• Waitressing her way to Phnom Penh

    From British Columbia, Sarah Kergin came to the children's aid

    Sarah Kergin, 25, is a Canadian volunteer teacher at Children for Change - Cambodia (formerly Action to End Exploitation) in Phnom Penh. She helped the Center at a critical time when the government forced Action to End Exploitation Inc to cease operation in Cambodia over bureaucratic issues and motivated the Center's staff to take the lead and transform the school into an independent non-profit organization. Her six month "tour of duty" ended in February, 2013. This interview was conducted in the week prior to her departure from Cambodia.

    Tell us about yourself and how did you come to volunteer for CCC (AEE)?

    I have been here since September 2012. In the year prior, I finished my studies in Political Science degree with a Journalism minor from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. I have been interested in Human Rights issue abroad. When I looked into the Sex Trafficking issue, I found the situation in Cambodia especially upsetting. When I looked on the internet to find opportunity to do volunteer work, I found Action to End Exploitation website and contacted them.

    How did you become interested in sex trafficking issue?

    When I was 17 and 18 years old, I participated in the Rotary Exchange program and lived in Madrid Spain for a year. While living there, I encountered many immigrant families, many of whom were illegals from northern Africa and Eastern Europe. Most of these women had few opportunities and engaged in sex work to make a living. House cleaning work was the best opportunity a few could find. I met a Romanian young woman a few years older than I. She was so determined to do a cleaning job and find a way to get an education. I was so inspired by her determination that I wanted to help people who don't have opportunity like I do.

    Your interest in social justice began in high school?

    Yes. At first, I thought going to Spain would be a lot of fun. I expected things to be like tourist brochures - nightlife, cathedrals, music and culture, etc... I was there to study Spanish because I love the language. I wasn't seeking for a deeper experience. But that trip made me more politically aware. I became aware that there are many people who don't have the privileges like I do as a North American. I owe it to those others who are less fortunate to make a difference in their lives. Then I decided to study political science and journalism to write and expose stories about struggles of others.

    What is your plan for your future?

    This volunteering experience is like my internship. I would like to study further like Non-Governmental Organization Management of Social Work. I haven' decided yet.

    Tell us about your family and how do they feel about you being so socially engaged?

    I have an older brother who is studying Journalism in British Columbia. My parents are artists. My dad is a graphic designer and my mother a painter. Both of my parents are very supportive of my work. They study the issue that I am involved in and give me advice. In fact, my dad designed the logo for CCC.

    Tell us about your growing up?

    I grew up in a family with modest means. I remember growing up in a house that was literally falling apart. Eventually, my grandma helped us get a decent house to live in. We had to share clothes. But even though we weren't rich, we were rich in opportunity. Government gave me student loan to finish school so I can become a professional. To put myself through school. I worked as a waitress throughout my school years. I feel privileged having lived in a society where a female is valued the same as a male. And I have wonderful parents who support me.

    How do you pay for your work in Cambodia?

    I paid for it by myself. For a year, I worked as a waitress and in a hospital to save enough money for this trip. In all, it costs me about five thousand dollars, including plane tickets.

    Is the situation for kids in Cambodia as bad as you had thought it would be?

    Unfortunately, my suspicion about the terrible plights of poor kids in Cambodia has been confirmed. These children have no rights. They work in whatever jobs their parents want them to work. If their parents want them to stop their education, they have to stop. It is a very patriarchal society. Children are of low priority here, and the same is true with women's rights. I have not been to other parts of the world, but the situation for poor children in this country seems very dismal.
    The one good thing is that in public, it is not a dangerous place here. Women and children are not openly attacked, though physical abuse takes place behind close door. The lack of respect and choice for women and children are what disempowering .

    How do you personally deal with that sad reality?

    It's been a very humbling experience. I don't know how I have been dealing with it. I write in my journal my experience. What has helped me is seeing the children's strong spirit and energy. Compared to them, the children in my country have a kind of laziness about them. Back in North America, life seems so much easier that children take things for granted. With technology, one can get any information at the finger tip. Even transportation is easy. Here in Cambodia, the children have to work very hard to get to school and learn. They are so easily inspired, proud and excited to learn.

    It's very sad for me to see some of them working so hard and wind up making two steps forward and one step back because of their own difficulties. But I have a lot of faith in them that whatever they learn will keep them wanting to learn more. I think that once they have a taste of learning, they won't stop. I don't know if that is true, but that is what I believe will happen.

    What do you teach at CCC?

    I teach them basic English language skills. I try to make the lessons fun and light-hearted. I give the children plenty of approval whenever they do something well. My kids are awesome!

    Are there any kids that are especially memorable to you?

    Yes, Virak is a boy who is very intelligent. He's a skinny small boy who is positive all the time. He studies very well and is very artistic. He lives with his father who has a hard time making ends meet financially. His mother died and it has been difficult for him to grow up without a mother. But he's thriving in a very difficult situation.

    Sreypech is a young girl who is very hard working. Her mother is a sex worker, so her home environment is a special concern. She has a wonderfully positive spirit and a very good student.

    Have you thought about what are the causes of the bad conditions for kids in Cambodia?

    The main problem is the government are not leading the society out of poverty. There are very stark class differences in Cambodia. The rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. Here you see government workers driving Lexuses and the poor people having nothing. There is lack of transparency in government and resources do not go to where is needed to help the people.

    The people on the other hand are peace-loving and they hate to have any kind of conflict. In other parts of the world, you may see the same people rioting and protesting, but not here in Cambodia. There is a sense of low self-esteem among the common citizens who try to be happy with what they have. There is a lot of overt intimidation too. In this past weekend, tens of thousands of people came out for the King's funeral. The military was out in force with machine guns which were quite intimidating to the people. I hope things will change in the next election, but some people fear there may be violence.

    Does the legacy of the Genocide play any role in the social problems in Cambodia?

    Yes, you can see the effect of the Genocide on families today. Many families lost their elders and loved ones in the Genocide and their families have not returned to normal. Families were ripped apart, and wage earners being killed leaving survivors stuck in the cycle of poverty .

    Do you feel angry seeing this social injustice?

    I do. I feel angry toward the government that does not address their country's social problems. They rely on NGO's to take care of social problems for them instead of taking the lead to solve it. I have turned my anger into motivation to help the kids.

    If you have a magic wand, what magic will you make for the children in Cambodia?

    have free and accessible education for all. That will lift the self-esteem of the citizens and make the society better for everyone.

    What has it been like for you to take a path of social activism?

    It hasn't been easy. I have not found many people who share similar interests like mine. I have a couple of girl friends who do similar advocacy work like me. Other like-minded people come from other cultures, so it can be a bit challenging to connect with them. Sometimes, I feel I have little in common with other people in my generation. Most other young people like partying.

    Do you have any plan to have your own children?

    Before this volunteering experience, I didn't think of having children. Now, I definitely do. There is something magical about having a connection with a child. I discover my own maternal instinct I didn't realize I had.

    What do you plan to do when you get back to Canada?

    I will be seeing a friend in Laos before flying back to Canada. I think it will be difficult to re-adjust back to my usual life. I don't know what I will do except doing a lot of writing and publishing some of my experiences. I'd like to pick up my hobbies again like singing, painting and swimming. Snow boarding will be the first thing I'll do. I definitely want to stay connected with the project in Cambodia and continue to find a way to help the children in Phnom Phen through CCC.

    To contact Sarah, write to sarahkergin@gmail.com

    Sarah with her students on her emotional last day in Cambodia
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. TammyN's Avatar
      TammyN -
      wow, I think that you're amazing. I can see that you are very passionate about helping others, especially children. When I was younger, I have always aspired to be someone like you (I say younger, but I'm still only 13, haha). I always wanted to give what I had to the children who are unable enjoy these things. Hearing stories about people like you who pour so much of what they have into other people give me hope. It inspires me to step up and take action to give to others. I think that you're a great person. Not to mention your wonderful taste in hobbies. I love winter sports, mainly skiiing and ice skating, and art too! I'm also in a choir and love singing, though I'm not very good.

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