The Resettlement Curve

When you go to another country for a long period of time, you understand that you will suffer from culture shock and have to adapt to the new environment. However, returning home can be just as difficult, or more so, than going out to another country – mainly because you do not expect to encounter any problems. The re-adapting process can be known as the resettlement curve.

Often when staying in another country (especially one vastly different to your own) you miss your regular home comforts such as the national food, everyone speaking your language, and the people you left behind. Unexpected luxuries, such as privacy, rain, and internet connection can also suddenly seem much more valuable whilst away. That is why, after immediately returning home, you go through a honeymoon period of reunion with all of these things you love. This is the first stage of the resettlement curve.

For example, when I returned to the UK after three months in Cambodia I was so excited to meet everyone that I arranged to see my best friend, boyfriend and grandparents in turn immediately after landing. I ate avocado and poached (not deep fried) chicken (not duck) egg on toast (not rice), and walked around in a cagoule feeling great about life. I remember sitting on the grass at my grandparents’ house and marvelling at how lush and green everything was.

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Seeing my sisters for the first time in 5 months in the lovely countryside near Cheddar Gorge

This honeymoon period can be any length of time from a day to a couple of months. (Mine was a week or two.) However, once you get used to these everyday luxuries it is often followed by a period of reflection on the adventure you had in the country or countries just visited. At this stage, it is common to feel nostalgic about your experiences, and miss the people and the places where you stayed.

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Me, my volunteer counterpart Franzi and the children in our host home

Whether volunteering, working or travelling, usually when you are abroad you have a sense of purpose. Every day you have a task to do, whether that is a meeting with the village chief, writing a report, or climbing a mountain. You feel like an important contributor to your own and other people’s experience, and even the normal things like travelling from A to B can feel like a novelty. When returning home, it is difficult to readjust to a society which bases its success in future plans and long-term goals rather than living a day-to-day existence.

Since travelling requires a lot of money, often when people return they will move back in with their parents, potentially returning to their old job and/or their old routine. This can feel like a step backwards in life instead of moving forwards, and can seem very dull compared to the daily adventure of their life abroad. When I returned from travelling, I moved back into my parents’ house. Although I enjoyed their company, I was often on my own in the house for a lot of the day, away from the town centre and not doing very much, which was quite unsettling to me after being used to a busy household and little time alone.
Coming back can also strip you of the worth and responsibilities that you had whilst away. For example you may have been the one with insider knowledge of the area, the one who knew how to write project proposals, or the leader of a team, but when returning home it can be an unpleasant realisation that the winning traits you had in another country do not translate over the border. This can lead to a sense of purposeless and, in some cases, worthlessness for the person after returning.

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This information sharing workshop with community stakeholders was one of the events we held in Phnom Sampov Commune which the whole volunteer team contributed towards

Last week I went to a ‘return volunteers weekend’ with fellow volunteers of ICS (the organisation who sent me to Cambodia) and we discussed the methods that had worked for us in adjusting to life in our home country.

This was some of the advice shared in the workshop:

1) Make plans. Most fellow volunteers said that planning to go to festivals, see friends, or go travelling again was the quickest way to make them feel positive about leaving their adventure behind.
2) Be mindful about your motivations. Although point 1 is effective, planning to go away again often stems from the desire to relive the experience you just had. Remember that your memories are unique to that time and place, and if you go somewhere expecting the same outcome, you will no doubt be disappointed.
3) Take time to reflect. Don’t overbook your diary in order to busy out your blues. Taking time out to think things through is necessary to move onto the next chapter in life.
4) Don’t drink away your sorrows. A volunteer mentioned that they went out a lot more after coming home in order to alleviate their boredom. Apparently it didn’t help, and made them feel worse.
5) Accept that you’re miserable. Often feeling guilty about not settling in well into home life is what really gets to people. Accept that you feel bad, and that it’s natural, and then you can move on.
6) Talk to people who shared you experience. After spending so much time with people going through the same things as you, it can be isolating to return to a community which doesn’t share your new perspective. Chatting to people who have had a similar experience to you can make you feel much more positive about the situation.
7) Shake up your life. If you wanted to move house, get a job, go vegan, start martial arts, do some volunteering, get back in touch with a friend, write a song, or learn how to make a mean lasagne before going away, now is the time to do it. Change will lead to empowerment and will help you to focus on life ahead of you, rather than the memories behind.

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Catching up at our Return Volunteers weekend

Personally, the thing that made me get over my post-travelling blues was getting a job a month after leaving Cambodia and moving out of my hometown. Although I’m now living quite far away from my friends and family, I think that the change of scene has helped me feel more optimistic about the future and has given me new goals to work towards.

 

My Personal Case Study: Reflecting on Working for Voluntary Service Overseas

The personal case study is what we were asked to complete for VSO to share our own experiences of the project and the placement. We spent eleven weeks in Cambodia working for Voluntary Service Overseas (part of International Citizenship Service) in teams of roughly ten UK volunteers, ten Cambodian volunteers, and two team leaders (one UK, one Cambodian), and placed in a target area of the country. Our group lived in Phnom Sampov Commune, Banan District, Battambang Province on a project which overall sought to create a youth co-operative and give this group the skills they need to become agents of their own change. I transcribed my case study from a speech I presented to fellow VSO volunteers and staff in a story sharing session at the end of our placement.

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Teaching English at Phnom Kroper Primary School

My placement with Voluntary Service Overseas did not drastically alter my personality or values, but it has given me a different perspective on some things which I hope will help me in the future. Before my placement with VSO ICS, I was more closed minded and strong-headed with my opinions, but now I feel more open and accepting of people’s values and customs, which is very important for cross-cultural working. This perhaps stems from my increased self-awareness during this trip, which has led me to understand my own strengths and weaknesses and to appreciate that, in turn, other people are only human too.

I have come to value different qualities in people. Whereas before my placement, I valued fun-loving, charismatic personality traits in people, during my time working on the project I came to appreciate people with a hard-working nature, who take initiative and are always willing to accept extra duties in order to get the job done.

I have greater knowledge about Cambodia and global issues due to our Community Action Days (where we put on events in the local area) Active Citizenship Days (where we researched topics and presented this to the team) and through independent research.

Overall I think everyone who has participated in the ICS programme has developed in either their knowledge or their own personality and/or perspective, and I think that this is where ICS’s strength lies as opposed to community or national development. Living amongst the community, sleeping in the same houses as Cambodian families, and working in a team with different backgrounds and abilities is what catalysed this change rather than the project itself. Although I may not have contributed to the community in Phnom Sampov, I feel that I am in a better position to actively help community development in the future and I hope that the next cycle of volunteers in Phnom Sampov will make a difference using the information we have left them.

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Chantel and Avex working during our last Community Action Day about health

However, I would not have got anything out of this placement without my exceptional team and team leaders. We have supported each other through difficult periods and worked together to make our time valuable here, having developed a close relationship and genuine care towards each other. We have constructively handled problems, for example investigating our project aim, and found a solution to the issues that we had with it. This has led us to change the project goal after thorough research, which was the main success of our group and will hopefully be taken on board by the next cycle of volunteers.

My key memory to demonstrate our team spirit was our first Community Action Day, an awareness-raising event about road safety. Due to a difficult relationship with the High School Director, none of the expected student participants arrived. However our team pulled through and the Khmer Volunteers went around the community in person to round up people to join. In the end we had over 60 participants, and the event was very successful due to the initiative taken by our team members.

“VSO ICS has taught me that the key to success and happiness is through my own hard work and the strength of my team.”

Earth Day at K’downg Primary School

To celebrate Earth Day on the 22nd April, Team Banan of VSO ICS Cambodia held a Community Action Day at K’downg Primary school in rural Banan, Cambodia, themed on the environment.

Our goals during the CAD was to teach the children about how important it is to look after the environment, focusing in particular on deforestation and waste management, both of which are prominent issues in Cambodia. We also wanted to improve the environment of the school for the children, so that they would feel inspired to maintain their own local environment and take responsibility for it in the future. We did this by helping the children to plant trees around their school yard, and by making their library beautiful (and, more importantly, habitable).

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The CAD team buying plants for the event

The day was not without its obstacles. Before the event, the school director had told us that their library was empty and unused, and we made plans to paint and furnish it in order to encourage the children to use it. However, when we got there we found the library stuffed full of dusty desks, books, bricks and soil. It looked like it hadn’t been used for years. Luckily, by enrolling a team of students for the task, we cleaned the room in a surprisingly short time, the director lending a hand by moving the desks so that the central space was clear and clean for students to work.

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Before…
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…and after!

The moment before we were about to transform the library into a painted jungle scene, the director changed his mind, and was suddenly unwilling for the children to paint directly onto the walls. Although disappointed that our masterpiece couldn’t be created, we turned this idea around by using the resources we had with us, and instead conducted a painting workshop with the children, consolidating the theme of environment through their paintings of trees and plants.

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Me making a poster with the children during the painting workshop

Despite these set-backs, the children and the volunteers had a really fun day. We taught the children about the environment through an informal presentation, and taught them how to plant and look after their new trees, which would provide valuable shade in years to come. We also improved the environment of their school, providing bins and a fabulous clean library, complete with new books, shelves, and a display of their newly created artwork.

Hopefully the students of K’downg Primary now understand more about people’s impact upon the environment, including their own. They can take a greater involvement in improving the environment both locally and globally, by simple acts such as not littering, burning plastic and by protecting trees.

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Volunteer Thol helping three children water their first tree

Happy Earth Day!

The last two photos were taken by VSO volunteer Chantel.

Bread, Mango Juice, and Community Empowerment

The Tompeang Russey Khmer Association (TRK) is an NGO based in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia which aims to help people in the local community. We spoke to the executive director, Loeurm Sowath in their office in Banan this morning to learn about the organisation and see whether we (VSO Cambodia) and TRK could combine forces in the future.

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TRK was founded in 2008 with just two projects (providing English lessons and building a community library), no government funding and a small group of volunteer staff including some University students. They established a branch in Battambang Province in 2010, as well as a partnership with a Korean organisation, who provides volunteers and some targeted funding. They now work in several different areas on eight types of projects, which include providing University scholarships for people who can’t afford the fees, providing electricity in order to hasten community development, and establishing credit unions for local middle- and low-income families.

One of their new projects is creating a social enterprise for women. Their aim is to recruit vulnerable women – women who might have low income, who have suffered from domestic violence or who have been victim to human trafficking – and provide them with training in order for them to earn a better living. They will learn about hygiene, basic business management, baking, and coffee making in order to be able to run a café. The training will give these women valuable skills, which will lead to them generating their own income, which with lead to independence, which in turn will lead to personal empowerment.

TRK are targeting people in the rural areas of Cambodia, including Banan, because they have less opportunities and, often, wealth than the people living in towns and cities. They are also extending their social enterprise project to include making a community vegetable and herb garden, and are planning to expand their office into a café and kitchen at the front which will use the products grown in the garden. This is so that, once trained, the women will have somewhere to work straight away. Sowath also suggested selling local products in the café, such as soya milk and mango juice made by a local farmer – which, take it from me, is delicious – in order to further include members of the community and provide more people with a sustainable income.

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The training centre currently being built behind TPK’s office in Banan District

 

The Tompeang Russey Khmer Association is a fairly young but strong organisation that is powered by commitment to the welfare of their society, as well as a realistic attitude towards sustaining their organisation as well as their projects. It was a pleasure to meet the staff and make plans to help with their education programme. They certainly give reasons to be optimistic about national and global development, since there are so many amazing outcomes of TPK’s eight short years as an NGO: an organisation with such humble beginnings and big plans ahead.

An Introduction to VSO Cambodia

Volunteer Service Overseas is an international charity that aims to fight poverty around the world, and is part of the umbrella organisation International Citizenship Service. VSO works in 23 countries in Africa and South Asia, implementing projects there which focus on four areas: education, health (particularly HIV and AIDS), participation and governance, and secure livelihoods.

Instead of sending aid to a country in terms of money or material aid, which can often be passed into the wrong hands or lead to short-term outcomes rather than sustainable ones, it sends volunteers into countries instead. The volunteers work on one project in cycles until completion: when one volunteer team finishes their placement, another will take over and so on. A project may last for about 3 years. The volunteers work towards educating and empowering the community that they are working with, in order for the people to learn the necessary skills to be able to improve their own lives after the volunteers leave, rather than just temporarily relieving the situation.

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Our volunteer team in Banan, Cambodia

I am currently working for VSO as a volunteer in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia on a Secure Livelihoods Programme. One of the concerns VSO has targeted in Cambodia is the high rate of immigration, which is due to people in Cambodia seeing little future or money in staying home and trying to earn a living there. It is particularly prevalent in the youth of Cambodia, who usually express a desire to study or live abroad in Thailand or America where there are more jobs.

VSO are trying to combat this by establishing youth co-operatives in places like Banan so that the young people can support each other and learn the skills necessary to succeed in their future career. At first the youth co-operative we are working on was aiming towards creating interest and knowledge in agriculture, due to 85% of the population being farmers. However, after researching our community’s ideas we are currently reviewing this.

An important part of development is assessing the needs of the community and adapting to any changes that arise. This can make development a very slow process but gives a much better outcome in the long run. Although the statistics pointed VSO towards an agriculture-orientated youth group, after speaking to the young people we felt it might be more valuable to them if we instead facilitate learning soft skills such as leadership, conflict management and ICT skills. This will not only provide the youth with a greater chance of earning a higher wage at home, but it will also help them with their applications and future studies if they do decide to go to University abroad.

If you are interested in volunteering abroad, I could not recommend VSO enough. The experience I have had so far working for them has been full of highs and lows, and has not been devoid of frustrations and obstacles, but the positive outcomes are far greater. You can expect a lot of hard work, but also learn what real teamwork looks like, experience the reality of a country from an intimate perspective, and make a great impact which will outlive your stay in the community. Read more about it and apply here.

Road Safety is Fun – Our First Community Event

Today we had our first Community Action Day in the commune of Phnom Sampov.

As volunteers for VSO, we work on a set project in the community, targeted by VSO before we arrive, which is continued until completion by successive volunteer teams. In total these projects can last for 2-3 years. Our group in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia are working on a Livelihoods project as the first volunteer cycle, where we are aiming to empower youth in the community to be able improve their situation and forge a good future for themselves.

We also have the chance to engage with other issues we feel need addressing in the community through one-day events called Community Action Days. After asking members of the community the issues that they thought were important, we discovered that traffic accidents were a big problem in our area, with more than 2’400 fatalities in Cambodia every year. Drinking and driving is particularly bad here, and is a huge factor in the high figures of accidents on the road. We therefore decided our CAD should be on road safety.

For three weeks we planned and implemented the event. We contacted important members of the community to ensure their attendance and also to recruit some guest speakers. We also organised a range of interactive, engaging activities to consolidate the lessons taught during the speeches, for instance about helmet safety, alcohol awareness, and the dangers of speeding.

As a member of the CAD committee (the small division of volunteers dealing with the practical requirements of the day) I felt extremely responsible for the success of the event. Our main challenge was ensuring the attendance of people from the community: although we advertised and got in touch with the head teachers of the commune schools, we still had no sure way of knowing who would turn up, and how many.

We soon learnt that trusting members of the community to pass on the message was too unreliable, and we would have to spread the word ourselves directly to our target audience. Luckily our event was well attended with over 50 people meaning that the facts about road safety was shared with a lot of people, and on a personal note we also got to know our neighbours a little more! The children especially enjoyed our activities, including the “protect the egg” game where they had to wrap up an egg to stop it from breaking, in order to demonstrate the importance of wearing a helmet.

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One team deeply involved in wrapping their egg

We were very pleased with the result of the event and grateful to our guest speakers, Professor Sue Fatima from Battambang University, and the Police Chief of our commune, for delivering messages about the dangers of the road. We will soon start preparing for our next Community Action Day in order to address more important issues and make a small impact upon the community that has welcomed us so kindly into their midst so far.