‘Hard to put into words’

Before Melanie Sassano left for Cambodia I interviewed her for the SanTan Sun News, a paper I write for in Chandler, Arizona. It was pretty incredible to hear about her experience and see some of the photographs she had taken while she was in Cambodia volunteering.

Here is some of the article that did not make the cut for the paper . . . I thought it was interesting to include.

When Sassano first arrived in Cambodia Sept. 30, she attended an orientation that taught the International Volunteer HQ organization volunteers about the culture, language and how to get around the city. They were also taken to a museum that taught them about an extremeness who took over and killed about a fourth of the population.

“I had already read a lot about what happened,” she explains. “It’s necessary to understand what was going on in the country and learn how the culture is now because of that.”

Throughout her stay, she lived in a volunteer house with 15 others who traveled from such places as Australia, Finland, California, Michigan, Boston, Ireland, Asia and many places in Europe. The house was staffed with a mixture of Cambodia locals and foreigners,

“It was really neat to meet people from all over the world. I really enjoyed being in a completely different culture and country,” she says about her roommates that ranged from 18 to 65 years old. “We always ate dinner together, we went on weekend trips. The house was really great.”

While she was in Cambodia a protest broke out about an election. She recalls the house staff advising everyone where they should and should not travel to stay clear of the protest.

Photographer captures poor living conditions in Cambodia

Published in the SanTan Sun News Nov. 16, 2013

After spending two and a half weeks volunteering in Cambodia among shanty towns with no running water or electricity, Chandler photographer Melanie Sassano still hopes to continue her work.

“It puts into perspective what is important about day-to-day life and if, you get enough to eat, you are good to go,” she says. “Experiencing it is very different. I would recommend anyone to do it.”

Sassano was in Cambodia from Sept. 30 through Oct. 16. She witnessed shocking living conditions for the kids with whom she worked.

“I would say the ones that lived on the street actually had it better than the ones who lived in the shanty towns,” she says.

The shanty towns, she explains, were plywood houses that sat on mud and a river that had raw sewage floating throughout.

“The shacks have no running water or electricity,” Sassano says. “The trash and smell in these shanty towns is really terrible.”

Other kids lived in parks and slept under the bridge when it rained or lived at the pagodas, religious compounds.

“This isn’t to say that all live in those shacks,” she explains. “Many live in modern buildings with water and electricity, however the cleanliness of the water is not to a high standards.”

She was placed with Le Restaurant des Enfants de la Rue, an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. program for kids ages 1 to 17.

“Any kids can come off the street and come into the program,” she says. “It provides two meals a day, a place to sleep and hang out and provides a little bit of education.”

Sassano spent her time teaching English to the kids or playing impromptu games. She says the kids just wanted attention because many did not have parents or their parents worked frequently.

“It took a little bit to kind of process,” she says. “It was a little bit different to jump in there and see a lot of things and hear stories that were very difficult.”

She recalls working with Kakada, an intelligent 8-year-old boy who wanted to learn the English language. Sassano says he picked up on words and memorized them before he learned new ones the next day.

“He already had English words on the board,” she says of a ritual they began.

The number of kids she worked with varied almost every day. Some days Sassano explains the center was slower with around 10 kids, which provided her with the opportunity to work with youngsters one-on-one and other days there were 40 to 50 kids. She says a lot of the kids worked selling flowers and newspapers or collecting trash and bottles, which is why the numbers fluctuated from day to day.

“I am pretty amazed by the resilience of children,” she says.

The staff who worked at her placement, took their own personal time on the weekends to show her where the kids lived. Sassano says they wanted to show her because people do not know what their country and kids are going through.

“That is definitely something I wanted to share,” she says.

While volunteering, Sassano learned that individuals can sponsor a child in Cambodia for $30 a month, which can be done by visiting wacambodia.com/EN/le_restaurant.aspx. That money will feed the family and put the child through school.

“You have to pay for school, so most of the kids will not go to school,” she says.

Sassano says many Cambodians live on a dollar a day regardless the size of their family.

The 30-year-old volunteer says the first couple of days were emotionally overwhelming.

“I had a hard time blogging it, it was hard to put into words,” she says.

For more photos from her trip,visit melaniesassano.tumblr.com.

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