It’s a rare opportunity to meet someone as courageous as Marie Cammal, founder of the Sok Sabay Organisation, whose deeds shine as beacons of optimism in the face of mankind’s violence and abject suffering. Marie – who’s made a home for herself in Cambodia – did some travelling recently, and along the way inspired Katie Roberts with her confidence for the future of the Cambodian and Laotian children she has spent years caring for.
When nurse Marie Cammal left Paris in 1981 and headed to a Laotian refugee camp in Thailand, she could never have imagined that three decades later she would be spearheading two projects to help vulnerable girls complete their secondary schooling in the remote north of Laos. In the intervening years, this compassionate and gutsy Frenchwoman worked in refugee camps across Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cambodia, before settling in Phnom Penh in the early 90s. There she established a private shelter for desperately poor and defenceless children in need of healthcare, education and tender loving care.
Louang Nantha, Laos
While Cambodia’s grinding poverty is well documented, the situation is different in Laos, and so the country lags even further behind. A third of the population of the landlocked country lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Program, while UNICEF estimates that over a third of women aged 20 to 24 were first married (or in union) by the age of 18.
Marie is painfully aware of these gloomy statistics, and through her work hopes to improve the lives of girls – indeed, of entire communities – in remote areas of Laos.In 2014, 33 female students of the Akha indigenous hill tribe in the mountainous northwestern Long district received scholarships in partnership with Norway Church Aid (NCA) to attend secondary school from Grade 6 to 12. It was a first for the minority group. Marie says: “In very poor families only the boys are sent to school. Girls become child labourers for their parents, carrying loads of wood for distances as long as 30km, or rising at 5am to look after crops, often on an empty stomach and in freezing temperatures. They are susceptible to abuse, violence and exploitation.”
“The area is just 30km from China, and 50km from Thailand and the Myanmar border,” adds Marie, “so there’s a real risk that young girls may walk to the bridge crossings and sell themselves.”
A scholarship provides the opportunity for them to go instead to a bigger town and get an education, while their family receives support. As Marie says, this slows down the cycle of poverty. “For me, the exciting prospect is to make a house inside the children’s brain, not only above their head.”
But how do the children sign up? Marie doesn’t choose the girls; that is done by partner organisation, NCA, with permission from the village officials. “It takes a lot of time, as there is almost no precedent of sending Akha girls to study here. Once the family consents, the children are interviewed to assess their willingness to attend full-time study. They also give a commitment not to marry for seven years – in these villages, some girls marry at 12 or 13 years of age.” The project is changing the attitude of the villagers, and this has flow-on effects on other communities too.
With the scholarships established, Marie is now engrossed in a partnership with NCA and an established NGO to build a 60- to 90-bed secondary school dormitory for ethnic male and female Akha, Hmong and Khmu students, about two hours outside of Luang Prabang.
“It will be a secure place to stay and study, rather than a flimsy bamboo hut that can be washed away in heavy rain, destroyed in one of the frequent seismic tremors or easily accessed by passing men, making the girls vulnerable to rape.” A safe dormitory is essential to the girls’ completing their studies in the nearby secondary school. If this is successful, Marie has her sights set on building a secondary school for 200 kids, within five years. In Laos, the Akha and Hmong are minority ethnic groups, dominated by the 60 percent Laotian majority. Marie admires the strength and courage of both these tribes, and says that they are often overlooked in the provision of services. But Marie is resolute, and education is her highest priority for young female ethnic students. “It can give these kids a better world. This concept is so well known in the Western world: for women, education is a passport to have a better life through more options, and access to a job.”
Sok Sabay, Cambodia
Nine of the first group of Cambodian children Marie rescued 15 years ago graduated from university in Phnom Penh in the past year, she tells me with an enormous smile and obvious pride. She recalls the mother of a girl, just graduated as a pharmacist, who, when questioned by Marie about her daughter’s future, suggested she would sell her to feed her younger son. To which Marie emphatically replied, “Maybe there is something else you can do instead.”
Marie dates her soft spot for the Cambodian people back to 1981, when she nursed at a UN refugee camp on the Thai-Kampuchea border. “Of course,” she says, “the Vietnamese people were struggling in the 1980s, but for the Cambodians it was even more terrible, under the brutal communist regime of the Khmer Rouge where deportation and starvation were common.
“In 1983 I jumped at the chance to enter Cambodia with a German journalist to film Kampuchea the Third Liberation, the only documentary in existence which covers this period. Naturally, I was scared – the country was still closed at that time, I had no ambassador, and it was only a few years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, who controlled the country from 1975 to 1979. But what we saw was extraordinary.”
She returned in 1987 to work with the Japan International Volunteer Centre, and by the mid-90s had decided to build her own independent project, with support from generous international benefactors.
She opened the door of Sok Sabay Organisation firstly to young prostituted children, later expanding to help as many neglected children as possible. “We take the worst cases of child abuse: victims of torture, enslavement, abandonment, starvation – mostly at the hands of their own parents. As the second generation of Khmer Rouge genocide survivors, their parents are lost to the brutality, slavery and anger with which they were raised.”
Marie works one-on-one to rehabilitate the children, instilling resilience to help them overcome their traumatic pasts. “It can take six or seven years to communicate with a child, for them to accept themselves, even to look in the mirror. When they come to the shelter, some are mentally dying because of what they have seen and experienced.”
The immediate effect on joining Sok Sabay is incredible. “I see kids eating out of rubbish piles, and a day later they are at Sok Sabay playing a violin. After a few days they’re smiling and eating like the other kids because they’re in a supportive community that quickly becomes their home.” The children’s families are not forgotten: they receive food, and visit their kids every month.
Art, sport, music, and full-time private education are all provided at Sok Sabay, and both Khmer and English are available. International volunteers, including children from Singapore’s international schools, visit on a regular basis.
In Singapore, a team of generous people supports Sok Sabay, for example Irish expatriate Liza Rowan and her family, who sponsor two children and donate to the Laos project. Liza has taken her own two boys to Phnom Penh to see the slums and the shelter first-hand, and has hosted trips to raise corporate awareness, including with long-term supporter, the Denis Freyes Ayam Group. More trips are planned for the future.
Does Marie see a bright future? “Only 10 percent of the population of Cambodia is educated; to make a difference to the ‘mute’ nature of Cambodian society, this must increase to at least 60 percent. When the children from Sok Sabay and other NGOs can stand on their feet and find jobs to help their families, the country will change and the endemic poverty cycle will be beaten. When you give education, you give a passport to a better life, and a choice to improve and become a responsible citizen in a community. My graduates have degrees. They can decide their future. They can fly and be free.”
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s May 2015 issue.