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‘Auntie’ lends a hand to children at Anjali

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“SHE’S been wonderful,” said Sam Flint, responding to questions about Françoise Callier, programme coordinator for the Angkor Photo Festival and board member of Anjali House, the children’s NGO created by the festival back in 2005. Sam has been the director of Anjali since 2007, when he first met Callier.

“She’s definitely been very active finding funds and she always finds time for the kids. She’s very much an auntie for them, in the Khmer sense,” he added. Anjali was created by the festival founders back in 2005, with the support of Caritas and an initial intake of just 18 children.

Today, almost 80 children come to the colourful centre six days a week, where they receive supplementary education, in addition to their schooling, which Anjali supports, two good square meals a day, health support and an active arts curriculum.

In addition, Anjali provides rice and social welfare support to the children’s families, to make sure they don’t end up back working on the streets of Siem Reap. A vital part of Anjali’s ethic is the emphasis on the arts and creativity, especially photography.

Belgian-born Callier’s first involvement with the festival goes back to 2006 when she was invited to exhibit images from her own series of children’s books about a young penguin named Lila. “They asked me to come, and then I asked to help, and they said yes,” she said. Since then, she has been a key feature of the festival, and of life at Anjali.

“Each year almost, I come to Cambodia for four months,” Callier said. While here, she’s working on the festival, and also in running photography workshops with the children from Anjali. “She’s been a real mentor for some, like Try Sophal,” said Flint. Sophal is the young student who recently won a national photography prize.

There’s a solid warmth about Callier. She’s not sentimental about the children and not given to gushing. But her commitment is real. “I love children and I love photography. I’m not a professional photographer, but I do know enough to teach something.”

According to Flint, the workshops are vital for developing the children’s confidence. “It gets them out there, interacting with the world around them, and creating something that people value. It’s great for their self-esteem,” he said.

An important part of the confidence building comes from the series of postcards on sale over the past year, and the new book, Cambodia, our Vision, launched on Monday this week. Callier edited more than 100,000 photos down to 350 for the book. “It was a huge job,” she said.

Callier’s own granddaughter Marie Werner has also spent a month volunteering at Anjali. She and her friends had raised US$7,000 for the project, and brought invaluable medical supplies with them too. This year, she did it again. “I think they raised even more money this time,” says Callier.

As for her charges at Anjali, she adds: “As long as they are at Anjali, they have a chance.”

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