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'Deeper overseas experience': Aussie youth to join cultural program in Cambodia

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Sunshine Coast photojournalist Sam Walker may be an ‘accidental mentor’ in Cambodia. But she is hoping cross-cultural relationships and understanding will stem from a bold educational program she has developed, targeting Australian youth.

It was never part of the life plan to set up Spean Chivit (‘life bridge’ in the Khmer language) Youth Resource Centre in Siem Reap when she moved to Cambodia’s northern tourist hub in 2015.

Initially, she was expecting to stay a year but, as she says, “Cambodia has a way of grabbing your soul and not letting go – so, eight-and-a-half years later, I’m still here”.

Applications are now open for the centre’s new Cultural Academic Immersion Program for Australian 18 to 30-year-olds who want to create change and understand the bigger picture while also undertaking a deeper overseas experience and the opportunity to forge relationships with peers living very different lives.

“It is such a fabulous opportunity for Australian youth, but also for the Cambodian youth, to meet and exchange ideas,” Sam told Sunshine Coast News from her home in Siem Reap.

“There will be growth opportunities for both. The program is not really about travel but exploring issues – looking at things like poverty and how that impacts life and opportunity.

Sam Walker. Picture: Marady Nit/Sarai’s Darkroom

“For example, if you don’t have a fridge, you really need to shop three times a day or eat out. Shopping and cooking is time consuming and eating out gets expensive. A fridge is a modern convenience so many families don’t have access to.

“But many young people here think life is just easy for young people in developed countries – that everything is affordable, there is no poverty, that healthcare and services are fabulous.

“It is a great opportunity for the Cambodian youth to get to understand issues that exist in developed countries.”

The past eight years have certainly been a learning curve for Sam.

The youth resource centre concept emerged after she took on various paid and volunteer roles in communications and office management in her early days in Cambodia.

“Along the way, I found myself mentoring university students, initially in writing speeches and giving presentations. But that soon morphed into general life advice and evolved into budgeting, health, critical thinking and building confidence,” she said.

“Then, I found myself doing similar things with my team members.

Kim Houy Eang taking part in a virtual reality workshop at Spean Chivit. Picture: Sam Walker

“And in a huge surprise for myself, I absolutely loved it. Seeing young people grow and gain confidence, step outside their comfort zone and then get the rewards of achieving something bigger is so wonderful.”

Sam said Cambodia was a conservative country where education for girls was not a high priority.

“Girls are taught to be quiet, gentle and meek. They are not encouraged to play sport,” she said.

“Many, particularly in rural areas, are pulled out of school early to help families earn money and because education is seen as useless if you are going to get married and have children. This is slowly changing but still a problem.

“Through my work and from listening to employers, I could see there were so many gaps in education for young people here and I kept thinking if they had a centre where they could access this information and a safe, quiet place to study and to be able to access internet, it would make such a difference.”

Spean Chivit was set up as a social enterprise with help from a group of youth advisers and young people, and mostly funded by Sam, some family members and friends.

But Sam admits that with the January 2020 launch – just before the world closed down and Cambodia sealed its borders – “my timing was terrible”.

The “long, slow start” meant the youth resource centre was fully functioning in 2022. 

Nyta and Rachana playing board games, a fun way to develop strategic and analytical thinking. Picture: Sam Walker

“We operate as a drop-in centre for youths aged 15-plus. We have a fun hangout area with couches and cushions, a very small library, specifically targeted at ESL (English as a second language) students, so we choose books very carefully – we have 780 books so far,” Sam said.

“We also have desks and rooms specifically for study and two big workshop rooms, where we conduct workshops and host guest speakers.”

Sam said initially it was difficult to attract youth to the centre because, as the face of Spean Chivit, she was a foreigner, outside the target age group. But visitor numbers increased from about 124 in June to nearly 670 in September after she employed a part-time local resident in May.

“We get a lot of grade 11 and 12 students and we are hoping the grade 12 graduates will continue coming and bring their university friends,” she said.

“We are about to launch a six-month program aimed at filling some of those 21st century skills that are needed everywhere but are desperately lacking here.

Sophat An reading on the Spean Chivit balcony. Picture: Sam Walker

“Why did I do it? It’s a question I ask myself every day. Maybe, I’m a tiny bit crazy.

“Ultimately, I get a huge buzz out of seeing young people grow. I love pushing their thinking, making them question, pushing them to try new things and go to new places and then seeing the results.

“Families here often teach young people to ‘be safe, not to rock the boat, don’t go anywhere alone, don’t do things outside of your norm’ and it is so restricting.

“So, when they learn that they can and then they try it, it is fabulous.”

Limited places are available for the Cultural Academic Immersion pilot program, which will run in January 2024. More information and application forms are available on the website.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up for anyone wanting to support the youth resource centre financially.

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