When Friends International, one of Cambodia’s best known NGOs, opened its doors in 1994, the country had just emerged from its years under the UNTAC administration and was still reeling from decades of war and Vietnamese occupation. Poverty was rife, families were separated and employment scarce. For many children, opportunities were hard to come by.
This year, as Friends International celebrates its 20th anniversary, the organisation employs 500 staff around the world, working directly with 60,000 children in countries including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as here in Cambodia, where it was founded.
Speaking from his new office in Chamkar Mon district south of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, Phnom Penh, executive director Sebastien Marot said: “Friends is really a Cambodia project that has become international, and for me that’s very special and tickles me inside.
“The opening of the first restaurant in 2000 was very special because it really pushed the vision I had for Friends forward, having the official training, mixing business and NGO – at the time it was quite new, very few people were doing that kind of thing, so that was very exciting,” he added.
Marot also cited putting 2,500 children back into public schools in 2012 as a major achievement as well as having trained approximately 500 young people with invaluable vocational skills in their restaurants and shop.
Friends International, which provides vocational training and skills to disadvantaged young people in order to maximise their opportunities, will mark its achievements with a series of events this year, beginning with a picnic featuring live music on Saturday.
Looking to the future, Marot said Friends plans on further international expansion to countries such as Vietnam. It will also open new training restaurants in Laos and Thailand, he said.
Friends’ vision remains the same as it always was, and for Marot, it can be summarised in three parts. He said: “The first is that children and young people have a fair chance for their future and that no kid is left behind. The second is that local people take ownership for the protection and support of kids in their community. My last dream is to have to close Friends, because we’re not needed any more.”
Friends Acoustic Picnic will take place between 2pm and 6pm on Saturday, February 8 at #215, Street 13. Entry is $3 and free for children under 12 years of age.