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Weavers smile through adversity

Weavers smile through adversity

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A worker treads the loom at the Weaves of Cambodia workshop, on the outskirts of Tbeng Meanchey. Photo by: Hector Bermejo

LATE-AFTERNOON sun streams through the open walls of the wooden hut. Inside, most of the 20 or so looms lie idle. One woman sits in the middle of the hut spinning silk, while others create scarves and sarongs around her.

At the far end, a couple of wheelchairs rest beside two women who are preparing looms for the weavers. Outside, neglected mulberry bushes are a reminder of more prosperous times.

Weaves of Cambodia, established in 1995 by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), lies off a dirt road on the outskirts of Preah Vihear’s capital, Tbeng Meanchey.

Most of the 22 women and 11 men employed by the centre are either victims of land mines or polio. Many are widows.

Occasionally, women such as Tem Chandy, 19, come to the centre from nearby villages to find some work.

“I had no job at home and nothing to do,” Tem Chandy explains.

After an initial three-month training programme, during which they receive a salary of $30, the weavers are paid by the piece.

Tem Chandy receives between $2 and $3 for each piece she weaves, depending on its size and complexity. She can make about 15 pieces each month. The money isn’t much, but she has little alternative.

Kul Yan, 44, has been working at the centre for 10 years. Widowed with two children, she has just remarried.

She, too, is paid by the piece, but at a higher rate than Tem Chandy. She also works more quickly, and can make 20 pieces each month.

“Sometimes, it’s very good and I receive $60 to $70 a month,” Kul Yan says. “Other times, it’s not so good and I get $40.”

In a small shop to one side of the workshop, colourful scarves sell for $25 and large sarongs for $80.

Since VVAF withdrew its funding in 2004, the centre has been supported by American benefactor Carol Cassidy.

Rather than giving direct financial support, Cassidy guarantees to find a market for the weavers’ products overseas, Toch Sar, the centre’s manager and designer, explains.

“We have customers in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, the US and Australia,” he says.

Despite this backing, the centre has fallen on hard times in recent years and Toch Sar is clearly concerned about its future.

“In 1999, we had almost 1,000 people working here on this project and 47 weavers,” he says.

At that time, the centre produced its own silk from the now-untended mulberry trees. Now the workers weave silk imported from China, which Toch Sar says has dramatically increased in price during the past year.

The woman spinning silk on her wheel in the middle of the hut is polio victim Phann Sophanary, 42.

She has worked at the centre since 1996, earning between $30 and $40   a month.

“I survive with difficulty. Sometimes, the money I earn is not enough for me to eat,” says Phann Sophanary, who married four years ago.

“Since we married, my husband has not earned any money because he is ill a lot.”

As a soldier, her husband was shot in the hand by the Khmer Rouge. “Now that he has had surgery to remove the bullets left there, he is gett-ing better,” she says.

It seems the thread that connects these men and women is not so much weaving as surviving adversity.

Yet somehow, most of them manage to remain upbeat.

When I ask her why this is so, Kul Yan answers with a smile. “We have a different easy and a different difficult,” she explains.

INTERPRETER: RANN REUY

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