At this point last year, Elmira’s Linda and Don Little, along with their daughter and son-in-law, were doing something that’s not on the agenda just now: international travel.
Their trip was no vacation getaway, however, as the couple was in Cambodia as part of a Habitat for Humanity building project. Now grounded like most people, they’ve got their memories, photographs and one-year anniversary to keep the travels top of mind until the pandemic is finally over.
When Nicole Sok, the Little’s daughter, asked her parents to babysit for her, the couple didn’t know it would be the gateway to a global expedition. Born in a refugee camp, Nicole’s husband Syiath Sok experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia. Since then, he’s felt a strong responsibility to give back to his country’s people.
Syiath’s desire to take part in the Habitat project eventually brought the whole family on board.
“My daughter called up here, and she wanted me to go up and babysit. And I said, ‘well, what for?’ And she said, ‘well, Syiath is going for his second trip with Habitat for Humanity back to Cambodia,” Linda Little recalled of the impetus for the journey. “I’m not much of a traveller, and to me, it was a safe, easy way to go.”
Once in Cambodia, they joined in with the crews there building homes for the locals. Some 100 volunteers took part in the “Cambodia Big Build” project, which aimed to provide housing to some of the country’s most vulnerable residents, including those with disabilities and the elderly. Since 2003, Habitat for Humanity has assisted some 70,000 households directly and with other partners.
“We painted, we did brick and mortar, we did cement. We made the stairs going up into the houses. We made the cement platform that they have – these houses are built on stilts,” said Little, noting those receiving the homes were not well off in the least.
In that vein, the area wasn’t rife with cell phones or service, making it difficult for the Littles to keep in touch with the families there since returning back to Canada.
Cambodia is home to a number of contrasts between the modern and the old, particularly where technology is concerned, added Don Little, noting the big discrepancies between the urban and rural areas.
“Seeing the very small scale farmers in the north, the farmers were harvesting rice. And in the very rural [parts] they were still cutting the rice by hand and making little bundles of it, and they’re bringing them up on little tiny trailers … so it’s kind of gone back to the ’50s or something.”
For the Littles, the takeaway from the trip a year later is gratitude.
“We are very blessed in this country. We’re spoiled. We have infrastructure. We have a government that cares,” said Linda, with Don adding, “the most interesting thing was you just don’t realize just how poor everybody really is,” referencing areas that are not tourist destinations where garbage litters the streets in which the children play.
While Habitat for Humanity has paused trips such as the one the Littles took part in until at least the spring of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Linda suggests Cambodia is an ideal location to visit post-COVID.