Monday, June 3, 2013

You and me, my friend

Mariah Kennedy, 16, is a year 11 student of Geelong Grammar and this month completes a year-long voluntary Young Ambassador role for UNICEF Australia. This week, Mariah also celebrates the launch of her book ‘Reaching Out Messages of Hope’, published by Harpers Collins.

This blog post is the third in a series.


The final night of my travels through South East Asia was the most poignant. A single sentence spoken by a small girl has remained long after the adventure faded, giving purpose to my mission to help others understand what it is to be a child whose rights can never truly be realised.

Whenever I have, upon my return, doubted myself, those around me or the inherent goodness in the world, that one child’s single sentence echoes back to me.

You see, my final destination was Cambodia.

Cambodia – where the bloodstained past haunts the lives of the present. Cambodia – where the ancient awe of Angkor meets the bustling modernity of the cities. Cambodia – where a desperate, underlying poverty is forgotten by crowds of flashy tourists.

During my first week in Cambodia I spent  time assisting in the rebuilding of a secondary school. The students were eager to help and would rush in, grabbing a paint brush or hammer during their break times or before the start of their school day.

One student I worked with asked if he could practice his English with me.  His name was Kboy and he told me he was top of his class in maths and science. The students around him nodded adding that he was too smart for them and indeed the very best in the school.

I asked him what he would like to be when he graduated. He looked at my shyly, then down at the ground, before whispering, “I would like to be a doctor”. I smiled at him and congratulated him on this dream, I am sure he would graduate to be one of the very best.

Kboy dropped his head again, gazing at the ground. “But no,” he said softly, shuffling his feet. “I will not be a doctor. University is very expensive. I am the only boy – no father. My mother does not have enough money. I will be a labourer.”

Kboy’s situation shocked me. The dreams of this young boy, my friend, would go unrealised simply because of his place of birth. Such capacity, drive and potential would go to waste. Here in Cambodia, hunger, and poverty would steal the dreams and future of children like Kboy.

The tertiary education rate in Cambodia remains one of the lowest in the world, with just 10% of young people completing further studies after school. And the Cambodian people are paying the price. A third of all its population live below the national poverty line (less than 61 US cents per day) and its malnutrition rates are among the highest in South East Asia.

Yet wherever there is despair, one can also find hope. Amid the desperation of Kboy’s situation – there was the possibility of change. Children like Kboy can continue their education. They can attend university, graduate and achieve their dream employment. And they can break the cycle of poverty for both themselves and their families.

There is a desperate desire for change evident within the hearts and minds of the Cambodia people. Nobody embodies this passion more than my friend Pon.

It was several weeks after I met Kboy that I was approached by an eight-year-old girl living on the streets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Every day after school, Pon would walk with her carton of flowers to the street where my hotel was situated, to sell her wares to tourists. Her English was flawless and I would often sit with her and we would chat, or take a walk together through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. It was during these times that I learned about Pon’s life – the strict teachers at her school, the games she played with her friends during break time, the friendly tuk tuk drivers who would buy her ice creams on Sundays, or the latest escapades of her three-year-old brother.

We became good friends and evenings were a special time spent racing each other down the street, playing I Spy with local shopkeepers, or working out cheating strategies for Scissors, Paper, Rock.
At the end of my stay it was difficult to say goodbye. On my last night in Cambodia, I stood on the steps of the hotel, blinking back tears as Pon instructed me to come back soon, and bring all your friends”.

It was then that she handed me a single white flower and, standing on tiptoes, whispered into my ear: “You and me, my friend. Together, we’re going to change the world”.

Feeling overwhelmed with the immensity of poverty?

Somewhere in Cambodia, there’s an eight year old girl standing with her cart of flowers, working for a better world. And if Pon’s words don’t inspire hope, I don’t know what does.

READ BLOG POST: Part 1: Glimmer of Hope

Part 2: Slipping through the cracks

Mariah_150x150.jpg About Mariah Kennedy

Mariah Kennedy is 16 years old and currently in year 10 at Geelong Grammar School. She is one of nine UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors for 2012-13.
Follow Mariah on Twitter @mariahgkennedy

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