Snapshot: Beate and Willem, a Cambodian education

Snapshot: Beate and Willem, a Cambodian education
By Erica Bartle

Beate van de Waal, 32, is the sort of lady who makes Katniss from The Hunger Games almost look like a wimp. When I first meet her, I am intimidated, her piercing blue eyes seemingly penetrating through to my soul. 

Soon enough, I get the idea that she would take a bullet for the girls she is here to protect and educate – she is not one to tolerate dilly-dallying fools. I crouch down in the dirt and pick up rocks from the school ground to earn her respect. She sits me in a corner with a girl of 15, maybe 16, who teaches me basic Khmer, counting to 60. "If you want to be here, you must learn," she says. I do as I am told. 

By the time we part company, we are friends. There is understanding: somewhere at the intersection between Australian, Cambodian and Dutch culture, we meet. Our Christianity gives us a basis, but so too does our feminism, our love for vulnerable young girls forgotten by the world and our hunger for joy amidst the turmoil.

"I thought this line of work would make me a more serious person, a 'carrying the weight' kind of thing," she tells me, reflecting on her work in post-trauma rehabilitation for girls liberated from the sex trafficking trade.

"But instead I feel the need for joy! Laughing! Dancing! Freedom in that way. We are created to live in that freedom. To be, to feel. I think I didn't get that before. But ultimately that is what we want for the girls, right? Not 'only' physical safety, mental recovery, but the freedom to experience joy. Free from whatever ties girls down."

This is her passion, her everything – bridging the gap between what we Westerners see and how we want things to be, within the context of a very unique country. She brings clarity and liberty to my thinking as I page through her impressive final-year university paper, which canvasses the particular and peculiar role of the "housemother" in Cambodian-based rehabilitation services set up by NGOs. What she is doing here, I believe, is heroic. But she doesn't see it so.

"I love that I can do this work here, and I really feel now more drawn to this kind of work. But I think that, really you don’t have to be a pastor or live in a developing country, to have these valuable interactions," she says. "I think it is significant that we see people and that we reach out to people wherever we are. Maybe it could look more impressive in a situation like this, but it is not less meaningful if it is in another situation."

For Beate and her husband, Willem, who is 35, learning to navigate the cultural nuances of their respective fields of work within a Cambodian context has been an education in itself. After Pol Pot's regime (1975-79) was driven from power, the educational system had to be just about built from the bottom up, like so many other aspects of Cambodian life, only under a heavy burden: lost were some of the most talented and industrious people and in their place a pervading legacy: a social, economic and spiritual poverty. 

The advances made in literacy and numeracy were undercut by the Khmer Rouge as schools were closed, three quarters of the teaching population disappeared (some sources say up to 90 per cent of teachers were killed). Today, 50 per cent of the population of Cambodia is aged under 20, and there is much ground to make up. The system is riddled with inequalities, but NGOs in partnership with government are making ground. Slowly. Westerners don't take to slow change well.

"I think the whole education system will take generations for things to change," says Beate. "I love that my husband is in educational development and I am in after-care. Willem is helping people to develop their own thoughts, to make their own decisions, to activate that more… I love that combination because ultimately society has to change. It’s the whole system."

State schools are under-resourced, "chalk and talk" teaching predominates, and teachers are paid poorly, which has had the unfortunate effect of pushing some teachers accept cash in exchange for after-school tuition (which is not compulsory, but puts those who do not take it at a disadvantage). Fluffing up grades is an ethical boundary many are prepared to cross. Such practises are entrenched.

International schools, such as the one Willem taught at for a time, are encouraging skilled teachers to go private, which unfortunately draws away the more talented ones from the public school system, while also widening the education gap between the rich and the poor. Just 2.1 per cent of Cambodian GDP is spent on education. School dropout and retention is a major problem, and the rural poor are the most vulnerable.

And, for the girls, it's more so.

The thieves that come in to snatch them from under their families promising respectable jobs in the cities, the unscrupulous "halfway" men and women who sell them onto brothels for sexual tourism, the perpetrators of sexual misconduct in their own communities who have no understanding of a girl's value and operate according to mythology that suggests virgin sex will make them rich and strong... all these people, combined with the girls' lack of knowledge, leave them exposed to a host of issues. And by the time the NGOs get to them, it's often too late. 

"When I interact with the girls, they are in a safe place, we provide care and there is a bit of hope. But every piece of shit has already happened to them," says Beate. "And it happens over and over again. It's not so much the individual stories, it's the constant flow of new girls, new girls, new girls... There is no stop to it. That part can feel overwhelming. But I have experienced that if I stop trusting God in this, that means I let go of my hope. And I need that, because this stuff can wear me out. That doesn't make me a hallelujah person. It doesn't make me... it comes from the struggle, it doesn't come from the victory. I'm looking for how to see God in that and trust him in that and follow Him in that."

When I meet Beate, who studied a Bachelor of Theology – Religion and Society, for the first time, she is teaching a class of Cambodian girls aged five to 16 in blue school skirts and white blouses who are all in an "after-care" facility. Being educated at the small school as part of their rehabilitation. Beate is here by virtue of her studies, connections, expertise and fluency in Khmer, the local language, as well as English. She is in it for the long haul. This is her passion.

Born in Ghana, Africa, Beate has lived in Cambodia for four years with Willem and has worked as a volunteer for 12 years. She experienced a debilitating sickness in her teens, which saw her miss vast amounts of school, after already grappling with dyslexia. "I was never top of the class, I was always trying to manage, so until I was 12 I was pretty insecure," she says.

She was 14 when she got sick and eventually stopped studying, instead using what energy she had to babysit her neighbour's children. "That was very important to me at that time, to feel that I had something to give, to feel like me being present was valuable there and to build the relationship with the two young boys," she says.

Her natural affinity for young people blossomed into a pastoral care role at her church, leading youth groups, Bible schools, summer camps and other activities. In her interactions with youth, she found she had a natural rapport and ability to draw people out of themselves to create breakthroughs in their thinkings. "I learned that people usually trust me pretty easily and are soon comfortable sharing their stories with me," she says.

She was still studying when she married Willem. The couple moved to Cambodia shortly afterward and she worked in a vocational training centre for a year and learnt about human trafficking issues.A door opened and she took on an internship with an assessment centre that takes in girls and children straight after they have suffered abuse and run away or have been rescued. 

"I wasn't sure if I would be good at it, I wasn't sure if I could handle those stories, but it was my internship and I wanted to give it a go," she says. "We need to protect them from outside threats and sometimes against themselves - their own negative thoughts and actions. They saw the need for a place that could give a lot of attention and provide the needs assessment from the family history of the girl and the situation of abuse, to then start the prosecution and recovery process."

It was at the assessment centre that Beate identified a need for further support for the "housemothers" who look after the girls in residential homes. She embarked on a study of the situation, embedding herself in the system, with the housemothers, and the work – of communicating to NGOs and others how the housemothers operate, and what will work best – has become her mission. 

The main challenges she has faced are cultural, as she identified in her study, the precedent Cambodians set on social cohesion and acceptance above individual welfare is crucial. 

"What I see in this culture, what is really valued here, is that you know how to behave socially. And that once you know how to behave socially, people will give you respect. And when you get respect, that’s when you gain confidence, and when you are confident that’s how you can be happy," says Beate.

"So where we Western caregivers often start with the happiness and the confidence and the self-respect and then the social interaction, the housemothers actually take it the other way around. In Cambodia, people address the behaviour first. They tell girls, 'Don't be angry' or 'Don't wet the bed'. They truly want to help the girls, and because they want to help the girls, they take it from this social angle. And if you don't understand that, you could easily say they don't care or they're too hard but I see their hearts. The local housemothers want to help these girls and this is the road they take, and I've seen it work. We need to align with them and work within their system."

If a girl is violated through sexual abuse, it is significant in Cambodia that she has lost her value as a woman, and is often blamed or rejected for that abuse or told she should have defended herself. In essence, the housemothers are required to go against their culture in caring for the girls.

"The housemothers accept that this is this girl’s problem and I make it my problem because I care," says Beate. "Your honour and respect are very important in this country, so if you lose that, you have less value as a human being. The rejection of society, the rejection of the social group in Cambodia, which is so harmful to a girl... if housemothers receive and value her, they're doing a counter to what society is doing."

As soon as Beate enters the school gates and at break time (school runs from 7am to 11am and 2pm to 5pm), the girls flock around her, touching her hair, taking her hand and looking into her eyes to garner her attention. She is sparing with her affections, but not without reason. It is her duty to respect the role of the housemothers who oversee the running of the girls' homes.  

"These girls we’re working with have a lot of needs," she says. "The risk is that you step up or interfere or that you provide care for this one girl, because you see the need and want to respond to that. But if I do that, I cannot see what the housemother is doing generally – I’m not there every day, the housemothers are there every day. I work with the housemothers, alongside, and provide training depending on the situations of that week, like behaviour management, positive attention giving."

The vision for the girls' time in the after-care facility is that they will gain ground with their education, which they may or may not continue when they are reintegrated into their villages, or gain a vocational skill which will hopefully lead to employment. While they are here, in school and under supervision, they are able to gain back confidence. But on top of the disadvantages working against these girls in Cambodia, such as poverty, is the Chbap Srey, the traditional code of conduct, which tells a girl to keep her mouth shut and not share her problems with other people.

"There is one thing you can’t teach people and that’s compassion. You cannot teach people to care," she says. "You can teach people in the way they provide care, but if they don’t have the heart for these girls, that’s not something you can train somebody on. If I look at the care that housemothers provided I would think, ‘I know you have compassion, I know you truly care, but I do not understand why you interact with a girl this way or why you care this way or why you’re not responding to a situation.’ That has sometimes been very frustrating to me. Because I see the needs of the girls." 
But, says Beate, there are "golden moments" she holds onto where she has a breakthrough with one of the girls, such as the one who didn't talk or interact with anyone for three weeks who took two pieces of paper and placed them together on the floor.

"I ran to the closet, took out the tape, handed her the tape and she sticks the paper together, and then her hand comes to ask for another piece, so I'm just standing there handing her bits of tape. I run to the closet again and get more paper in different colours and cut them into pieces so she can keep sticking them together. I value those moments so much. I have no delusion that it is the healing, but it is the start of the healing. I want to draw out every girl who's been in the dark. My focus is not on spreading the Gospel, as in talking about Jesus, but to interact with the girls and show them there is light. And I do that based on my faith in God. I see His hand in that."

Recently Beate competed in a 10k run, she socialises regularly with the Western crew on the ground here, and she and Willem go exploring on their moto as often as they can. She says the experience has been wonderful for her marriage, but still sees the need to look for other people to interact with and also for joy. Forming friendships can also be a challenge, with many volunteers staying only temporarily or for stints of one to two years.

By August next year, only two of the eight people she hangs out with will still be in Cambodia. But the couple will soon visit their home country, which is like a foreign land for the expatriates. Sharing her story with friends and family and her church can be a challenge.

"A friend described it as, 'When I'm back in the West, Cambodian life feels like a dream, but when I'm back in Cambodia, the West feels like that'," she says. "The worlds are too separated. Where do you start? But even for me 'the other world' feels far away at times, I can't blame people in Western society, back home, for not understanding."

Girl With a Satchel