21 years in Cambodia

My first travel to Cambodia was on 12th October 1999 from Bangkok. I arrived at the Phnom Penh airport at 9AM and Fr. John Visser was waiting for me. At that time, we knew it as Pochengton Airport and it was a very small runaway. You left the craft and walked towards the entrance of a small and old building where the airport authorities were sitting down on school chairs. Everything was fascinating for me. A great adventure for a young South America young man full of dreams and love for humanity.

Father John is a very tall man, coming from the Netherlands, the country of the tallest people of the world. Before I went to the Bangkok airport, the priest who sent me to Cambodia told me that I would recognise him because he would be the tallest person on scene. He was right. At the time he was in his 65 around, a strong body, white hair, big glasses, blue eyes and he used to drive a strong Dutch car with the logo of Don Bosco Technical School Phnom Penh. He welcomed me in Italian language, because he knew that my English was still less than ABC lessons. Many Cambodians today do not know that I learnt to speak Khmer first than English. At that time and now many Cambodians assume that any foreigner coming to their country speak English.

I applied for the Don Bosco missions in my native country, Colombia. After I finished my superior education in media and journalism, I wanted to be a religious man and a missionary, to go to foreign lands and spread the love of God, especially through the style of Saint John Bosco. Even if my own country has many situations to resolve, it is true that it has more opportunities. Being also a Colombian abroad, leading charity for the poor of other lands, is also a help for our own country. Especially Colombia is portrayed by the international media as a country in political conflicts and mafia cartels. I grew in a poor quarter of Medellin city, one of the most important South American urbes, but also it was known as the seat of Pablo Escobar cartel. I have to say that I thanks the education I received from Don Bosco, from my belonging to the Boy Scouts movements and for my Catholic Faith, that I survived the troublesome years of the 1990s in Colombia.

Since I was a kid, being the son of a policeman that was a fan of Bruce Lee, I grew watching his movies and hearing his philosophy of life. Bruce Lee thrived to demonstrate to the American public that being a Chinese was not be a gangster. He was successful even today. Bruce Lee opened also my dreams with the Asian continent. When my father retired from the Medellin Police Department, he became a school teacher and filled our small house with books of philosophy. I read Tagore, Jedi Krishnamurti and Hermann Hesse in my teen days.  When the Salesians asked me where I would like to offer myself for the good of poor children and youth, I said Asia, especially the Far East.

Maybe people think that Asia and Latin America are very different regions. Only those who have visited both South America and Southeast Asia, can feel that there is a connection. Definitively, we Latin Americans are the modern descendants of those who crossed the Bering Strait from Central Asia and Far East more than 40 thousand years ago.

When I visit the indigenous communities of Ratanakiri, like the Jarai where I sponsor children in their studies, I feel how similar they look to our own indigenous communities in the Amazon or even to my own family. By the way, the Jarai is a Cambodian and also Vietnamese group linked to ancient migrations from Central Asia.

In these 21 years of work in Cambodia, I feel really satisfy with all the children, youth and their families I have come into contact. I feel really proud of the power of love and the commitment to make a small contribution to humanity. Even I have been able to share some support for some Colombian children in the Amazon region. I only can say that love has not boarders and that we all are connected, just because we are only one humanity.

I like to talk with youth who are now 21 years old, especially if they were born in October 1999, because they were born when I arrive for the first time to Cambodia. It was a very difficult time, but Cambodians are committed, patience and very much intelligent. I learn Khmer playing basketball at Don Bosco Phnom Penh, before I could speak English and Italian. They, the children of that time, gave me the name of Samnang and it is the name I use until now, as being a resident in Cambodia.

I am looking to get my Cambodian nationality, because I think it is enough time to be here, to know the culture and to share a single spirit of love and solidarity. I hope I can celebrate very soon to have just that document in my hands, to say that I am officially a Cambodian, even if I am already in love and spirit, inside the spirit of God the Most High.

Jarai women, the mother of the children we sponsor for education in Ratanakiri.

Jarai children sponsored by Don Bosco Kep with the local coordinator.

Sun Children Scholarship program in Don Bosco Kep Province.
Helping children of Kompung Trach District at the Pnom Romrey Pagoda.

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