Sam Ouern Pok
Director of Lom Orng
I was born in Kampot - my mother was a teacher. At the start of the Khmer Rouge [KR] period in 1975 I was three years old.
After the fall of Pol Pot, the KR insurgency lasted for many years. But after the Paris peace accords in 1992, I came back to Cambodia from a refugee camp in Thailand - on December 12, 1992. I was sent to Battambang by the UNHCR along with many other refugees. We asked to go there because we knew there was a lot of good land there. We could plant rice and other things. We found some land in February 1993 - it belonged to a relative - they allowed us to build a house and grow things.
Going from the jungle to the camps to this new life as a farmer was quite hard. My father worked on staff for UNTAC [the UN transitional authority], for the election committee. My mother farmed. I went to school.
I met David Aston [Lom Orng’s founder] in 1993 in Pursat. I was going to his office every day, because I knew he was looking for staff. But the office was very small - no funding. He had no salary - he lived off his own money. So I said, 'Okay I can work without pay for a start.' He said, 'Can you cook?' So I cooked for him. He paid me in food.
I knew English by then, so I also translated. Lots of delegates were coming from Canada by then - it was early 1994.
I could use a computer by then too, so David realised I was useful for more than cooking. I asked him, 'What can I do to help you?'
Then he went to Canada, and his staff were not showing up for work. So I held the place together till he got back. That led to me becoming his assistant.
Then he promoted me to outreach officer - finding amputees in the field and advising them, arranging for their training, and so on.
In '97 he sent me on my first trip outside Cambodia, to Ottawa, to attend the signing of the international Mine Ban Treaty. I met various senior government people, and did a tour through Canada to promote the treaty.
When I came back, David promoted me to be his managing director. As David gradually got older, he did less and I did more.
The Pursat vocational training centre [VTC], which we began in 1994, was our first project. Things were done more seat-of-the-pants in those days. There was no needs assessment - a procedure built into every new project now.
The Khmer Rouge were still everywhere. But Pursat was a bit safer, so all the Canadian NGOs were targeting it. It was not too close, nut not too far, from Phnom Penh.
The then Minister of Social Affairs came from Pursat - he knew there were a lot of land mines there. So he asked us to go there. I was already there actually, but David was in Phnom Penh. So David quit the Cambodia Trust - a small NGO he ran to provide prosthetic devices. He could see this was a chance to do something on a bigger scale. He set up the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society (CWARS) - now known as Lom Orng.
David worked hard to get money from the Canadian Embassy, and thereafter to renovate the training centre we had been given by the Governor of Pursat. Over the years it had been a hospital, then a military storehouse and armoury, and finally a TB ward. In 1994 we got it. It was fairly rundown by then.
After six months of renovation, we got funding from the British Embassy, plus some more from the Canadian Embassy. There were two courses - Tailoring & TV repair. A modest start.
In 1995-6 Terre des Hommes came in & gave us administration funds as well as vocational training money: now we could put on several courses.
In 1997 we got support from the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation to renovate the leaking roof - plus beds for trainees; then the Canada-Cambodia Development Program and CIDA gave us funds to run a three-year training program - with eight courses.
I became the supervisor of the VTC. From 2001 to 2003 we got more funding from CIDA for the Pursat trainings. Then in 2006 we got support from Terre des Hommes Germany to train most of those in the province we hadn’t reached.
You can see from all this how vital is the funding given us by the international donors. It's the lifeblood. I spent a huge amount of my time writing applications and answering questions and negotiating with these philanthropic bodies.
In all these ways we eventually trained more than 2,000 people in Pursat. There aren't many land mine-disabled disabled people there who have not been trained. We handed the building over to a hospital when we'd finished with it.
When I came back, David promoted me to managing director of CWARS (as Lom Orng was then still known). As David gradually got older, he did less and I did more. I gradually took over most of the responsibility for the NGO’s fund-raising and management.
As the boss here I monitor our results, and they have been very gratifying. These huge changes in people's lives are what have kept me here. As a former refugee, I know what suffering is about. And helping others is where it's at: I don't think there is any better place I could be doing charity work than here.
If you multiply our 15,000 or more beneficiaries by five, for their dependants - then imagine the flow-on effects to villages, districts and whole provinces - you get some idea of how many people we have helped out of poverty.
Of course there are headaches, but they have to be gone through to make our projects work as well as they do. What keeps me and the staff going is the results: helping people who lost limbs to a decent life, where there wasn't any real hope before.
A second project was suggested to us by the Minister of Social Affairs, based on our good results in Pursat. The Minister was H.E. Ith Sam Heng, who is still there today. He's done such an impressive job in that portfolio that he's been kept there for some years.
He invited us to look into other provinces. So we chose Kampong Thom - which had many land mine victims and no-one helping them. The Governor there was also very supportive.
In 1997 we got support from CCDP to do a needs assessment, and then run vocational training for one year. The following five years we were supported by Kadoorie - which emerged as, and has remained, our most reliable donor. We graduated over 1,800 people through the Kampong Thom centre. The province's landmine-disabled people have nearly all been trained, and are in businesses, and we've given the facility back to the Ministry for a kindergarten.
Next, in 2003, was Kratie, the hub for Cambodia's northeastern provinces. Kratie's on the Upper Mekong - full of potential for agriculture & micro-enterprises. The province had quite a few land mine victims, though not as many as some other provinces. Since we'd built up our capacity and become good at running training projects, we were ambitious to see what we could do there.
We got funding from the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation for the first four years. They have been our Rock of Gibraltar, really. You can see this thread of support from Kadoorie running through our successful start-ups going back for some years.
That phase of the project terminated in 2007, whereafter we got support from the Spanish Government for 2008-9 - one year. This was a bit different - to train recent land mine victims, and those we'd missed in our earlier survey. The centre closed after training over 1,700 disabled people in Kratie province - there were very few left to train. We handed the building on to SOS, the international orphanage charity.
The next project was at Bantheay Meanchey in 2006 - our vocational centre for the disabled there is Cambodia's largest. We trained over 2,800 people there. We've pretty much trained up the province's war amputees, but we're hanging onto the building because it is a beautiful facility, and we're hoping we can get funding to bring amputees there from the nearby Siem Reap and Oddar Meanchey provinces - where there are lots of land mine victims still with no vocations.
We have had a presence in Siem Reap - this is where we established our Angkor Arts By the Disabled shop, where we trained people in stone carving from 2004 to 2007. After that we handed the shop on to the amputees, and they still run it successfully. Quite a number of stone-carvers who trained there now work from home also. They supply the shop, and other shops. We funded the shop with money leftover from other projects; then NZAID kicked in some funds for stone-carving training. Many of these people are double-leg amputees - there wouldn't have been much hope for them without this training.
Battambang is one of the worst provinces for land mine accidents, and the Battambang VTC came in 2008. Kadoorie both funded it and part-funded our starch factory out near the Thai border: the profits from that now run the VTC. The VTC has trained nearly 2,000 people to date. That made us feel we could generate a lot of our own funds, and rely on donors less. So in its way it gave impetus to such ideas as the user-pays piped water systems we're now planning for rural villages.
We also used the Battambang centre as the nerve centre for our flood relief operation in late 2011. All the food and water and medicines were packed up there, mostly by volunteers working all night. In the morning the trucks came and took the packages off to the boats we'd arranged. That operation was planned on two days' notice. The funds from Kadoorie were approved in 12 hours. We reached thousands of inundated people in the next several weeks. At one point we discovered a flooded village of Lao ethnic people that no-one even knew about. They'd run out of food two days earlier - so with Kadoorie's permission we extended the operation to them.
We've done about 30 projects overall since 1994, so there were many smaller projects along the way - cow banks, horticulture, midwife training, anti-malaria, you name it. We did an aquaculture project in Anlong Veng, for example, and home gardening and fish-raising projects in Oddar Meanchey. Francophonie funded the first one, and the Canadian Embassy the other two. These gave us the grounding to become the more general development organisation we are today. The main thing is that our staff is now trained in a broad range of things - they're versatile. Samon, for example, has done the accounts, managed a starch factory, overseen our village-based vocational training project for USAID, and quite a bit more.
In 2010 we went to Laos to open a VTC in Savannakhet in the south. Part of the brief there is to train up the local organisation, the Lao Disabled Peoples Association, in running these kinds of projects. They're our counterparts there. We're not intending a permanent presence in Laos - this will build the ability of the Lao people to run their own show.
Now we're running village-based vocational training for USAID's HARVEST project in three provinces - training farmers to maintain and repair their own tractors and machines. There was a huge gap in this area before - machines were badly operated, and when they broke down - as they often did quite early - they were just left unused. That's all changing now, and Fintrac - the project manager - has extended the project so we can train a cohort of professional repairers and trainers. That will keep the knowledge cascade going indefinitely.
Now we're looking for donors so we can bring clean, piped water to rural villages - water like Phnom Penh has, which is better quality than in European cities. This has pretty much completed our transition to a general development organisation.
Cambodia goes back 2,000 years, but in one sense it's also a very new country. The long civil war destroyed so much that it took us back to a blank sheet in many ways. So the country's an open book - there's no end to what you can achieve here.
National Curriculum Coordinator
I've been at Lom Orng since 1999, when I began as the co-ordinator of the Agriculture courses in our Kampong Thom training centre. We were then called CWARS - the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society.
In the early 2000s I was provincial co-ordinator at Odar Meanchey, a very poor province in the far north. I ran the food security project we had there: for one year we taught vegetable planting and fish-raising to war-disabled people. It was mobile training, village to village.
Back in Phnom Penh after that, I was made Human Resources co-ordinator, which is what I still do. We have 100 staff spread over half a dozen provinces, so it's quite a big job. But to that have been added two other responsibilities: statistics, and curriculum development for our centres. Much of the latter has been about standardising our curriculums across the country.
I work with the Disability Action Council - a joint government/NGO body which co-ordinates this kind of work nationally; and also with the Ministry of Social Affairs to make what we teach is appropriate to Cambodia.
I enjoy the work. First it was the money, for my family. (I am disabled too, from a American bomb dropped by Lon Nol's airforce in Kandal in 1975 - only two or three months before Pol Pot came to power.)
But also we want to develop our country. Our people are very poor - many can't survive without help, especially disabled people. They take the skills we give them and open small enterprises in their communities. That's the point, really - we want them to open their businesses in their own communities, not travel miles to get a job in a factory for $50 a month. Becoming mini-entrepreneurs doesn't just help their families. They also provide support to their community. Before that many of them did nothing. Many were on the streets.
That is Lom Orng's goal, and it's my goal too. To allow handicapped people to support themselves.
I first studied at the Cambodian High Technical Institute in Phnom Penh, graduating in 1990 with my Bachelor's degree in chemistry.
I worked for the Government, at a rubber plantation in Kampong Cham province, for a couple of years.
From 1992 to 1999 I worked with the International Labour Organisation as an administrator. The ILO sent me to train as accountant in the National Institute of Management (NIM). Cambodia was still emerging from civil war, and was short of accountants then. The ILO co-operated with the UNDP in the 'CMB20' project - providing vocational training to poor people in the provinces: similar to what Lom Orng now does. I emerged with a Bachelor's degree in Accounting - so in one job I got my certification and also a lot of experience.
In 1999 the ILO project ended, and I applied to work with Lom Orng. I've been here every since. I'm the senior accountant.
I record expenses and cashflow, and make financial reports. I write budget proposals for new projects - for example the budget for our Laos project, which is $1.9 million. Others go to the EU, or the Canadian International Development Association, for example.
I enjoy the work because it gives amputees proper skills. Before, most didn't have any training - in fact most were beggars. They are now able to make a living. One former beggar I know, for example, is now a motorcycle repairer in Pursat. He makes enough to send his two kids to university in Phnom Penh.
Amputees also suffer a lot of discrimination. Once they get into a centre they start to feel more comfortable with themselves, as they're surrounded by people like them. Many of the men and women fall in love with each other, and get married. It's common. For example a lady did tailoring training, and a man training as a moto repairer, and they got married. They opened a shop together: one part of the shop does tailoring, the other repairs motos. They make good money. They have had two kids now, and are very happy.
Another family we helped were very poor, and didn't have enough to eat. We taught them to raise fish. Now they survive pretty well.
A lot of these people are very remote, where other NGOs don't go - in deep forest for example. These are also places where there are no villages and therefore no doctors - so often our first job is to get them to hospital to get outstanding wound infections and other problems healed.
Attracting funds to projects like that is part of my job, and it's rewarding. These victims are Cambodians, and I'm a Cambodian also.
We started with the Pursat vocational training centre; then came Kampong Thom, and Kratie. After that came Banteay Meanchey and finally Battambang. I want Lom Orng to keep expanding. We're living on the Indochinese Peninsula, which has seen many wars in modern times. Many have been damaged by these wars, and not just here in Cambodia. Indochina has a legacy of landmines. Others are doing excellent work in clearing the mines, but the survivors are a reality, and someone has to look after them - put them back into society. Given our unique experience, I expect that some day Lom Orng will become a partner of the UN.
As senior accountant, my main interest is that we find donors to keep our work going. Until we become fully self-sustaining, without donors we can't expand. So far we have been blessed - people seem to appreciate our work.
I hope this can continue, because amputees are so often living alone, no family, no job. After training, all that changes. They remain amputees in body, but their hearts have been healed.
Wholesale market manager
I manage our store at Psar Duamkor - Cambodia's central wholesale market. The store receives vegetables from Battambang, to sell to retailers in Phnom Penh. Buyers come from across the whole country to buy at Psar Duamkor - usually in the middle of the night.
I like this project because I can help poorer people in the provinces to sell their veges and make a secure living. People in the remote communes didn't have an outlet like this before. Now we have not only taught them to grow vegetables, but have given them an outlet to sell them to.
Now I've identified our main buyers, every day my staff and I check prices - that's our main task right now. It's a learning curve. For example one kilogram of squash is 4,000 riel in Phnom Penh, but 1500 riel in Battambang. That illustrates the value of selling at Psar Duamkor.
I joined Lom Orng in May 2009, following stints in Phnom Penh writing and editing at the BBC and World Bank. In the West I was a author, screenwriter and journalist - writing for the International Herald Tribune, Sydney Morning Herald, New Scientist and elsewhere.
Coming to Southeast Asia in 2004, and Cambodia in 2007, were life-changers. I started in Cambodia working as a volunteer with orphans, then volunteering as an English teacher at Pour un Sourire d'Enfant, a French-funded school near the city's garbage dump. Gradually something surprising happened - I found I was happier than I'd ever been. I decided to not return to the West, and follow the smart money, as it were.
The happiest people I have ever seen are those who help others, as it seems to plunge them into their better selves. The only miserable Cambodians I’ve seen are the rich ones.
For me, 'career' became less important than usefulness. In Cambodia a small effort can have such a big impact. You can save a kid's life for $20, or put someone through university for a few hundred.
You can also be a part of an organisation like Lom Orng, where others think the same way. NGOs in Cambodia sometimes lack probity or competency - both areas in which Lom Orng scores highly. Its training centres run very smoothly - turning out hundreds of graduates a year - and no-one is getting wealthy from the process. (During my job interview, I found the Lom Orng building's rusted windows and crumbling ceilings reassuring.)
I’m much involved in the new projects, such as After the Flood, which covers livelihood, and the Community Tapwater Scheme - which will hopefully break the bad water/disease nexus in the villages. You can't find a decent plumber in Cambodia, and at the same time each year there are tens of thousands of university graduates for whom there are no jobs. Nobody has put five minutes' thought into structuring the labor market properly. So the other thing I'm getting interested in turning some of our training centres into trade schools. So all that gives a sense of everything going forward. My official job is to make sure communications with the English-speaking world are up to scratch. That includes application- and report-writing, and overseeing the creation of this new website - our window to the world. I look forward to a long future here. For once in my life I have no plans to be elsewhere.
I got involved Lom Orng in late 1996. I knew Sam [Oeurn Pok, now Lom Orng Director] before that - I'd met him in Pursat. He had worked for UNTAC, and was studying English. I was a watch repairer. I wasn't so busy in the afternoons, so I went there to learn English and typing.
When I met him again, Sam was working as David's translator at Lom Orng, and helping in admin work. Lom Orng had only been going for a year or so. It was only in Pursat then, not Phnom Penh. I asked him if he had a job for me. He gave me one as a security guard. I guarded the Lom Orng office through the night. Sometimes I got rotated to the VTC also. In the morning I watered the plants and cleaned the office, then left for work at my day job.
I was the security guard for two and a half years. In 1998 I was promoted to outreach officer. That involved recruiting trainees, and following them up after graduation. Later that year I became the outreach team leader.
In early 2004 I became the provincial co-ordinator for Pursat. I co-ordinated the trainings, expenditures, and so on. At the same time I co-ordinated the ACT anti-child trafficking project in Pursat. ACT was a partner of Terre des Hommes, which was a Lom Orng donor at that time. The job involved training villagers how to recognise traffickers, what the results of trafficking would be, how to prevent it, and so on.
All that lasted till 2007. That was when the Pursat project finished. After ten years we had trained all the province's war-disabled people - we'd run out of clients.
Sam asked me to come to Phnom Penh. I became his assistant. My responsibilities were finding support documents for proposals, and a lot of administrative work such as report writing. Actually most of my job is compiling reports.
It hasn't always just been administrative work. In 2000, Lom Orng had a food security project in Veal Veng - which at that time had only recently been re-taken from the Khmer Rouge. It was a scary place. The locals were always praying to Buddha that they wouldn't step on land mines, or be eaten by tigers - there were tigers around then.
We provided horticulture training and tools so people could get gardens started. I brought a truck full of watering cans to the main town. The road was very hot. The truck drove along this bumpy, muddy road - the wheels were very close to the edge of the road. We drove over a land mine. It was an old Soviet truck, so was shaking quite a bit already. It destroyed a tyre, but that was all. We had to stop and fix it.
Often the KR put anti-tank mines under the land mine - one causes the other to explode - but luckily that wasn't the case this time.
Now I work in Savannakhet, Laos, helping to run the Lom Orng vocational training centre here. I’ve learned Lao, but I miss my homeland a lot.
Starch factory general manager
I knew Sam in the 'Site 8' refugee camp in Thailand after the Pol Pot regime. That was in 1985, when we were both little boys. Life there wasn't too bad, because we were living under the control of the UN, and they provided us with accommodation, food, water, schooling and healthcare.
It was a small place - 50,000 people living within four square kilometers. If you tried to leave the camp for your private business, the Thai soldiers would arrest you - or shoot you in some cases.
We had a school there, to provide a Khmer education, plus a technical school provided by UNHCR: there was vocational training in electrician work, car and motorcycle repair, welding, operating a lathe. I learned electrical and auto repair. It was my first experience of vocational training.
I lived in the camp from 1985 to 1992 - Sam even longer. After everyone was repatriated back to Cambodia, I met up with Sam again in Pursat in 1998, when Lom Orng was announcing for staff there. I got a job as an office assistant, working with David. Then I became a book-keeper in our Kampong Thom training centre, with the project funded by Kadoorie, for about five years, till 2003.
Then Sam asked me to come to Phnom Penh, to help him in writing proposals, and to assist Buntheng [senior accountant] in preparing the financial reports. I was also a board member of Disadvantaged Cambodians Organisation [DCO], a Lom Orng partner that works in the really poor and remote parts of Pursat province.
Most of the time from from 2006 I’ve been the general manager of the SBM cassava starch factory in Battambang - supervising construction, machinery installation, and now managing the production line.
I enjoy development work because I gain experience year by year. For example I was sponsored by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency [JICA] to go to Okinawa for a 'people with disabilities' course.
The Japanese government legislates to help disabled people - for example providing welfare services for elderly persons, enabling parking spaces for disabled people, and making sure elevators and stairs are designed for their easy access. Blind people are taught massage, sent to university, and taught Braille. That taught me a lot. The Japanese government and private sector are also working together to give job opportunities to people with disabilities, depending on their type of disability. It's very different to Cambodia.
So this job has developed me a lot.
I like working with Sam, as he's an old friend since we were refugee kids together. Now we're working together to help others who are in the situation we were in.