Weh Yeoh holding up a sign

Why I quit my dream job to start OIC in Cambodia

Aug 3, 2015

Two years ago, I made a decision that would change my life. After working in what I had thought would be my dream job, I found myself at a crossroads in Cambodia. I had just discovered arguably the biggest gap in basic health care services in Cambodia. I could have stayed to address it or walk away. I decided to stay, and in time, OIC Cambodia was born.

Prior to arriving in Cambodia in 2012, I worked in China with a large international organisation. It was a huge learning experience with many challenges, but also many benefits. In many ways, it was my dream job. The organisation flew me from Australia to China, organised my insurance and accommodation, and paid me relatively well, particular given local cost of living.

As a foreigner, I was treated with a huge amount of undeserved respect and admiration. On one occasion, a government official introduced me as “one of the best and brightest physiotherapists in the whole world.” I hadn’t practiced physiotherapy for almost a decade at the time. I felt like a fraud.

I had arrived in China during the last year of a five-year program where the plans and budgets had already been determined. Yet, the situation had changed and much of the work we did seemed ineffective. I was constantly asking myself: “what am I doing here?”. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I had an answer.

After leaving China, I came to Cambodia and began working with a local organisation, CABDICO, who send staff to villages outside of town, to work with children with disabilities. The staff often spend hours riding motorbikes on dusty roads, through villages where there are no hospitals or health centres, to visit these children. Coming from my experience working with an international organisation in China, with all the perks associated with it, I was thrown into the deep end working with these local staff. I went from having a driver chauffeur me around in an all-terrain vehicle, to riding on the back of motorbikes with my colleagues.

And yet, I saw some of the best work I had ever seen, colleagues who really understand from a holistic point of view what a child with a disability needs. But compared to China, there was huge lack of resources.

At the end of my first year, one of my colleagues at CABDICO, Phearom, told me that 70% of the children they saw needed speech therapy, and yet they didn’t have the skills to provide this service. This surprised me, because having worked as a physiotherapist in Australia I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to treat people without the basic knowledge to do my job.

After a few months of research, I discovered that CABDICO were not alone. There was not one single Cambodian speech therapist in the entire country. This meant that hundreds and thousands of people were unable to access schools and jobs or interact with their communities due to communication disabilities. It also meant that for those with swallowing disorders, such as people who had suffered stroke or brain injury, they were unable to access life-saving care through speech therapy.

If Cambodia were to have the same number of speech therapists as the United States, adjusted for population, there would be over 6,000 professionals able to deal with this population. It shocked me that there was not one. I realised that the system of foreign aid, the very system that I was a part of when I lived in China had left a huge issue unaddressed.

I spent months talking to local people, discussing strategy with others, trying to understand the situation, and slowly things started to change. In 2014, I worked with CABDICO to start the first pilot program in speech therapy in Cambodia. We wanted to show that there was a model of speech therapy that could work in Cambodia, and then take this model to decision makers, those who could create meaningful change on a larger scale, to do something.

Bit by bit, the team grew. From what started with one person, we now have 39 dedicated professionals working and volunteering to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia.

As we grow, I have continued to ask myself the same question I asked in China –  what am I doing here? How is it possible that one person, and now 39 people, can establish an entirely new profession in Cambodia? Why do I believe this is the biggest gap in terms of basic health services in this country? Why is it worth fighting for?

There are so many questions worth asking, and so much to learn. At OIC, we are also fundamentally committed to transparency. Our supporters and partners have a right to know where we have spent our money, and where we are planning to spend it moving forward.

In the past two years, there have been ups, and more than a fair share of downs too, moments where we’ve been challenged. Mistakes made and lessons learnt. I’ve been close to giving up on more than one occasion. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

And so, two years after the mission to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia began, I will answer any question for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). In the true spirit of an AMA, there is no question that is off limits. Want to know how we spend our money? Want to know what my biggest regret has been? Want to know what I think of Zayn leaving One Direction? Don’t be afraid to ask.

I’ll do this AMA on 13th August from 7am – 4pm Bangkok time. To participate, go to https://www.reddit.com/r/AMA/, login or sign up for free and type in WehYeohOIC in the search bar to find my Reddit (See this guide). Ask me anything you like.

First published in WhyDev.