households. Basically, it is a concrete or plastic filled with layers of sand. The sand works to trap large particles of dirt, sand, large microbes, etc as the water filters through the sand. Also, layers of microbes will grow on the sand, and these "good germs" eat "bad germs" as they pass through. This link is a great video that shows how a BSF works, animation style.

Paul explaining the BSF Project

Now, when I said the team would get their hands dirty, I meant it literally. The team joined up with the construction assistants who were building new BSFs to give to village households. Some of the Cambodians who were working were volunteers who would in turn receive a filter themselves. First, the concrete was mixed by hand with gravel and sand.

Andrew jumped in, too!

You can see the man behind Andrew's left shoulder is poking a stick into the metal container. That metal container is the mold into which the concrete is poured. It's left to cure for 24 hours, after which it's removed, painted, and fitted with the metal top, inner bucket, and other parts before being given to a household for water filtering.

Painted filters awaiting their parts

One of the ladies hard at work!

After building BSFs, the team visited a local school, at which Andrew's Water for Kids project has helped build toilets and a handwashing station. As the team members were teachers, they talked with the kids, playing games, and of course, taught them about Australia.

Do you notice a theme here?

One of the students with a tiny koala given by the team

These boys were students at the school, but did not play in the games. They are all novice monks at the Buddhist temple next door to the school. Many families are unable to feed their boys or send them to school. By putting them into service at the wat (temple), the boys receive meals, lodging, and an education. They don't necessarily stay in the wat for the rest of their lives. They may be there for a few months to several years. Buddhist men can serve in the way as a way to earn good kharma for themselves or, in the case of these boys, for their parents, especially the mothers, as women are unable to serve in the temples.

A handwashing station built by Andrew's team

After visiting the school, the team made one more stop at the illegal border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia, one of many along the border in this area.

Now, when I hear the words, "illegal border crossing", I immediately think it must be a dirty, hidden path, across which people without any documents sneak in order to find day jobs in Thailand. But it was quite different. A police station is set up at both ends of the border, and they monitor the flow of people across the border. Laborers show an unofficial ID card to the police with their name and photo. What makes it "illegal" is the fact that workers don't have border passes, passports, or visas - official documentation that would give them legal rights as workers in Thailand.

We visited around 4 pm, when many people were returning after a long day in the fields. Although our guide had asked us not to take photos while we were standing outside the bus, the police officer welcomed us warmly, then whipped out his digital camera and asked to take a group photo of us.

For thousands of Cambodians, traveling to Thailand is the only way to find work to feed themselves and their families. And often they take their families with them - we saw numerous young, scrawny kids (some who looked younger than 10 years old) who were returning with older family members from working in cassava fields or other labor jobs. One young teenage girl was waiting quietly for her ride, and we talked with her a bit. She said she had made 200 baht (just under $7) that day, working in the cassava fields.

Migration is an incredibly complex situation. If these Cambodians are unable to travel to Thailand and find jobs, they could likely starve to death. However, traveling to Thailand without a visa or proper documents puts them at huge risk. There are so many stories of Cambodians, illegal immigrants, who have worked in fields for days or weeks, harvesting produce. When the harvest is over and payday comes, the owner turns to the police, reporting that he has illegal immigrants on his property. The police deport the Cambodians back across the border. They have no pay for the work they've done, no jobs to turn to within Cambodia, and so they are often forced to return to the same situation, hoping that they may have better luck this time.

These are some of the stories shared with us as we visited the different projects. It's so encouraging to see the work that SP Cambodia is doing in this area and the amazing national staff that make it all happen!
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