Australia Cambodia Developing countries Human and Hope Association Poverty Responsible Tourism

The Problem with False Promises

May 13

There used to be a Khmer volunteer who taught at Human and Hope Association in addition to his full-time work teaching at a nearby NGO. The NGO he taught at was funded primarily by Australians who frequently visited the organisation. He formed a close relationship with a lady he called ‘Mum’. One day in early 2013, this volunteer came into our office and proudly told me that his ‘Mum’ was going to pay for him to move to Australia to study. I was sceptical. I knew how difficult it was to get into Australia on a study visa, not to mention the costs associated with it. I had also grown used to foreigners visiting Cambodia and promising the people they met that they would help them. Most of the time, that was never the case.

Not wanting to discourage him, but at the same time, wanting him to understand the realities of the situation, I explained to him that he shouldn’t get his hopes up too much. I gently told him that although I was sure his ‘Mum’ would try her best, it was difficult to get a visa into Australia. He nodded, but knowing he was someone who didn’t like to listen to the advice of others, I knew he didn’t absorb what I said.

This volunteer told his community that he would be moving to Australia, and his girlfriend was beaming with pride that her boyfriend would be moving to the exclusive Australia to get a better life. I cringed at the fact he had already told the community because knowing this wouldn’t be ending well, I had concerns about the volunteer losing face.

A few days after telling me the news, his ‘Mum’ emailed me. She told me that she had made a terrible mistake; she had promised her ‘son’ something she couldn’t give him. When she made the offer, she hadn’t properly thought out the mammoth effort, costs and resources required to get our volunteer to Australia. Not prepared to tell this young man the truth, she asked that I explain to him that it wasn’t going to happen. His dreams had looked like they were coming true, then a few days later, they were shattered.

I was furious. How dare this lady screw up, then expect me to be the bearer of bad news? As the news would be coming from me, not her, her relationship with her ‘son’ would most likely remain intact, whilst I would be the one to lose his trust and respect that I had been working so hard to build up.

That weekend, the Director of Human and Hope Association and I called a meeting with the volunteer. I told the volunteer the truth; his ‘Mum’ had overpromised, and unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to move to Australia. He looked at me with the utmost sadness in his eyes, determined not to cry. I saw his heartbreak, and I knew that from that moment on our relationship would never be the same again. I had delivered the news that had caused his dreams to be taken away and him and his family to lose face in the community.

I didn’t have any further contact with his ‘Mum’ after that. In my mind, she represented the countless foreigners who visit the traumatised country and promise things they just don’t see through, not realising the devastating consequences their words can have.

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