Friday, December 9, 2016

Vanek’s journey from poverty to empowerment

By Chansereypich Seng and Daniel Calderbank

Vanek is pictured (second from left) with his with family in 1988 in front of the Preynob
Pagoda in
Sihanoukville province. (Photo provided by Vanek Lem)

Seventy years ago, UNICEF was founded to meet the desperate needs of children whose lives had been torn apart by World War II.

UNICEF started working in Cambodia in 1952 and established its first country office in 1973 at the height of the country’s civil war but had to cease operations in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power. 

After the fall of this regime in 1979, we returned to provide emergency assistance and address critical health, sanitation and aid distribution challenges. 

Today, UNICEF Cambodia has a wider focus on the realization of children’s rights through cooperation with the government, NGOs, communities and development partners. 

To celebrate our global 70th anniversary, we have compiled inspirational stories that focus on Cambodians who have been assisted by UNICEF to overcome personal hardship and become role models for others.  

The Story of Vanek Lem

One such individual is thirty-three year-old Vanek Lem, a once impoverished child whose life took a turn for the better when he received an education facilitated by UNICEF in the aftermath of the civil war.

Vanek has since gone on to become the National Director of Vision Trust Cambodia, a non-profit, faith-based organization that works to improve the lives of disadvantaged children worldwide. 

His early life in the southern region of Vietnam was tough. Born in 1984, in the transitional years after the Cambodian Civil War, Vanek and his family underwent an arduous sea crossing to Phnom Penh to seek a better life.

Because his father is of Cambodian-Vietnamese descent, the family were sometimes perceived as Vietnamese and suffered discrimination. Therefore, they relocated to a remote village in Kampot province called Prolay Toteung. 

At first, this was a hollow sanctuary; the family were without a clean water source and they had to travel by boat every week to get drinking water to survive. There was also no school for Vanek and his sisters. 

After about four months, Vanek recalls, UNICEF staff came to the village with two temporary teachers. They started construction of a school and supplied some basic materials such as pencils and books.

Vanek says: “I did not know what UNICEF is, but I got the overall picture by its logo. A warm mother embracing her child. That’s meaningful, I thought.”


Mr. Vanek Lem
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Chansereypich Seng

This small intervention offered some respite from a harsh environment.

“As a child who had not received any education and who lived in an impoverished rural area, school and teachers were special gifts so I was exceptionally thankful to UNICEF,” Vanek says.

“Our family was so poor that my parents had to go to sea to earn a living. Thus, I did not get enough support and care from them. 

“Also sometimes, wild animals ran in front of the house and the local children were very afraid. Sometimes, there were Khmer Rouge [cadres] around the village. People were scared of them and had to run and hide. They normally stole our property even if it was just an old radio.”

Because of these unfavourable living conditions, the family moved back to the capital after just one year in Prolay Toteung.

Vanek thrived in the classroom in Phnom Penh and he eventually went onto to complete a bachelor’s degree in English literature at The University of Cambodia and a subsequent MA in public administration.

Equipped with a solid education, Vanek worked for over ten years with local and international NGOs in Cambodia in the fields of education, human rights, and development and this led to his current position with Vision Trust.

With his academic training and close personal experience of poverty, Vanek is in a very strong position to understand the plight of those less fortunate and give back to disadvantaged children in Cambodia.

He says: “I can say that whenever I go into a village, I know the feeling of the children I meet because I was once one of them. The seed to help has now become a big tree and a tree that provides a shadow for poor children.

“Many of these children have been abandoned, orphaned and neglected because of poverty and injustice. It is Vision Trust’s desire to change this and see that they have a brighter future.

Regarding UNICEF’s 70th anniversary, Vanek says: “I would like to extend my sincere appreciation for what UNICEF has done – not just for me but for other children across the globe. 

“In addition, I would like to encourage other organizations to work together to foster children’s livelihoods so they can reach their fullest potential.

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