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Tori notates her experiences of the family's unforgettable Christmas in Cambodia for the readers of Friday... an excerpt from "DUBAI WITH LOVE" - Gulfnews.com

"Boarding the flight from Singapore to Siem Reap, I knew the journey ahead would be filled with new adventures and (offer) a glimpse into a world a million miles apart from my fast-paced New York life, not only in terms of distance but also in understanding. Everyone I had spoken to who had visited Cambodia told me there is a spirit to the country that just moves you in a way that no other country does. I'd heard all about the wondrous 12th-century temples and exquisite Angkor Wat architecture, the hospitable and welcoming nature of the Cambodian people and the inviting flavours of Cambodian spices! But nothing had really prepared me for the real reason "I was visiting... to meet 60 Green Gecko children who were all former street kids.

"It's not really a story when you meet the people whose lives are directly affected by their country's turbulent past: it is very much their reality. You pass young children on the street trying to sell you a flower for one dollaaa, just one dollaaa so I can go to schooool', they speak in a pitiful voice that echoes in your head. A landmine child victim with stumps for arms is selling heavy books by day and plays in a street band at night. Despite this, he always has a cheery smile on his face.

"It's life happening in its rawest form a million miles away from the comforts we have grown accustomed to in the West, but most appear to accept their lot in life and do their best to get on with it.

"Enter the Green Gecko children. This haven was set up five years ago by a remarkable Australian, Tania, and her Cambodian husband Rem, who felt an inexplicable urge to help the street children. Although the daily grind of what she has taken on may seem like an uphill battle some days, she has given these kids a chance they would never otherwise have had.

"Giving up a career in Australia, where she was co-director of a successful company, and relocating to Cambodia, Tania has provided a refuge for former Siem Reap street kids as well as giving them a chance to hope.

"What started as makeshift tables on the streets providing a daily meal has now turned into a safe haven for 60 former street children with the promise that she will be there for them until every single one is self-sufficient. Children range from 3 years to 18 years of age. Tania is there for every single Gecko kid along with Rem, 'Daddy Gecko', who is a trained social worker.

"Alex, our tuk tuk driver, dropped us at the front gate. When I first entered the Green Gecko house there was a sense of calm across the courtyard, a bright, colourful mural of animals painted on a wall, a dog sleeping under a bench and a palm tree gently swaying in the wind.

"We got our visitor's pass and headed past the Gecko helpers preparing lunch, past the football pitch and hammock and towards the outdoor classrooms housed in the newly-built classrooms.

"In the mornings the younger children are schooled at Green Gecko, while the older children attend the local Khmer school they belong to; in the afternoon, the roles are switched.

"Tania had to fight hard to get the children accepted into private school, as the principal of the school was initially reluctant to admit them. assuming that the children would be unruly and disruptive in class. Today though they perform solo on stage at school concerts, win many awards and are among the highest achievers in their class.

"A sea of children in yellow, green, purple and red Gecko T-shirts comes rolling towards us. The children are full of smiles and laughter, excited to meet us and learn our name. Each colour represents the Gecko house they are in... the buzzing bees, the energetic elephants, the singing snakes, the fabulous frogs, the mighty monkeys, the cool crocodiles. This morning's class is split in two: my mum is teaching numbers and logic and my sister Jane is teaching the solar system in the Me and My Planet class. The kids sit down on benches and open their school books.

"The teacher asks them to write today's date: Friday, December 19, 2008. As the class progresses in a mixture of English and Khmer, I realise that despite the challenges, the children are extremely dedicated and driven to perform their best. The pride they take in their work is unbelievable.

"As class finishes, a group of the younger Geckos approach me with a globe of the world. My sponsor child is a little boy among this group, a cheerful and enthusiastic 10-year-old who is the newest Gecko. "After only 8 months with the Gecko family, his English is coming along great, his disposition is polite and charming and the permanent grin on his face says it all. I would never have guessed that only a year ago he was on the street begging for those precious dollaaa's' after his father died and his mother was struggling to bring up her six boys. They thrust the globe into my hands and the children want to show me where Cambodia is, followed by England, America, Australia, Canada, France and Africa... they're geographically savvy given they've never left their own country!

"Together, we figure out where New York, Dubai, Toronto and Brazil are."

"In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap is a modern gallery exhibiting local photography and artwork, not too dissimilar to any gallery you would find in London or Paris. "It is here where the Geckos are proudly displaying some of their art work in oils on large canvases. For all the Gecko artists, this is the first opportunity they have had to express themselves, and some were a little unsure to start with. "To me, various subconscious meanings jump out from these paintings in symbols representing peace, safety, family, togetherness and spirituality."

"Have you heard of the phrase Life is a journey, not a destination'? After spending time with Tania, Rem and all the Gecko children, I realise they are all on one of the most amazing and incredible journeys of life, hand in hand," says Tori Higgins with admiration.

"At the end of the day, isn't that what life is all about?" To learn more about Green Gecko: http://www.greengeckoproject.org

FULL STORY


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