Three things I learned on my NU-Q Service Learning Trip to Cambodia
By Ifath Arwah Sayed
My attraction to volunteering began when I joined Northwestern University in Qatar’s (NU-Q’s) journalism program. Having to read, learn, analyze, and discuss the various injustices around the world troubled me. I began to realize that as much as it appeases my guilt to go off on a frustrated tirade on social media, I wasn’t doing anything productive for anyone, not even myself.
To remedy this, I started off small: helping out at a lunch, advising incoming students, and starting online fundraisers. This spring break, I got the opportunity to travel to Cambodia with fellow NU-Q students, as part of a Service Learning Trip. We stayed in the capital city of Phnom Penh and helped build a house for members of the local community with Habitat for Humanity, an international NGO that focuses on providing shelter to underprivileged people in various countries around the world. Here are the three things I learned from the experience.
1. To truly appreciate a country, you need to get a taste of its history, culture, and traditions
Before we left on the trip, I conducted some research on all the fun things I could see and explore in Phnom Penh. I found outdoor markets, scenic spots, monuments, and restaurants that I could visit, and I thought I was set to discover Phnom Penh for all it is. That was until on one of the days of our trip, our advisor took us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields. I truly discovered Cambodia in these two places.
As I walked through the corridors and the open fields, listening to an audio recorder that documented the lives of the 3 million Cambodians who were brutally murdered under the Khmer Rouge communist regime in the 1950s, I realized that Cambodia was not just about beautiful architecture, bargain-priced goodies, or Khmer cuisine. The city I was now in was built upon the immense struggle and pain of a people that refused to give up despite the odds. I learned to respect Cambodians for their courage, strength, and perseverance; to detect meaning in their culture; and to truly appreciate the country’s growth and development after such horrifying times.
I realized that I didn’t need to strike off all the tourist spots from my list or get a bunch of souvenirs to feel like I had come to Phnom Penh; I could just explore the city through its highway traffic, tiny lanes, snug stores, and by engaging with its people.
2. Embrace experiences that push you out of your comfort zone
As an Education City student, I have access to everything a student can dream of: great equipment and technology, travel opportunities, fitness and recreation facilities, and unlimited academic resources. My friends never fail to remind me that I’m privileged, and that I’m probably living in a bubble that will be difficult to get out of once university life is over. I’ve also found this to be true.
As soon as the initial excitement of traveling to a new country wears off, I often find myself feeling out-of-place and homesick. The same feeling set in when I ventured out of my comfort zone at the build site in Cambodia. I had never participated in manual labor before, so simple things like holding a saw were complicated to me, let alone hammering nails into the floor without hurting myself. The sweltering heat and the incessant sweating didn’t help, and I found myself physically tired after just five minutes of working continuously. After a long day at the site, I would sit in my room and remind myself about the meaningfulness of volunteering and why I needed to continue.
Now that I am back in Doha and can reflect upon these experiences, I’m glad I was able to go through them because I have learned to value all the people who work in manual labor jobs, knowing first-hand how difficult it can be on a day-to-day basis. Stepping outside my comfort zone did not just help me appreciate the resources I have, but also provided me with the mental capacity to understand that life outside university may not always be smooth, but that I can have richer experiences by pushing myself to learn more, understand more, and explore more.
3. Volunteering to help underprivileged people isn’t just for others; there’s much more in it for you
Often when we hear about service learning trips, we tend to focus on the ‘service’ part of it, not so much on the ‘learning.’ But this past week has mostly been about learning for me — learning from the work we did and the people we met, to learning about ourselves.
A unique aspect about working with Habitat for Humanity is that volunteers work alongside the people for whom they’re building the home. This is to ensure that communities are empowered through the work they do and that we don’t patronize them by making this a charitable venture. As I worked alongside Mr. Samon and Ms. Oy, a middle-aged Cambodian couple, I realized that we weren’t able to understand each other due to language differences. Yet this didn’t prove an obstacle, because whenever I got stuck (often) nailing floorboards, Mr. Samon would immediately come to my rescue and fix my error, and we would laugh together at my blunder. As I observed him consistently smiling throughout the building process, I realized that I could sometimes be so ungrateful in much less difficult circumstances than him and his family’s.
On our last day, after we dedicated the house to them and they thanked us profusely for our contribution, I noticed that each member of my team thanked them in return for the values of hard work, perseverance, appreciation, and family that they instilled in us. One of my friends commented that we helped build a house for them, but they had reminded us what it takes to make a house a home.
Ifath Arwah Sayed is a senior at Northwestern University in Qatar and Executive Editor of The Daily Q