The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
10 Teenagers, 10 Days, 30 Degrees Celsius

Students in the Cambodia Global Service Program group—led by High School teacher Kerry Venchus and Learning Technologies Coordinator Tim Venchus with support from High School teacher Hope Schlicht and Middle School teacher Camilla Perani—work closely with two NGOs dedicated to improving economic and educational conditions in Cambodia. The group partners with Tabitha Foundation Cambodia to help construct homes for Cambodian families while also supporting Tabitha’s family savings program. Students also work with Caring for Cambodia, whose goal is to secure a better, brighter future for children through education.

Each June, TASIS students volunteer in Tabitha communities in the Cambodian countryside and at local educational facilities in Siem Reap, assisting with the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. Bryan Soh ’18 penned an excellent article about this year’s emotional trip.

By Bryan Soh ’18

Cambodia: a Southeast Asian country stricken with poverty and torn apart by war and the most sickening social experiment in history. A victim of the Khmer Rouge’s perverted thoughts and the heartlessness of relentless carpet bombings during the Vietnam War. An exotic country, rich in culture and tradition, and an attraction for tourists all over the world, it is slowly rising from the ashes and rebuilding itself.

Switzerland: the heart of Europe, blessed with immense wealth and not directly involved in any war since the Treaty of Paris in 1815. The “capital of peace” and material prosperity, graced by its four main cultures in French, German, Italian, and Romansch. It is renowned for its safety and peace, and its standard of living.

So, what brings these two strikingly different worlds together? The answer is through the Global Service Program trip to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap this summer.

On the 7th of June, 10 TASIS students embarked on two flights totalling 15 hours, from Milan to Hong Kong and then to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. After a quick stop at the hotel, jetlagged and exhausted, we made a beeline for the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the S-21 torture camp. In one of the meetings earlier in the year, Mrs. V said that it would be “emotionally draining.” Despite the warnings given to us in class and while standing at the gates of the museum, nothing that was said could come close to describing the experience.

Horrifying. Downright shocking. Every picture, every room, every painting. Each was like a person plunging a knife deeper and deeper into my heart. Every pair of eyes that looked from the pictures stared into your soul and sent shudders throughout your body, as if you could feel their pain and agony being transmitted from a piece of paper, through time, and into your soul. The torture rooms, formally classrooms prior to the Khmer Rouge, radiated a haunting and eerie vibe, which I could not take any longer after a few rooms. Every step through the entire compound became more and more agonizing to take. Every photograph documenting a victim of the Khmer Rouge’s inhumane torture methods seemed to scream out, “Injustice!” “Vengeance!” It was a solemn ride back to the hotel.

Choeung Elk killing field

The next day, our visit to the Choeung Ek killing field outside Phnom Penh, where they brutally exterminated hundreds of thousands of people, turned out to be an equally, if not even more, traumatizing experience for me. A mass grave that held the bones of 50,000 victims, with missing heads. “The Killing Tree,” where babies were taken and whose heads were smashed against, killing them instantly in front of their mothers’ eyes. The fact that no one in the surrounding villages suspected a thing because eerie Khmer Rouge propaganda music was blasted from a loudspeaker to mask the screams and cries of people being slaughtered. The most traumatizing thing for me turned out to be noticing how huge the depressions in the ground were, and the unevenness of it due to gas being accumulated in the ground from rotting bodies over the years before being excavated, as well as the ragged pieces of clothing and bone along the pathway that appear from the ground when the dirt is washed away by rain. The picture of several pieces of torn clothing on a root sticking out vertically from the ground, with pieces of bone strewn around it at the very end of the designated pathway, resurfaces in my mind…

This was what we came for, to help a long-suffering people recover from a sickening event that ended barely over 30 years ago.

I know it sounds like a very depressing trip thus far, but it was not. These experiences were just crucial in making us understand, as much as possible, the context of Cambodian society and what has so crippled them that they are trying to recover from. This was what we came for, to help a long-suffering people recover from a sickening event that ended barely over 30 years ago.

By forming partnerships with organizations like Tabitha and Caring for Cambodia, we had the opportunity to see how different people are trying to aid this country in getting back on its feet. In the span of a mere six hours, we and some builders and villagers successfully finished building six houses for Tabitha-sponsored families in a village in Siem Reap. (By building, I mean nailing sheets of tin to the outside of the houses as walls and nailing planks of wood to the bottom of the house for the floor.) To see the heartfelt gratefulness in the villagers’ eyes as they said their blessings when we presented blankets as a token of our well-wishes for their new home was genuinely touching and made all the frustration of trying to nail the nails correctly worth it. It still amazes me at how not even half a day of my time can be used to build a home for a family that will last much longer and is much larger than their previous one. Seeing the smiles of the exhilarated children who rushed up the stairs and into the house warmed my heart and put a smile on my face too. Did I mention that children are my passion?

It still amazes me at how not even half a day of my time can be used to build a home for a family that will last much longer and is much larger than their previous one.

That’s exactly why working with the Caring for Cambodia schools was the most enjoyable part of the trip for me. At the Amelio school, I worked with two other students in teaching English to two classes, in which students were from grade three all the way to grade six. What struck me the most was their curiosity and enthusiasm in learning, especially when I asked them what their favorite classes were and almost all of them listed English as one of them. It seems that learning another language is such a valuable thing to them, while to most of us, learning a third, fourth, or even fifth language is a common thing that we take for granted. To most of them, learning English or Chinese is an essential tool that can mean an advantage in job opportunities, as knowing a lingua franca is valuable to employers these days, translating to a greater chance in supporting their families and themselves.

The kids were bundles of joy for me, and I looked forward to interacting with them everyday. Their giggles and laughs still resonate in my mind when I think of the classes, and the adorable ways in which they pronounced words and tried talking to me. We left by giving them cards that had our well-wishes for them, with “we love you” written on each of them. During our last class, I tried writing “I love you” in Khmer on each card for the kids in my group, and they giggled when they saw me write, commenting that I wrote them correctly. In my room, there is a card with “I love you” written in Khmer by one of the girls and her name by the side. It is these small precious acts that mean the world to me, and they touch the depths of my heart. These are the acts that drive me to want to do more service for these people. It is through these kids that I realize how much our actions mean to them, and how much they mean to me. Their small thank yous, high fives, giggles, and little questions are the things that showed us that our intention to serve them meant something to them.

In the afternoons at Siem Reap, we went to Bakong High School, where we helped paint wooden desks and chairs to make them more durable. A group of high school students from the school helped us in doing so while they tried practicing their English with us. Though my partner’s English was relatively limited, and even though he could not understand most of the questions I asked, I could tell that he was genuinely interested in knowing more about me despite the language barrier. As time went past, we got closer and closer to the high schoolers through conversations and a small game of soccer with them. The most interesting way through which we bonded were songs: when I put on songs like “See You Again” and “Shape of You,” we all sang along together.

It is through these kids that I realize how much our actions mean to them, and how much they mean to me.

Later in the week, we met our pen pals, with whom we exchanged letters prior to the trip. My pen pal was a girl, shy yet passionate—she barely started conversations, but when I did, she got excited to share about herself and asked questions in response to mine. When she found out that I spoke both English and Chinese, she got very interested and excited, as she was learning Chinese outside of school as well. We pointed out animals, objects, and even actions like running and walking, and I named them in Chinese and English while she named them in Khmer. Whenever she did not understand my questions, I went back to talking about her Chinese classes or ask her what something was in Chinese, and it rekindled the spark in her eyes and enthusiasm in her speech, albeit in broken English. Though she seemed reserved at first glance, her care and concern were expressed in the purest ways. While walking along a road during the Village Ramble, a car was approaching us from the back and she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side. During our walk through Ta Prohm Temple, she was constantly looking out for me, saying my name and pointing in certain directions to indicate where I should go. At the end of it all, what struck me the most was when I noticed how she did not seem to talk much to any of the other Cambodian students. She seemed much more comfortable and interested in talking to me and walking with me, even though we definitely felt more comfortable when we were able to include our schoolmates in the conversations with the Cambodians.

When she asked for my email before leaving, I realized that she felt like she had made a friend whom she genuinely felt comfortable with. In a short span of no more than two days, we formed such meaningful relationships with teenagers on the other side of the world, bonding despite our many differences.

Most of all, this trip further fueled my inner desire to serve people all over the world who do not have access to the privileges that we take for granted most of the time.

What this trip taught me was, most importantly, the nature of service. It taught me about the continuous nature of service, of how it is impossible to feel completely satisfied with one’s service to others. Most of all, this trip further fueled my inner desire to serve people all over the world who do not have access to the privileges that we take for granted most of the time. By seeing all the small acts of gratitude and love that we received just from extremely—at least to me—insignificant acts of service, I felt that I received more from this trip than the communities we served. Not only has it instilled in me a positive dissatisfaction in the amount of service given to people around me, it has also shown me the potential that people possess in overcoming obstacles together, in love and unity.

The living and breathing miracle of Cambodia, which has slowly gotten back on its feet to establish its position in Southeast Asia again despite all the horrors and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge that so acutely crippled the nation, showed me how through its’ citizens own sheer willpower and the willingness of others to aid them in doing so (perfectly manifested in Tabitha and Caring for Cambodia, where foreigners and locals work hand-in-hand to benefit the local community), love has the strength to overcome anything. With all of its history behind it, be it in the form of its magnificent temples such as Angkor Wat or Ta Phrom, or its genocide museums and killing fields, I believe that they are all a driving force for Cambodians to face the future in a positive light, to tackle anything in their way and rebuild themselves.

And to Cambodia, for opening our eyes, for all its beauty—both in its people and historic architecture—and for hosting us: Akun.1

“Thank You” in Khmer.

TASIS Opsahl Global Service Program

The Opsahl Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, make this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.

The Opsahl Global Service Program, which has been directed by Zach Mulert since its inception, transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.

See a gallery of photos from this year's June trips to Romania, Cambodia, and Mongolia.

Recent Posts