This time it’s not a new ELT resource that I’ve found, but a book that has huge resonance for me: a ‘return to Cambodia’ memoir, by Elaine Harvey, a nurse who worked for the Red Cross in Thai/Cambodian border refugee camps in 1980, when conditions were volatile and deeply confronting: the camp would be shelled at night and the medical staff would drive in in the morning not knowing if the hospital (or more importantly, the people around it), had survived. The language in Encounters on the Front Line is lyrical and evocative, and reading it, I can imagine myself there – though in fact I worked in a transit camp well away from the border, teaching English and cultural orientation to refugees who were headed for a third country.
My experience did draw me to Elaine and her writing, though, when we met up at Casa Ana writing retreat in the Alpujarra region of Spain; you could hardly find a setting more different from the subject of her work. She was immersed in editing then, so it’s exciting to see a piece of work that was still finding its focus, now complete and out there in the world.
It took Elaine till 2007 (and then 2009) to return and visit Cambodia, volunteering in a rural orphanage and a city hospice. I like the description on her publisher’s website: “Her journey was a quest of the heart to meet the new face of Cambodia and honour the one she left behind.”
What is it that prompts us to revisit, to be ready to return when for years we’ve been busy living other lives? I’ve taught many Cambodian students here in Perth, have Cambodian friends here from those days in Phanat Nikhom Refugee Camp, 30 years ago, and still (to their surprise) I haven’t yet visited Cambodia. So there’s a journey to think about…
Applause for Elaine, but also applause for all those refugees who have made new lives, who’ve pushed on with learning English (or French, or Danish) in spite of the recurring nightmares that stopped them concentrating… and for those people in Cambodia who’ve made such a contribution to rebuilding their country.