Jul 1, 2015
“So, where is she?”
The OIC team were standing at a pig farm in the remote Cambodian countryside. We had travelled for hours to meet a 12 year old girl, to hear her story, and now it seemed that she wasn’t around. I was worried. Where was she? Had something happened to her? Little did I know that she was not home for a very good reason.
Because of her communication disability, Srey Ran’s parents believed that school would be too big a challenge for her, so she usually stayed on the farm to help her family.
She was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that hinders her speaking and language skills. Her disability worker, Chhean, had received training in basic speech therapy during OIC’s pilot project. OIC had trained 19 disability workers who treated 100 children with communication and swallowing disabilities , working with them regularly over the year.
Often these children don’t get the opportunity to go to school, and are left behind at home. Because Srey Ran’s disability makes her look different, because her ability to express herself is impaired, getting a child like Srey Ran to participate in the community is difficult. It’s not as simple as handing her a backpack or new bicycle.
“She is not here.” Chhean told us and turned to Srey Ran’s mother. “Where is she?” Chhean asked. Srey Ran’s father, who had been tending to the noisy piglets on their farm, paused and turned around for a moment. The midday sun seared down on us.
Why wasn’t she at home today?
Her mother’s eyes crinkled and she smiled shyly.
“She’s at school.”
Chhean’s hand went to her chest and she smiled. She turned to us to translate, “Srey Ran is at school!”
It took a moment to realise what this meant. A few months of basic speech therapy had improved her confidence, helping her speech become clearer and more controlled. Her progress had given her parents hope. They started to trust that their daughter could participate and receive an education.
Srey Ran’s delayed and sometimes incoherent speech had made it difficult for her to keep up with other children her age. When she had needed to ask a question, she often resorted to scratching it in the dirt. She would play alone at the farm, silently exploring her surroundings while the other children attended school.
It amazed me how much Srey Ran’s life had changed with only a few months of basic speech therapy. After years of isolation, today she was learning alongside her peers.
If we could do this for Srey Ran, imagine what would be possible for all the other unseen and unheard children in Cambodia?
Chhean hugged Srey Ran’s mother. I understood that being a part of OIC meant being a part of something very meaningful for her daughter. “She likes to talk” her mother giggled. How wonderful that her family and friends could now understand her better. We had arrived so excited to meet Srey Ran, but we left delighted that she was not at home.
We took a photograph to celebrate the news and prepared to get back on the road. “Speech therapy should have come here six or seven years ago when I first started work”, Chhean mused as she climbed onto her scooter. “Why has it just arrived now?”
As long as there is not one single Cambodian university-trained speech therapist, thousands of children like Srey Ran continue to struggle with communication disabilities. OIC’s ultimate goal is to establish a speech therapy program at a local university, providing Cambodians like Chhean with the tools to help others like Srey Ran. With the help of our supporters, we are making progress every day. It’s not too late to establish speech therapy in Cambodia, but why should those who need it wait any longer?
by Emma Blint