The World Away from Home
September 1st, 2015. CAC intern and first-time traveler Emily Zwierzchowski blogs about her two weeks in Cambodia.
My first, and by no means last, adventure abroad has officially come to an end, and although I may physically be leaving the country of Cambodia and the city of Phnom Penh, I will forever be changed by the people I met and the things that I saw. I learned that you can bookend the beginning of your trip, but never the end, because although you may have left you only continue to grow and be impacted by what you saw and did. It was sobering to realize that there is a “real world” with real problems once you leave your home, and the safety of your small New Hampshire town. A part of the world that many try to sweep under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist. A part of the world where people still live in unimaginable poverty. A part of the world where a roof over your head isn’t guaranteed, and quite often not there. A part of the world where electricity is too expensive for a vast majority of the population and families live in the dark. A part of the world where clean water and food isn’t always available. And a part of the world where child and sex trafficking is a massive business. Its sobering to see that the problems we, as U.S. Citizens, have worked so hard to eradicate are thriving right outside the safety of our countries borders. But, perhaps what is most sobering is that this is a part of the world where humans are still people, and a smile and a laugh have the power to overcome language barriers, and this is a part of the world where football has the power to change lives.
I first started volunteering for CAC Off-Field nearly one year ago, and when I asked Brian if I could dive into On-Field work and got the “a-okay” I was thrilled. The computer screen was no longer going to be my classroom but the football field instead. When I first arrived in Cambodia I was in a bit of shell shock, the sounds, smells, and sights were all new to me. I didn’t recognize the writing on the billboards, and I had never smelled such smells; sweet smells of street food wafted past me one second, then the scent of garbage the next. Everything was a whirlwind until I stepped foot on the football field. I was instantly greeted with hugs and smiles as coaches embraced me and in no time the country that I felt so estranged from was my home. Few coaches could speak English, but thanks to our translator and the work ethic of the coaches, trainings went brilliantly. Everyday new games with different themes were translated from English, to Khmer, and then signed to our deaf participants. Coaches learned valuable lessons on the importance of having a voice, being able to solve problems they faced everyday, and how to protect themselves and ultimately their players from things such as sexual, physical, and mental violence. Days were wrapped up by discussing what we had learned that day; posters scrawled with Khmer and sketches were hung up for coaches to take notes or photographs of. And with each passing day I felt more, and more privileged to be educating these coaches.
However, the real reward was when we got to attend these coaches trainings and be first hand witnesses to the impact we were making. The coaches of Indochina Starfish (ISF) were beautifully implementing the games we taught them to their players who, just like them, were eager to play, learn and most importantly have fun. One practice in particular that I got to attend was led by a coach who went by Strey Mau. She was coaching a u14 boys team, and despite my previous encounters with 14 year old boys, they were extremely eager and well behaved. They were all at practice promptly at 5 pm, and out laughing and kicking the ball around before practice even began. But, when Strey Mau was ready to start practice they were ready as well. We started off with a game of “Circle of Friends”, we darted in and out of the circle alternating between dances and high fives we were soon all in stitches smiling from ear to ear. We were just getting a drink when the rain came, and when I say rain I mean a torrential downpour. Everyone was rushed under the small roof covering some picnic tables where a teacher was waiting to give them a lesson on religion. I was shocked in the most amazing way that not only did these students work hard on the field, but off the field as well, and that the messages theses games we were using on field were directly correlating to their lives and educations off field.
My experience in Cambodia will be a mile marker in my life for years and years to come. The people and places and experiences I had made me see the world in a different light. No longer is it just the safe small New Hampshire town that I call home, but it’s a massive place full of a million different people with a million different stories, and ultimately, a million different problems. I feel incredibly lucky that I got the chance to travel with Coaches Across Continents, and make an impact on those problems in the heart of Cambodia and in the minds of it’s people.