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Hands across the border

An exchange program brings together students from Vietnam and Cambodia by helping out an orphanage and working together to solve problems and differences


CAMBODIAN students wearing traditional sampot skirts and sarongs clicked pairs of coconut shells together in a dance symbolising youth and fertility.

Their traditional dance was followed by a group of Vietnamese students singing a song called “Toi Yeu”, meaning the Love of Homeland, and a fashion show displaying an astonishing variety of traditional Vietnamese costumes.

“Vietnamese students are very patriotic. They love their country very much,” said Cambodian first-year student Oum Sithsakal, who is majoring in English.

“Cambodian culture is amazing – and that they have found a way to preserve it,” said Phan Uyen Nghi, a Vietnamese sophomore studying English from Can Tho University.

Their impressions of each other’s countries were formed after living together in a group for a fortnight, volunteering in an exchange program called the Sarus Exchange Program, a non-profit and non-political scheme set up last year.

Twenty university students were recruited for the exchange, 10 from Cambodia and 10 from Vietnam. They spent a month volunteering here in the Kingdom and in Vietnam as part of a project to build bridges between the neighbouring countries.

While many exchange programs are just about having fun, playing games and hanging out, Sarus Exchange Program students were trying to bridge the gap between Cambodia and Vietnam by completing challenges that gave participants the chance to learn and change.

“The idea is to create a structure where people can really grow, thrive and share with each other,” said Wesley Hedden, the director of Sarus Exchange Program. If the group structure was very open and supportive, he said students would bond together.

Members took part in six months of seminars before coming together for a four-week volunteer exchange program earlier this month.

Two weeks of volunteering in Cambodia was based at an orphanage run in Phnom Sruoch district, Kampong Speu province, by Orphan Care and Training Organisation (OCTO), which has adopted 122 orphans from the provinces and Phnom Penh.

Camping at the orphanage, exchange students cooked, gardened, taught and helped with construction work to build two latrines at the centre.

Many students were surprised that they had to build two toilets, as several of them were from cities and had never done hard physical work before.

Hedden said they included construction work in the program because they wanted students from urban areas to experience physical labour in order to help build connections among group members and encourage women to take part, too.

“Volunteering is not like you helping out somebody else, but it’s like two different partners working together, teaching each other different things and learning from each other, instead of the host doing more work than volunteers,” he said.

Vietnamese student Nghi, 19, said she had never before done any construction work or gardening, but gained a new appreciation of how hard life was for construction workers and farmers. She said it made her value the food she ate every day and that she was delighted by the friendliness of Cambodians.

Ngoun Soksan, an economics student from the University of Cambodia, was also shocked at the prospect of having to undertake hard construction work, but felt the program valued teamwork and the spirit of working together in a group.

“We have to share objectives and goals although we are from different countries. But we still can work together without discrimination,” he said.

Trân Phan Nhât Minh, who is studying a bachelor of arts in English at Van Lang University, Hô Chí Minh city, said he made a lot of amazing friends after working on the project.

“In a circle meeting every few days, we listened to the story of other people. Sometimes we just see the outside and think they are tough and strong, but inside they are different,” Minh said, adding that he learned not to judge people at first sight.



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