Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Dangers of Volunteering in Cambodia

Photo credit: Royal Dutch Shell scam
Can volunteer scams get any worse than this? A day after I wrote about the bad experiences of travellers who come to this country to help Cambodians, another young woman told me about her encounters.

This young lady has been working 14 hours a day helping this orphanage, run by a Cambodian man, whose entire family lives at the orphanage. The first time we met she gushed about the orphanage. I was sceptical, and asked her if she knew the orphanage was legit, but she seemed so sure. She said the main reason she was impressed was that the kids looked well-fed and happy.

Less than 2 weeks later, she found out the truth. The first thing that happened was money was stolen out of her bag which she had left in the staff room. Later, on the very same day, she was asked if she would like a locker to keep her bag. She took the locker and the next day, more money went missing--someone had broken into the locker and stolen her cash. She was basically set up by the thief.

Things came to a head when she was asked to sign up for a full-time volunteer position, because she is so damn good at promoting the orphanage. She gives speeches to visitors who come watch the children at the orphanage perform their dance routine every single night of the week. You can imagine the impact of having a Westerner give a nightly testimonial to foreign visitors--one guy donated 1,000 euros on the spot. [I hesitate to write this because I know it will encourage some people to start orphanages or NGOs of their own because it is such easy pickings.]

She said she'd be happy to work there for free on a longer-term basis, but would like to mention a couple of things. One is that she would like for the children to perform only 3 times a week, instead of nightly. This is because the kids are exhausted and they have to practice every single day and they end up falling asleep during their English lessons with her. [Honestly, how are such orphanage managers who make the orphans perform every single night for their supper different from parents who force their children to sell books or beg on the streets for money, leaving them with little time and energy for school?]

The other thing she mentioned was the missing money. She did not realise at the time the management by now had decided she was trouble and had to go.

When she checked her email account from the office computer one day, a staff member told her a child was crying for her and she had to go immediately to see what was wrong with the child. She left the computer and rushed to the child.

When she returned, she found the computer was now password-protected and she could not get back in. The staff refused to give her access to the computer, saying while she was away with the child, an Irish donor had called up asking them to password protect their PCs. So now, the orphanage had access to her email account, which she had left open when she left to attend the child. Presumably, they were trying to see if she had alerted anyone of her suspicions, and possibly to use such "incriminating" emails as evidence that she should be kicked out. Fortunately, this young lady has always only said good things about the place in her emails to friends and family.

The next thing she knew, she heard from another volunteer. The management had told some other Western volunteers that this young woman had stolen money from the orphanage and had been bad-mouthing the place. They said they were going to call the police and have her deported from Cambodia.

Imagine how upsetting and scary this is for a foreigner and first time visitor to this country. I am furious, furious! with these bastards. These young people, all in their twenties, come here full of hope and idealism and want to help people less fortunate than themselves, only to get intimidated and threatened and cheated out of their savings. Imagine the impact it has on these people. I would not be surprised if many of them decide to screw it and never help another less fortunate person again.


Anonymous said...

It's so funny you mention that because a friend of mine just posted a link to a video about orphanage scams. You can see it here:

Diana Saw said...

Thanks for that Alison! You have the best information! On my part I will continue to update readers on the scams I hear.


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