By Kirk Starratt
Although there were moments that broke her heart, a Kings County councillor hopes to be able to return to the country some day.
Emma VanRooyen said Cambodia is extraordinarily beautiful. While driving from the capital, Phnom Penh, to Battambang, the Kings County delegation on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities partnership project saw endless miles of rice fields, speckled with cows and water buffalo. Her father, Brian VanRooyen, Valley Waste Resource Management policy co-ordinator, and Suzanne McCrimmon, the county’s economic development specialist, joined VanRooyen on the June mission.
“It was breathtaking,” VanRooyen said. “There are beautiful temples all along the side of the road, even in tiny villages.”
The Pagadas, as the temples are called, have golden roofs and are decorated with beautiful carvings of elephants, snakes and other Buddhist imagery.
VanRooyen said goinh on the mission with her father was wonderful. Professionally, it was great to have someone on the mission who understood the entire scope of the project - her father has been involved since the project’s inception in 2008 – and it was also a great opportunity for them to get to know each other better as adults. She believes the experience changed the nature and quality of their relationship, making it stronger.
She said perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the mission was witnessing the poverty. Malarial is common in Cambodia and pools of standing water surround many of the houses. There are few screens on windows to help protect families from mosquitoes and many people work in rice fields, an ideal occupation for contracting malaria. Many working people, especially in rural areas, are illiterate and lack formal education.
“It is very upsetting to me that people live in these conditions, especially considering that much of the current reality stems from the conflict that Cambodia experienced for decades,” VanRooyen said.
One of the most heart-warming experiences was also one of the most heart-wrenching. Their translator, Lucky, took them to visit the location from which his family had been displaced during the Khmer Rouge years. She said hearing his story, while standing in the place it happened, broke her heart, but it also made her feel hopeful.
“He told us about being separated from his parents and put into a labour camp for children,” VanRooyen said. “After the Vietnamese set the prisoners free, he and his parents found each other, by chance, walking through thousands of acres of rice fields.”
The country has a predominantly male-dominated society. VanRooyen said she had a great deal of difficulty with the way women were often objectified. For example, when you visit some restaurants, you are greeted by a lineup of beautiful young women at the door. These young women sit outside all night and are available to be chosen as a companion for men who would like female company.
“Although this practice does not seem to put these young women in danger, it did make me feel uncomfortable to walk by them on the way to dinner,” VanRooyen said.
She said what made her particularly uncomfortable was that their presence reminded her of a much more insidious problem: human trafficking and sex trafficking, which are both realities of life in Cambodian society.
With council’s blessing, VanRooyen said she hopes to continue on with the project. She said Cambodia is almost entirely reliant on outside aid and this is not a sustainable way for the country to move beyond its challenges. However, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities program focuses on partnerships, rather than a model where an outside agency or group delivers aid without consideration for how the infrastructure or programming will be sustained after they leave.
VanRooyen said such partnerships are about respect for cultural differences and needs, as well as flexibility to adapt ideas from one social context to another. Through this approach, she believes the end result will be sustainable and more likely to be successful.
Post-conflict challenges aside, VanRooyen said her experience was that the Cambodian people are warm, welcoming and very passionate about their communities and home. The municipal officials the Kings delegation met are dedicated to their communities and work tirelessly to increase the quality of life for Battambang citizens.
The Kings delegation will be making a presentation about the Cambodia mission at an upcoming county council committee of the whole session.
About the project…
The County of Kings has been involved with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities as part of the Municipal Partners for Economic Development program since 2008.
The county has partnered with the newly-formed Municipality of Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia.
The County of Kings received the Outstanding Contribution to International Programs Award for its involvement in the program at the FCM’s annual conference and trade show in June.
The project began as a waste management education mission that included four visits to Cambodia over two to three years and included council representation and staff from the county and Valley Waste Resource Management.
The County of Kings has expanded the project and is now working with Battambang to develop a local economic development strategy.