LUXUO speaks to Benoît Duchateau-Arminjon, Founder of Krousar-Thmey on the future of Cambodian children
In 1991, Krousar-Thmey became the first Cambodian organization helping disadvantaged children suffering from decades of civil war and dictatorial regimes; 20 years on, they’re becoming a governmental organisation with the foundations for future “at risk” children secured.
The children of Cambodia have had to endure horrendous conditions. Cambodia might have gained independence in 1953 but tumultuous geo-political events like the Vietnam War (which extended into Cambodian territory) and the ensuing genocide from the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, ensured that lost generations would leave their children orphaned and as often in war, disabled.
Krousar-Thmey is the first Cambodian organization helping disadvantaged children, beginning in 1991, the same year of the Paris Peace Accords which saw the country governed briefly by the United Nations, when they opened the Dangrek orphanage and just a year later, the monumental repatriation of 154 children to Cambodia: a first permanent protection centre opens in Siem Reap.
LUXUO speaks to Benoît Duchateau-Arminjon, Founder President of Krousar-Thmey on the future of Cambodian children
Tell us more about the beginning of Krousar-Thmey, your first encounter with the Cambodian people.
In early 1990, I was living and working in Bangkok for Accor as Financial Controller. Personally, I was sponsoring an organization that was helping Cambodian refugees at the Thai border. In order to understand what they were doing, i decided to go to the camp during a weekend and what I saw was shocking.
Behind barbed wires, you had the second largest Cambodian city in the world. 215 000 people stuck within a 7,6 km2 encampment. Among them 50% were children under 14 years old. After the civil war between 1970 to 75, the bloody khmer rouge regime , Cambodia saw 1/3 of the population decimated, dead or fleeing for their lives.
There was no sign and no hope that normalcy would return to the country. I was particularly shocked by the conditions of living. Water was brought in by recycled gasoline trucks, food by the UN, houses were only allowed to be built in thatch and bamboo : everything was made for them as if they were reminders that they were a displaced people, never able to settle there.
After my first visit, i went several times again to Sit II and start raising funds among expatriates in Bangkok to help them. By march 1991, i took a bigger step : i stopped my work in Bangkok to be a volunteer in Site II as an accounting teacher. In parallel, with Cambodians, i started a first and then a second shelter, to accommodate abandoned kids within the camp. Krousar-Thmey was born.
You mentioned several times that back in the nineties, disabilities especially blindness, was the victim of prejudice and superstitions. What did you mean by that?
Most Buddhists believe that a disability or handicap is the consequence of bad actions made in a previous life : the hard rule of karma. Therefore, little, if not nothing, was done to help handicapped people. According to a survey made by the American Red Cross in the early 90’s, the majority of blind children were dying within two years after loosing sight, mostly due to lack of care. This was horrific.
After the peace accords, i proposed to the government to start the first ever school for blind and everything needed to be started from zero, from staff training to the creation of Cambodian Braille, from convincing families to send blind kids to school to transcribing normal school books into khmer Braille.
Who have been the people believing in your action and financially supporting Krousar-Thmey over the past 28 years?
In the beginning, i was going back to Europe to do small presentations. Friends were gathering people for one evening, and i was presenting what we were doing, hoping generosity will provide us enough funds to run our activities in Cambodia. It was exhausting. Up to 20 presentations in 3 weeks, twice a year. But, step by step, people have helped me raising funds. Krousar Thmey France, then Switzerland, Belgium, UK, Sweden and Singapore, were gathering people to support us. We had been recognised by the UN for our good work and support started to come in. I even opened the first pizzeria of Phnom Penh in December 1992 to further raise funds and provide a communication platform for us.
The 25th Anniversary came as a very special moment for the Association. What was special about it?
Yes, the 25th anniversary was very special. Apart from also being my mother’s 80th birthday and my 50th one, we managed to have the King presiding over the ceremony with the Vice-Prime Minister as the representative of the Prime Minister (who was at the Asean Summit with President Obama). During this ceremony we signed an agreement with the government for them to take over all 5 schools for blind or deaf before 2020. We also had a major milestone with the staff working within our schools recognised as civil servants of the ministry of education.
You are transferring Krousar-Thmey to the Cambodian authorities this year, what does such a transfer imply: how many children and schools are involved? What will be the follow-up in place to ensure that the transfer is smooth and in line with the Association’s core values ?
On July 1st 2019, even earlier than expected, we are transitioning the schools under the purview of the Minister of education. Most NGOs talk about empowerment of local people and authorities but most of them never do it. I am very proud to have Krousar-Thmey succeed in becoming a fully fledged government organisation with relations with authorities, links to the ministry, training of staff, designing policies and pushing for government policies to ratified: essential conditions for a good transition but also the foundations for change and hope for a new generation of Cambodian children led by the administration.
There are 5 big schools, many integrated classes or inclusive classes which were under our responsibility, with over 200 staff and nearly 1000 kids being educated. Now, all this is under the responsibility of the ministry of education. That said, we won’t be simply walking away, we have agreed with the Prime Minister, to conduct necessary training and twice yearly audits of the schools for the next 3 years.
You still need funds for the remaining activities that Krousar-Thmey is over-seeing. What activities are still in place today and what funds are needed?
To have transferred the schools to government control does not mean we have stopped helping Cambodian children. While the economic situation is rapidly improving, some activities need to be continued, especially for child victims of violence, abuse or trafficking. Therefore, we keep some 66 staff to run street kids shelters, protection centers and family houses. We still need to raise around 700 000 USD a year, which is better than before, but still needs a lot of fundraising.
You wrote a book recalling the foundation of Krousar-Thmey and the many challenges you have faced as well as the happy moments in your life as a humanitarian worker. Can you share with our readers some of these highlights, from the tough times to the more rewarding moments?
I wrote a book (“Healing Cambodia, one child at a time”) to describe my life and the success of Krousar-Thmey, from the beginning in 1991 to 2011. The 20 years went quickly, sometimes depressing, sometimes full of hope, but if i had to redo it, i will. The start of the first school was difficult, as beliefs regarding blind were playing against us. I will remember also when a free zone was decided at the border with Thailand to build casinos and we did everything we could to grab land to build our schools.
Cambodia has changed you as a person. How would you describe yourself today, you who were born in a rather traditional French family?
Yes, i have changed. I have learned to be more combative, to never lose focus on my objectives, even if I needed to take another road to achieve it. As Cambodians say: “each problem has a solution, if there is no solution, it means there is no problem”.
When you wake up in the morning, you have two choices : to stay in bed to keep dreaming or to wake up to make your dream come true. For the past 28 years, i have mostly been happy to wake up and to make it happen. My biggest proud is the transfer of the schools to the government.
Any advice you would like to give to a person who would like to engage in humanitarian work?
People getting into humanitarian work always have to keep in mind that they do not work for themselves, but for the beneficiaries, in a country where rules, culture, customs are potentially different than yours. You have to learn how to understand them, using your good sense is the key. You should know what the people really need and not what you want for them. You should learn how to delegate, to trust…which does not mean you don’t control.
Beneficiaries should be part of the solution as well; As some say : what is free has no value. If you do not ask them to participate, do not be surprised they will not care for the maintenance.
Your heart, your emotions are sometimes what make you start but action should be guided by your intelligence. To succeed, decisions should not be taken by your heart, but by your good sense. Always think about future: what are the consequences of your decision tomorrow, in 5 years, in 10 years….Think long term and you will find solutions for life.