Serving Cambodia – Why here, why now?

River sunsetBarely more than a month ago I announced to my family, friends, and network that I’d be leaving to work in Cambodia through a volunteering organisation. As I have mentioned before, the support I’ve received has been phenomenal, inspired through motivating messages and generous contributions to my fundraising efforts. When I decided to do this, it had come to a point after deep reflection and serious consideration. Many factors weighed into the decision. Although there was always a choice, the real choice seemed clear to me.

PeaceFellows

The Rotary Peace Fellowship brings together people from around the world to pursue a research Master degree in peace & conflict at one of it’s Peace Centres. It is inspiring in many ways. Applications have closed for this year but consider applying for the next intake (click photo for website).

 

 

Eight years ago I was chosen as a Rotary Peace Fellow to pursue a Master in international relations at Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had long been associated with Rotary and I was absolutely thrilled to receive such a prestigious and generous award. Rotary fully funded my Master degree in Argentina and went on to sponsor an internship in Malaysia to apply my growing knowledge in information technology and international development. The theme of the entire experience was deeply rooted in service to community and volunteerism. From every corner of the world I travelled during that time, the generosity of Rotarians never ceased to amaze me. They always volunteered their time, their funds, and their energy to making sure my fellow scholars and I had everything we needed and more. There is no doubt that my experience with Rotary and its dedication to voluntary service has deeply influenced my current endeavour. Adjusting my career path – that I had never taken for granted – to do something that felt hands-on and meaningful to me  is something I felt strongly as a Peace Scholar. Rotary also taught me that volunteerism goes beyond something that fits your schedule, but is also a way of life.

The opportunity to study in economically fascinating Argentina and explore development issues led me down a career path in international development research management at a Canadian funding institution and later in “knowledge mobilisation” at a Canadian university. However, it wasn’t as straight-forward in process. When I initially returned to Canada after over half a decade abroad, I felt completely disconnected in Vancouver. With no real network, I had a foreign graduate degree and work experience scattered around the globe. It was a challenge to first decide what I should do, and then figure out how to do it. Through sheer luck and perhaps some hint of destiny, I was hired to work with immigrants to counsel and assist them in integrating in the Canadian workforce. It felt ironic for me, someone who couldn’t figure out the local workforce himself, to now assist others. This experience deeply touched me. Apart from working with the most supportive and inspiring colleagues, I spent very busy days meeting with immigrants who usually couldn’t speak English. Many had left everything to start over again and some were refugees fleeing from unimaginable atrocities. In spite of funding and service requirements that create profound complexities in every organisation, my true daily objective became helping people achieve their own goals, however that might play out. Their successes became my successes, my support became their lifeline at times, and their stories became my inspiration.

I felt profoundly happy in this meaningful work – but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work closer to policy and research, so six months later I found myself in Ottawa. The excitement of being in something large-scale and potentially impacting is thrilling. For two and a half years I worked on a big multi-stakeholder project in a fascinating organisation. Seeing long-term outputs begin to emerge from a project feels very different from the everyday trials and tribulations you experience with an individual who might be from a vulnerable group. Outputs are exciting and give a large sense of achievement and almost relief at completion. There is a strong sense of ownership and contribution to the beautiful PDF document or whatever form it may take. Although more ambiguous, the potential (either tracked or perceived) impact of that work then becomes a game of watching and reporting – that is unless you become responsible for mobilising it.

In hot pursuit of my partner in Toronto, I was offered an opportunity to ‘mobilise’ outputs and build relationships from different stages in immigration research. Although my path seemed to have been plowing through technologies and development in line with my graduate studies, nothing had really excited me in Canada more than having had the chance to work with immigrants. It was a real and visible issue in the environment I was actually in and being able to work at an academic and policy level seemed like a not so unfamiliar place. I continually struggled differentiating the concept of “knowledge mobilisation” from my more familiar understanding of strategic research communication. It’s a debate I leave to my colleagues, but there is no doubt it is a performance-driven atmosphere that I really appreciate in being able to see your contributions clearly and concretely even before reporting and evaluation. Having the opportunity to make people aware of systemic issues that immigrants encounter in their new homes was motivating and really put into practice the idea of attaching faces on the outputs you produce.

AA045205And then having the chance to go home to Vancouver, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I knew that I was at the crossroads of life, that something new would be around the corner. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed being back. You fall in love with a city all over again and realise what’s really important to you when you choose to live in a particular place with the knowledge you can reside anywhere you wish on the big round planet. I no longer felt disconnected to my country or the workforce. In considering a return to development work, I knew that I would need to feel grassroots again and work in an environment where practice was happening, much as I had been most inspired by immigration issues in Canada and confronted by the struggles and successes of immigrants around me. I was now feeling somewhat detached from the outside issues this time and needed to get a sense of the world away from policy, organised advocacy, and academia.

All of these feelings and influences have brought me to this spot in Cambodia where I have just finished a month of orientation and language training and now begin to carve out a role at my new organisation, the Cambodian Civil Society Partnership. My goal in the broadest sense is to help strengthen the voices of people who may not be getting heard. The context is now, during a profound point in Cambodia’s history as huge government reforms are taking place to decentralise power to communities. I look forward to sharing not only the ins and outs of capacity building and organisational details, but also how this experience affects me and my sense of duty in a country and within a world that is rapidly changing.

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