Even by Cambodian standards, the villages around Poipet city in Banteay Meanchey province appear ramshackle. With about 30 per cent of the local population made up of migrant workers – either coming here to work from other provinces or on their way across the Thai border – things like health care and education are usually out of reach.
But every year there is at least one bright spot on the calendar for those in these villagers, as well as other rural areas of Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces: an annual visit – dubbed “Project Battambang” – by a team of medical students and doctors from the National University of Singapore.
Later this year will see the group make its fifth visit to the country. One member who was part of a previous tour is K Ragavendra.
“Every year, the team spends for two weeks to provide free health screenings to the villagers and students,” Ragavendra said in an email interview.
“After the health screenings, we provide medications and drugs to treat the more basic illnesses. For more serious cases, we send them to either referral hospitals or to Mongkul Borei Hospital or Angkor Hospital for Children to receive further treatment.”
Their assistance doesn’t stop at treating immediate medical concerns.
“Aside from health screenings, we also provide health education at the school and community level and we work with schools in the villages to support primary school-level education by supporting the teachers etc,” Ragavendra said.
“We also work with the youths of the community and administer scholarships for youth who excel in what they do and show potential to continue with their studies and to give back to the community.”
The time, efforts and expertise of the Singaporeans has not gone unappreciated, especially considering the dire conditions of the communities they visit.
“It looks like a temporary housing place for people and children here,” says Seng Sopheap, who works for a Catholic church in Poipet. “Most of the migrant workers’ kids and some locals’ children here do not have proper study schedules. We have schools here but the students and teachers do not come regularly, because they just concentrate on money and surviving.”
“The help from the Singaporean students and professors makes a world of difference in the health of people here. Not many NGOs or other people come to take care of us.”
Sopheap’s feelings were echoed by Theap Kimsang, chief of Poipet’s Orussei Leo village.
“Hundreds of people here have got treatment and medicine free of charge from Singaporean students and doctors. It has helped our people here a lot.”
One of the main focuses of the annual mission is eye care.
“For eye-related issues such as cataract problems, we refer [patients] to the eye unit in Mongkul Borei Hospital. For children with serious conditions, we bring them to Siem Reap for further treatment at Angkor Hospital for Children,” Ragavendra said.
“For other cases such as TB, minor procedures etc we work with the local health care system and bring them to either Poipet Referral Hospital or Mongkul Borei Hospital,” he added.
On this last point, Ragavendra said, the team has reached out to other civil society groups with an eye on boosting the assistance they can offer.
“We [have] met with NGOs focused on health care, such as the Fred Hollows Foundation and Seva Cambodia, to collaborate and coordinate our efforts with them and the local health care system.”
Visit www.projectbattambang.org for more information
Project Battambang members K Ragavendra, Huang Xiao Ting, Anne Goei, Rachel Peh, Oo Shuwen, Tan Yeow Boon spoke with the Post’s Moeun Nhean about their experience bringing health care to rural communities in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
Who makes up the team and how long do you spend in Cambodia?
We are a team of 24 first- and second-year Singaporean students. We also get Cambodian medical students to assist us with the project. We go down to Banteay Meanchey province, specifically villages surrounding Poipet, to conduct health screenings for two weeks every December. This year our trip is tentatively set for December 7-21.
How did Project Battambang get started?
The project was started in 2010 by Dr Ong Yew Jin. We have conducted four such screenings since the birth of this project – each December. We are not affiliated with any particular NGO.
How many screenings has your team performed?
In 2013, we screened three different villages. We screened 435 villagers at Tom Nup Kor Pram village; 498 persons at Prey Koup village; and 662 at O’Russey Leo village. In total we screened 1,595 villagers.
For villagers with serious illnesses, we refer them to referral or provincial hospitals or even the Angkor Hospital for Children for more extensive treatment. We fund the treatment options for these referred patients.
What are some of the biggest problems standing in the way of Cambodians’ well-being?
There is a lack of awareness, especially of preventive medicine measures like deworming, dental care etc.
There is also a lack of funds to support health care-seeking behaviours of the villagers.
How does Project Battambang work to improve villagers’ ability to take care of themselves?
We conduct health education for both adults and schoolchildren. For the adults, we teach them topics such as basic woundcare, feminine hygiene care, sex education etc. While for the schoolchildren, we teach them basic skills such as hand washing and dental care.
We also believe in working with the community to encourage change from within. In line with this, we support the teachers and the school at Prey Koup for better access to quality education for
the primary school children in that village.
We also work with high school and university students where we sponsor their education at higher levels and encourage them to contribute back to their communities in their own way.