banner image
Counting down in Cambodia -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Counting down in Cambodia

By Phillip Jordan

When volunteers arrived at Sunday night’s opening ceremony and dinner at the Cambodiana Hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, members of each of the 21 partner families stood waiting to greet them.

Dancers perform in traditional Khmer costumes at Sunday night’s opening ceremonies in Oudong, Kendal Province, Cambodia, for the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


The combination of hugs, smiles, bows and handshakes that ensued had been long dreamed about by those on both sides of the encounter. Tomorrow, those dreams will start to become 21 houses.

More than 300 volunteers from 13 countries will work in Cambodia at the 26th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Most of them gathered Sunday night for the week’s opening celebration.

Red, white and blue ribbons—the colors of Cambodia’s flag—covered the banquet hall. Musicians and dancers, dressed in traditional Khmer clothing, performed throughout the dinner. Homeowners-to-be studied these new volunteers who had traveled long distances to help build their homes. Conversations flowed, with hand gestures supplementing unknown words of different languages.

“I hope you are ready for an amazing experience this week,” said Bernadette Bolo-Duthy, national director of Habitat for Humanity Cambodia. “One that will have you working across cultures and communities.

“Remember, you are not only making a difference in the lives of these 21 families, but we hope that they, and this week, will make a difference in your lives as well.”

Youth volunteers at work

The Mekong Build already has made a difference in the lives of some of the project’s youngest volunteers. Thanks to a pair of Habitat Cambodia partnerships, about 70 youth volunteers are among those joining in the build week.

Fifty-three of the youth come from Cambodia. Some live near Phnom Penh, but many traveled from provinces throughout the country. Others come from Malaysia, New Zealand, India, Australia and China. Most are students; all are between 18 and 25.

A local university’s service-learning program and a national young-professionals service network helped Habitat recruit the volunteers. Habitat’s Asia and Pacific area office sponsored each participant, hoping to get more local and regional youth interested in volunteering—and to have youth from different cultures meet people.

On Sunday morning, all of these volunteers were together for the first time, finding common languages—or smiles—to communicate with each other. After a training and orientation session, the volunteers took buses to the Steung Meanchey dump—the soon-to-be-former home of the families partnering with Habitat this week.

It was a sobering visit for many of the youth. The unrelenting stench and sheer size of the mountainous dump—and the stark poverty of all the communities surrounding it—quickly overwhelmed the senses.

Rottana Noun, however, felt almost at home. The 23-year-old lives in Phnom Penh, and for the past six months has been helping two or three times a week in the makeshift villages around the dump. She volunteers with a locally-run organization that distributes food in the neighborhoods.

As Noun got off the bus Sunday, a pair of girls immediately recognized her and ran to hug her waist.

“This is why I was interested in helping build,” Noun said. “My dad told me about the Habitat project, and when I realized the families they are building with came from near the dump, I said, ‘Wow! What a connection. I have to do this!’”

Savin Kan, 21, volunteered for the Carter project in Cambodia because he has not seen the poverty that faces many families in the country’s capital. Kan is from Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s southern coast.

“This is only my second time here,” Kan said. “I just wanted to come volunteer and do what I can to help.”

Noun says she’s happy to see so many young people from her country taking part in the project. “A lot of times we don’t think about these kinds of people,” she says. “It’s good for us to see the other side of our own world.”

Phillip Jordan is a writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International.