Yesterday was the second of the five-week parenting workshop series run by the local Women’s Resource Center. My predecessors, Emily and Allison, fundraised diligently during their fellowship for this workshop to be a possibility, and while they are not here to witness the fruits of their labor, I can verify that their efforts were not wasted. I left the meeting warm with insight and perspective.
Plain and simple, the purpose of this workshop is to endow parents and guardians with the basic skills necessary to best raise healthy and successful children in their poverty-ridden environments. An education can only go so far if families are not supportive of their children’s endeavors, or if their homes are not suitable for living.
But at it’s core, this workshop acts as so much more. This is a safe place where mothers, fathers, siblings, or whoever else may be raising these kids, can come and share their stories without the pressures of judgement or ridicule. For some, this may have been their first opportunity to speak openly and freely, not only about struggle, anguish, and violence, but also about love, perseverance, and accomplishment. This workshop is really just a place where people can be heard.
“Right listening” is one of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh: “If you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person.”
I was under the impression that it was close to impossible to build genuine connections with people through translators. My impressions were proved wrong yesterday. I looked into these peoples’ eyes and listened unconditionally while they uttered sounds that held no meaning to me. But I felt their stories deeper than words could ever express.
I spend all day every day with these people’s kids. They are just like any other student (ok, I’m biased, I think they’re cooler than most). We don’t see them as poor people because at TGC, we’ve equaled their playing field by giving them all the basic necessities (see post: “If you give a kid a backpack”) But this is not how we envision their families- we see them as people who live in shacks, who sell frogs at the market, and who cannot read or write. We compartmentalize extreme poverty in our minds- we see it inside a vacuum of UNICEF and Save The Children holiday commercials. But every one of these people has a story. And when you listen to their stories, they just become people.
I left the meeting in awe of tales of some truly remarkable individuals…
- A young mother articulated her story of perseverance so that her daughter could be educated. Her husband is not in agreement about the importance of education for their children, and she endured a great deal of suffering to ensure that her daughter was able to continue her studies at TGC.
- One of the two fathers at the meeting quietly scurried out early to start his two-hour journey home to Kulen Mountain. His son lives at TGC, as it would be impossible to commute such a distance every day. This man is a cashew farmer (if you don’t know how cashews grow, google it) and works 15 hour every day. Despite the long distance and the demanding nature of his work, this man finds the time between harvests to come to every meeting regarding his son’s education.
- Stories of alcohol, mental illness, and tragedy are common anecdotes in Cambodia. One mother touched upon the story of her family’s resilience and rebuilding after suicide took the life of her husband. She recalled the horrific night it happened- filled with alcohol and domestic violence.
- One mother timidly shared her story of strength. She sat on her mat in the circle, her face nearly as worn as the ragged clothes she wore, her hands just rinsed clean from her long morning of selling frogs in the market. Her husband died over ten years ago, and she was left to raise her three children on her own without a home, land, or money. All of her children have since completed high school and have respectable jobs. Tears welled in her eyes as she spoke of the pride she feels in raising her children to be responsible, moral, and kind people, despite the challenges she was faced with throughout her life.
Our families suffer such hardships, yet they take leaps of courage and bravery when they commit to TGC. TGC is unlike any other school in the city, and their children are occupied 6 (sometimes 7) days a week. This is precious time that students could spend helping in the home or earning an income. But these people are able to see a value in something they don’t have themselves- education.
I kept hearing the word “sabbay” throughout the meeting. On the ride home, I asked Soben what it meant- sabbay means happy. Listening and caring- that makes people sabbay.