A Barn Reincarnated into an Office Brings Hope

Yes, this was a barn that then became my office in Prek Presap, Cambodia.

It takes a bit of interior design to transform a barn full of pigs, chickens and who knows what else… into a fine proud UN institution (which we didn’t quite accomplish) worthy of bringing hope for a democratic future.

Being 22 years old and with only the limited summer work experience of most Canadian university grads, it was no shock that I had zero clue what I was getting into. It was most definitely, a tiny one step at a time kind of year.

The photo shows our opening day.

Word had got out that we would be arriving and that maybe interviews for positions might begin. My UN partner and I had 2 interpreters and 2 drivers. We had no idea how to begin to interview the numbers that showed up or what the criteria should even be. This was not a job that came with a guidebook.

Once we got into the flow of things, we learned how to use our interpreters to interview quickly due to the huge numbers of people waiting in line.It is tough to know for sure if decisions made are the right ones when communication is lacking.

It turns out we might have made one big mistake; hiring a former(?) Khmer Rouge to have a key role on one of our electoral teams. Oops. Not good. We brought in the UN security guys to deal with that one.

In the end we hired more than 300 people. But… a big But..we discovered that we had unknowingly hired many teachers leading to the school being shut down (temporarily until we fixed that slight problem). Not exactly the goal we were setting out to achieve.

How to convince people to return to old jobs such as teaching when ours paid so much more? The influx of money into a district that was previously isolated from such a world threw everything out of balance.

One guy who was doing the same job as me in the neighboring province was killed by a disgruntled person who apparently had not been hired. Never had I thought what this kind of responsibility and I guess, power, could lead to. Scary. Given the option to leave and return to Canada, I chose to stay but the knowledge of what could happen was now present and rumbling in my mind.

I don’t regret staying, in fact, it was an incredibly rewarding year, despite the fact that the electoral process did not go according to plan. The Khmer Rouge threw some twists and turns into it but our amazing staff persevered through all the challenges.

Their success shone that day when Cambodians walked miles and miles to get to the nearest voting station and proudly marked their ballots; signifying that their voices would finally be heard.

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