banner image
Highlights from Cambodia -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Highlights from Cambodia

By Phillip Jordan

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Solar power

Ford Thai knew he had to be part of this year’s Carter Work Project. By Thai’s estimate, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter helped give new life to 50 of his relatives.

Thai, a businessman who now lives in California, is originally from Cambodia. Many of his relatives fled Cambodia when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge savaged the country in the late 1970s. President Carter and the U.S. Congress granted refugee status to many Cambodians, allowing them to come to the United States.

Thai went to work for a refugee center in San Francisco that provided loans to new Cambodian-Americans trying to establish businesses in a new country. In fact, Thai adopted his new American name—Ford—after receiving the center’s first grant from the Ford Foundation.

“When I heard Jimmy Carter’s Habitat volunteer project would be in Cambodia, I wanted to help,” Thai said.

So his Cambodian-based solar power company, Khmer Solar donated a solar-power water pump to the community that will provide water to all of the families living there.

Onward and upward

While on site Saturday, Jimmy Carter noted that the 166 housing solutions provided in The Mekong Build—including the 21 new homes built in Cambodia—are only a preview of what Habitat for Humanity can accomplish in the region.

“This is just planting a seed for 50,000 homes [Habitat wants to build] in the Mekong region over the next five years,” he said.

Habitat Cambodia is not wasting any time to reach that goal. The Carter Work Project kicked off Habitat’s “CambodiaBUILDS” campaign, a five-year initiative to provide safe, affordable housing for 10,000 low-income Cambodian families. To do so, Habitat Cambodia aims to mobilize 100,000 volunteers and raise $14 million.

Thanks to a donation of land from International Children’s Care of Australia, which also sponsored 10 homes this week for the Carter Work Project, 51 more Habitat homes will soon be built just 800 meters from the community created this week.

Construction of the first 18 houses there will begin in December. Two Global Village teams will work with local volunteers to kick-start that project. That community will have a block-producing facility and three wells. Again, most of the partner families will come from near the Steung Meanchey dump site in Phnom Penh.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Peace Corps teacher builds houses, language skills

Friday’s dedications meant a lot to Tiffany Walker. The 32-year-old Californian has served with the Peace Corps in Cambodia since July 2008. In May this year, she led a team of 15 Peace Corps members to build a test house in the new community here in Sra Por village. The test build helped perfect construction techniques for the houses.

Tiffany Walker played a major role in this year’s Carter Work Project build in Cambodia. In May, the Californian led a team of 15 Peace Corps members in building a test house in Sra Por village, honing the building technique for the houses and providing the new village with a community center. During the project, she helped Sam Yong and his family build their Habitat house. Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


Walker met several families then. “They had made most of the blocks we used,” she said. “To know where these families were coming from and to see what they were doing to create better lives for themselves was just amazing.”

Walker actually cut the ribbon on that test build house that will be used as the community center. On Friday, she cut another ribbon with Sam Yong, his wife, Hout Phala, and several of their children.

Walker is teaching English to Cambodian students during her Peace Corps stint. She says that experience makes her appreciate this week’s event more.

“With teaching, you don’t always know the impact you’re having, the effect your teaching will have on the children. That takes time,” Walker says. “So I love when I can get instant gratification. And you get that here.

“At the start of the week, all we had was a foundation. Today, we already have a real, physical house that’s going to meet a very immediate need.”

Jacks of all trades

A family reunion took place this week on Chea Chandy’s house. Warren Jack, executive director of Greater Auckland Habitat in New Zealand, talked his entire family into volunteering during the Carter Work Project. His children—Greg, Karen and Megan—are all grown. Karen has lived in the United Kingdom for the past two years, and Greg works as a researcher in Antarctica much of the time.

No better place to meet than Oudong, Cambodia, right? It is the first time the family has been together since Christmas 2007.

Warren’s wife, Heather, describes herself as the “mother hen to all these spring chickens.” She had to be caretaker to the old rooster, too, when Warren fainted from the heat on the first day.

“The medical team had actually just made a stretcher that morning, and I think I was the first customer,” Warren said. “Good way to get a half-day off, yeah?”

First-class first-aid

Rithy Chau has been the man in command at the first-aid station at the Cambodian build site. He led a crew from the Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope in treating volunteers throughout the week. At the start of the build, Chau’s team saw mostly heat-related cases. As the week progressed, hand and finger injuries became common n the clinic. Chau says he likes suturing. Fortunately for the volunteers, he got few opportunities to stitch this week.

Chau had help from five American nurses: Johanna Menard, Sarah Betcher, Helen Craft, Diana Fox and Cari Munro all came to assist from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been fun to have a change of pace and help out here,” Chau said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to spend time with the different international volunteers.”

The Sihanouk Hospital provides free medical service to the poor. Several hospital patients have become Habitat homeowners; their homes were built in partnership with Habitat and the hospital staff. Dr. Gerlinda Lucas, deputy director of administration at the hospital, says there may be more opportunities for the hospital to partner with Habitat on housing for HIV-positive patients.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Long sleeves

Cambodian volunteers are teaching their international counterparts more than a few Khmer words this week; they are also supplying some local tricks on shielding oneself from the sun.

Volunteers (from left) Krang Kanika, Caitlin Bennett, Ashton Goatley, Theng Tith Maria and Prom Savada show off decorative sleeves that keep the hot sun off their skin at the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Cambodia. Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


A lot of the young Cambodian volunteers on site wear arm sleeves called sraom dai, essentially long socks that can be pulled up from the wrist to past the elbow. After getting so many questions about them from other volunteers, Maria Theng, 19; Prom Savada, 21; and Kanika Krang, 22, brought extra pairs to give to their housemates.

Ashton Goatley’s arm sleeves have a “Merry Christmas” design on them, but he does not mind. “They work well and they feel pretty good actually,” the 19-year-old New Zealander says. “We’re getting authentic now.”

Making connections

At lunch, Habitat Cambodia staffers gave volunteers updates from each of the other Mekong Build sites and cheers rang out with each progress report.

More cheers came after lunch as sporting events broke out next to the build site. One group of volunteers and village children chased each other with a rugby ball, while other volunteers joined Cambodian construction assistants in an impromptu soccer match.

Winging it

Building with Habitat is nothing new for a couple of former pilots on site in Cambodia. David Buffington and Don Irwin, both 62, have joined in 10 “Pilot Builds” in a partnership between American Airlines and Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, Texas.

The two friends decided to come to Cambodia for this year’s Carter Work Project, along with Irwin’s wife, Maggie. Buffington and Irwin enjoy a running banter while they work across the street from each other. Buffington is a house leader on Hout Da’s home; Irwin leads a team on Chea Leng Hoeun’s house. The two joke that it is probably better they are separated.

“We actually only flew together twice while we were with American,” Irwin explains.

“He scared me to death,” Buffington says.

“Let’s just say I didn’t want to miss the airport by 150 miles with this guy,” Irwin says. “I was ready to get out of that plane!”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An unlikely pair

Michael Schenz is a 65-year-old professor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, who teaches business classes at Carnegie Mellon University. Bonita No, 20, is a student who grew up in Cambodia.

Volunteer Michael Schenz pauses above the wall line during the third day of construction at the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/MikelFlamm


Volunteer Bonita No, of Germany, works on a Habitat house in Cambodia at the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


They are not exactly a pair you would expect to see talking excitedly in German on the build site.

But Schenz was born and grew up in Germany and moved to Pittsburgh in 1972.

No’s older sister married a German, and No moved to Weimar, Germany, at age 15 to go to school.

At the build site, the two talk often, their conversations flowing back and forth from German to English. At lunch, Schenz asks No about the Cambodian food in his lunch box. She asks him about how Germany is different now compared to when he lived there.

“I’m very excited to meet her,” Schenz said. “I never would have expected to meet someone like her. A Cambodian who knows Germany, and we have a common language? It’s incredible.”

The “music” ends

Tomorrow will sound very different on the Cambodian work site. Rather, the lack of sound will be quite different.

A quartet of mixing machines has constantly tumbled mud, providing much-needed mortar for the first three wall-building days here. You can tell time by the machines; when they fall quiet, a break or lunchtime is imminent.

The machines have also provided a high-decibel, percussive soundtrack for the build; shouting is necessary anywhere in the vicinity of one of the mixers. That soundtrack ended today as volunteers completed all the walls on each house.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New tech for a new generation

From old tricks to new: Stabilized-soil blocks represent a new “green” technology for Cambodia, a country in which the majority of homes are built using wood.

Scott Creeger, a teacher from Cambodia’s Northbridge International School, reaches for another brick as he helps raise the walls of a new Habitat home in Cambodia during the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project 2009. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


About a month and a half before the Carter project began, a group of 20 students and teachers from Northbridge International School in Phnom Penh helped make some of the stabilized-soil blocks being used this week. School officials saw the project as a chance to get students involved in volunteer work and to learn a new technology.

On Tuesday, Matthew Campeau, 36, and Scott Creeger, 62, schoolteachers from Northbridge, returned as volunteers to use those blocks.

“I’m excited to come back for this stage in the process so I can see how it all comes together,” Creeger said. “This is a very eco-friendly project, and it’s just as good for our teachers to come out and see it as our students, so that we can teach about it.”

Lessons in window-propping

Blocks were laid around windows Tuesday morning thanks to a local construction trick. Before volunteers left Monday, Cambodian construction assistants taught volunteers the local way of setting windows in place.

At Chea Marady’s house, Phan Phal took a thick 8-foot length of bamboo and used wire to tie a half-piece of block around one end of it. After volunteers placed the metal window frame atop a thick layer of mortar, Phan carefully lifted the bamboo shoot so that the wire barely draped over the top of the window—with the block hanging on the interior side of the wall.

The other end of the bamboo was then propped against a stack of blocks outside the house. The resulting immobile weight on the wire coming down on the frame ensured the windows would be set in place by Tuesday morning.

How did Phal and the other construction assistants know this would work?

“Many years of experience,” he said with a grin.

Reaching new heights

Volunteers working with partner family Chea Leng Hout and his wife, Say Kim, settled into a rhythm early Tuesday morning. David Kraft had a special job in the rotation. The Australian is easily the tallest volunteer on his site, and his teammates have taken notice.

Min Tze Khor, a 19-year-old volunteer from Malaysia, called out David’s name from his corner post on the wall. A block needed to be placed over a piece of rebar far above Khor’s reach. Kraft was happy to oblige.

“Even volunteers who don’t know how to speak English knew David’s name by lunchtime yesterday,” said Kerry Fitzgerald, a volunteer from Florida. “We’re definitely putting him to use.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting started

“The height of each block is crucial,” Rob Silcock told his team as they prepared to work on Hun Sophal and La Lin’s future home. Silcock, a house leader from Nelson, New Zealand, showed his crew—a mix of Cambodian and international volunteers—how to spread mortar on the blocks and make sure each one is leveled correctly.

A wet towel and shades keep hip-hop star Pou Khlaing cool on the build site in Cambodia. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm.


“Gravity works against you on this one,” he said, as he swiftly transferred a trowel-full of mortar from bucket to block without spilling a drop.

Nearby, La Lin watched closely. “I’m glad to meet all these people and build with them. It’s good to get busy!”

Heated battle

Sunblock applied liberally and water drunk greedily. Wet towels draped over the backs of necks and floppy hats donned to keep the sun off the face. Volunteers came up with plenty of ways to fight the heat that reached at least 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) on Monday.

Manuela Kikillus came from Germany to volunteer in Cambodia. “It was 1 degree [Celsius; 34 degrees Fahrenheit] when I left two days ago,” she said as she smoothed mortar over a corner block. “That feels like quite a little bit of difference right now!”

Celebrity sightings

A group of nine Cambodian movie stars and singers joined in the first day of building, thanks to the leadership of one of Habitat Cambodia’s partners. is the brainchild of Steven Path, a Cambodian businessman who uses a portion of the profits from his Web products to support in-country nonprofit organizations. also mobilizes youth to get involved in social causes.

Leaders from helped to arrange the nine celebrities’ involvement on the build site Monday, and it did not take long for many young volunteers to take notice. Pou Khlaing, a popular Khmer hip-hop singer, who helped lay blocks Monday, says he is excited to turn his young fans onto causes like Habitat’s.

“I know not everybody can donate money, but everybody can donate their labor, their time,” Khlaing said. “I’m excited to be here today. It’s hot and I know the blocks are heavy, but it feels so good to lift that heavy block and to know that I’m helping in a real way.”

Path hopes Khlaing’s young fans will remain excited well beyond this week. “When young people get involved in something like Habitat, they get a new sense of fulfillment,” he said. “And they help raise awareness that gets other youth thinking, ‘Yes, there are lots of different ways I can make a difference in my own country.’”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A quick promotion

Thomas Hlaban is a first-time Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project volunteer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States, but he’s going to learn fast. The flexibility and enthusiasm of volunteers like Hlaban is what makes big dreams, like serving 166 families throughout the Mekong Delta during the week of the 2010 Carter Work Project alone, reality.


When a couple of house leaders couldn’t make it to Cambodia at the last second, Habitat staffers asked Hlaban if he would lead volunteers at one of the Oudong build site houses. “I was foolish enough to put on my registration form that I’m an engineer,” he said with a laugh at Sunday’s opening ceremony.

Hlaban knows he’ll have a lot of help, though, and he’s taking the unexpected promotion in stride. “I’m excited to see how this all works,” he said. “And I was excited about coming here and connecting with people from different places. I’ve definitely got the chance to do that now.”

Doing the math

Chea Leng Hout, 70, is a proud dad—especially this week. Leng Hout’s son is Chea Chandy, one of the leaders of the dumpsite community who organized the 21 families moving to the New Life Community that Habitat volunteers will help build this week. “I am so proud of my son and very happy he’s been able to help make this happen,” the father says.

Leng Hout laughs when asked if the volunteers’ energy makes him feel like a young man again. “I am happy when I see all these people here. They make me feel full and strong.” He pauses to consider and adds, “Yes, sure, I feel like a young man again!”

Lessons for back home

Anugraha John serves as the executive director of a nonprofit in Bangalore, India, called Global Citizens for Sustainable Development. Through his work, he frequently partners with Habitat’s national program in India; in fact, his organization’s volunteers have helped build 20 Habitat houses in Bangalore.

This coming March, he will work with Habitat India on a major Women Build campaign for low-income women-headed households. “I came here to volunteer so that I could learn more about how Habitat operates,” he says. “I want to keep doing similar work in southern India.”

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