Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Disabled But Not Handicapped

by Maxine Lim Jen Ai

The Angkor Association for the Disabled (AAD) is tucked away in a quiet spot by the river with trees shading it from the hustle and bustle of the busy street not far from Popular Guesthouse, the place where we're currently staying in Siem Reap. Bonna, our trusty student guide led us to the place, situated on the other side of the river.

As we waited for Sem Sovantha, the Director of AAD to arrive, the sound of children's shrieks and laughter filtered into the hall. Hort Hark (pronounced Huat-Hak) who is in charge of selling the various hand-sewn items by the residents of AAD explained that the organization is currently housing more than 10 families behind the main building.

After Sovantha settles down, he proudly explained that he previously held the distinguished position as the Captain of the Cambodian Army. While tracking the Khmer Rouge in 1990, he met with an unfortunate accident that took away both his career and his legs. Sovantha's accident turned him into one of the 600 civilians who fall victim to landmine's every year since the return of Cambodia to peace in 1993.

After 1990, without the means to earn a livelihood, he moved to Phnom Penh to avoid being hunted by the Khmer Rouge. Out of desperation, he turned to begging on the streets of Phnom Penh. There, the loss of his limbs opened Sovantha's eyes to the harsh reality of the living conditions of people made handicapped by landmines.

"When I beg on the street, I saw the police kick the beggars to chase them away," he said, explaining that the authorities often try to clear the street of beggars to avoid them from harassing tourists.

He solemnly informs us that about 50 people living on the streets die each year from starvation and disease. Sovantha, saddened by the treatment and neglect that they have to endure, sought to find a way to help the people disabled due to landmines. He saw the main problem of begging stem from the lack of education and the skills of the beggars to earn their own livelihood.

His decision to help the disabled sparked his initiative to set up a centre where people disabled from all sorts of accidents can stay in peace and learn skills that can help them earn a living. Today, the establishment of AAD is Sovantha's brainchild to help all disabled people, not limited to victims of landmines.

The AAD operates under a simple mission: to help the disabled help themselves. From their early efforts that only involved efforts like taking sick beggars to the hospital, the AAD has really spread its wings to incorporate various programs under its banner. We were pleasantly surprised to be informed that AAD has had volunteers from all over the world (England, Korea, Japan and Singapore to name a few) to teach English to the residents at AAD.

When asked how the disabled come to know of his programme, Sovantha explains he 'recruits' them directly from the streets.

"I used to sell souvenirs to tourists near the Old Market (at Siem Reap) so now I go there and talk to the beggars. I ask them if they want to learn new skills and offer to teach them and take them in if they agree," he says.

The Sewing Programme is AAD is the most recent programme for AAD. Set up in 2007, Sovantha hired a teacher to teach disabled girls skills to sew bags, pouches and other products from traditional Khmer cloth to sell in the marketplace. Venturing upstairs, we encounter three women industriously sewing bags, surrounded by scraps of expensive Khmer material and stuffing. The teacher is Klod Kimli, 53, who learnt her craft in Thailand. For Klod Kimli, teaching the girls to sew is something she does from the heart.

"We are the same Khmer people. Rich people can open schools but only the rich can attend classes. We (AAD) also open 'schools' but it's free so the poor can learn too," she says.

Her belief and conviction towards helping the disabled gain their feet and avoid being discriminated against, echoes Sovantha's own principles.

When asked if she intends to continue teaching to sew in AAD, she replies, "I will teach people to sew until my eyes can't see and my hands can't sew anymore. I am all alone because I lost my family in the war but I want to pass on my knowledge because I can't take it with me when I die."

Sovantha believes strongly that his conviction in helping other disabled people live freely from discrimination is echoed by all of them.

"I believe that all disabled people in Cambodia can learn to earn their own living and all of them can support themselves," he says.

His only lament is that many of the disabled don't know of their rights and currently Sovantha dedicated time and effort from his busy schedule to lobby for equal rights for the disabled.

"I am tired. I work for a long time and I don't have any off days! But I still want to go on because I want to protect (the disabled)," he says with a smile.

For the time being, the Angkor Association for the Disabled has a rather rocky future. The contract on the building for AAD is almost up and the owner is unwilling to renew it. Sovantha is troubled about moving the residents to a smaller location somewhere further and like any other small-scale NGO, is plagued by funding problems and the paperwork involved in applying for foreign funding.

As we exit the compound amidst the smell of dinner cooking on the stove and children playing tag in the compound, we quietly pondered over the future difficulties that Sovantha and AAD face. Nevertheless, I was certain he would find a way to solve his problems. Beneath Sovantha's gentle, polite exterior, he embodies the spirit of the Khmer people – the tenacity and perseverance to overcome insurmountable odds.

Posted by Monash Crew


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