by Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
Ta Pen is the latest project by the Geneva-based Don du Choeur association, which since 2002 has been organising concerts every two or three years bringing together some 350 children from local private schools to raise money for deprived children around the world.
The tiny Cambodian village is situated some 45 kilometres from the famous Angkor Wat temples, which attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. Yet the 150 families from Ta Pen live in a totally different world, growing rice and raising cattle while earning $1 a day selling thatched roofing to traders on motorbikes who regularly pass by.
“There are lots of women with five to seven kids who have been abandoned by their husbands. Around 95 per cent are illiterate and almost all of the kids have never had any schooling,” said Lo, adding that some of the children suffer from malnutrition.
In May 2009 the Geneva charity, along with 13 private French- and English-speaking schools, organised a concert at the prestigious Victoria Hall to raise funds for Ta Pen. The result: over SFr125,000 donated and 17 months later, a brand-new school building, equipped with toilets, showers, a community hall, canteen and a dormitory for the teachers.
The project, which aims to lay the foundations of a solid primary education for children aged 6 to 14, was identified, developed and brought to completion by Lo, who had returned to his native country after over 20 years in Geneva.
The former Cambodian refugee arrived in Switzerland in 1980 with his wife and two children after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. For three years they stayed with a family in Geneva’s wealthy Cologny district, his children went to a local international school and he found a job at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in Geneva.
“I eventually retired in 2005 but I wanted to be useful to Cambodia and it was a great chance meeting the people from Don du Choeur in 2009,” he noted.
The singers came from 13 private French- and English-speaking schools. (don-du-coeur.ch)
The association had heard that Lo was moving back to Cambodia and he was the ideal person to implement the project.
“I trained as an archaeologist but I have an idea about architecture, as I built my own home in Cambodia from A-Z,” he explained.
Over a 12-month period, Lo stayed four or five days a week at a local farmer’s house to oversee the building work, dealing with land-grabbing issues and trucks blocked by the rains, purchasing materials and chivvying along workers, most of whom were local women.
On October 1, 2010 some 250 local children kitted out in pristine white shirts and black shorts and skirts gathered for their first ever day at school.
“The schoolyard was full as we handed out the uniforms. Everyone was really delighted,” said Lo.
“It’s very gratifying, as I feel I’ve accomplished my work and offered an education to these children who have quite frankly been living in obscurity.”
Ta Pen is the fifth project by Don du Choeur since 2002, following concerts for children’s initiatives in Africa, Switzerland, Russia and India.
The association was formed after a group of five private school teachers from Geneva got together to create concerts with students to raise money and interest about children living in other parts of the world.
It now comprises a small committee and a dozen volunteers who put on the concerts with around a dozen schools from the Association of Geneva Private Schools.
“It takes around a year and a half to organise a concert with about 350-400 kids and five or six teachers,” explained the president, Isabelle Chatel.
The three most recent Geneva concerts, which sell around 2,500 tickets, and related fundraising events brought in over SFr1.5 million for educational and health projects in Russia, India and Cambodia.
Some SFr480,000 went towards improving the lives and education of children living at the Tambov orphanage, 500km southeast of Moscow, in a humid region where temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius.
Many of the 160 orphans were suffering from pulmonary illnesses as the orphanage was not heated, windows were broken and the roof was damaged.
“Their lives have since completely changed,” said Chatel. “The state has agreed to look after the children to make sure they complete their education up to the age of 18.
“Before they left school at 16 and as there were no formal structures 60 per cent ended up in prison. For three years not one has ended up there, and all have jobs.”
The orphanage has now been taken over by Russian donors and is sponsored by a private company so it can survive on its own, added the former pharmacist.
In 2007 the new Anbumalar School near Chennai in southern India, funded by Don du Choeur, officially opened its doors to 63 mentally handicapped children. Today some 75 children attend the school.
“The kids used to be chained to posts in the streets by their parents as there were no specialised places to leave them while they went to work,” said Chatel.
The school is now part of the local scene, with a medical dispensary and several local businesses. And from the beginning of the 2012 school year, the school will be entirely funded by the Indian government.
Don du Choeur is meanwhile already planning its next concert in Geneva in 2012, which should go towards an educational project in either Africa or Haiti.