Cambodia trip an eye-opener (December 28, 2011)

Written by Megan Sarrazin

Published by Westlock News on Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It wasn't exactly what she wanted - in fact, it was what she initially was trying to avoid - but when local nurse Justine Friesen was asked to board a plane and head to Cambodia to assist with health initiatives, she jumped at the chance.

She arrived back on Canadian soil Dec. 14 after spending two jam-packed weeks in Cambodia with Christian charity Samaritan's Purse, doing all sorts of things from helping with health clinics, building water filtration systems and even working in a rice field.

"You go over there and you feel very overwhelmed and very helpless because there's so little that can be done in just two weeks," she said. "Two weeks is nothing."

Despite having just a short amount of time in the country, she said that she feels it was a worthwhile trip that pushed her out of her comfort zone and really opened her eyes.

"You can't go and come back unchanged," she said. "It's something you can't close your eyes to. Well, some people may be able to, but I can't."

Originally, Friesen said she was hoping to get involved with the Slave Lake fire, providing relief on a local level because she really didn't want to travel abroad.

She said that for whatever reason this didn't work out and the next opportunity was to travel to Haiti. By the time she submitted her application, the project was already full, at which time she was notified of an upcoming project in Cambodia.

"My kids told me, 'Mom, don't go. Just send your money,'" she said. "It's very easy to send money but it's not easy to go."

Despite doing two prior trips to Guinea, in western Africa, she said this experience was totally different.

"It's a different country and a different setting," she said. "The other times when I went, I went with my church group and now, I went with total strangers."

Arriving in Cambodia, she was a little uncertain as to what to expect.

For the duration of the trip, she stayed in a net tent and slept on the floor - something she said was definitely not ideal.

The 14 days were filled with a variety of responsibilities, including holding a medical clinic, which she said attracted people from as far as 100 kilometres away who walked as much as three days to seek treatment.

She said Cambodians respect the elderly much more in their society, meaning an elderly person, regardless of ailment, would be the first priority for treatment. Buddhist monks, however, would receive treatment before anyone else - something Friesen said was very upsetting.

Another sore spot for her was when the clinic had to turn people away at the end of the day. She said it made her feel like crying to not be able to help everyone.

During her trip, her group also traveled to three separate organizations that rescued children from the sex trade - something Friesen said was one of the hardest things to witness.

"The parents will sell their children sometimes because they have no way of making money and one of the big problems I have is that North American and European men go there to abuse children," she said.

Upon arriving home and sharing this story with family and friends, she now urges them to lobby the government to put something in place to prosecute these individuals.

One aspect of the trip that Friesen said was most rewarding was assisting Cambodians with building water filtration systems that would transform the usual brown, stagnant pools of water into a clear, drinkable resource.

"We helped build those things from scratch. Carrying the rocks, carrying the sand, washing the sand and building the mould - we were right involved physically with that," she said.

Upon arriving back in Canada, she said she received feedback from some of the workers who said having them help out in Cambodia boosted their spirits and encouraged them to keep doing what they are doing.

Friesen said this was one of the most valuable experiences she took home with her.

"What I really loved is it doesn't matter where you fit in the social strata, if you are going to get a water filtration system, you have to donate on whole day of work to building them," she said. "It doesn't matter how rich you are or how poor, you have to work side by side which I love."

Although Friesen said she likely won't do another aid trip in her lifetime, she said it is a worthwhile adventure she would recommend in a heartbeat.

.