CSG celebrates 30 years

Cambodia Support Group; a legacy of good work in East Kootenay and Cambodia

Chanthol learns job skills at KAVTV electrical school.

Cambodia Support Group; a legacy of  good work

The East Kootenay is lucky enough to be home to many organizations dedicated to helping others. One of them, the Cambodia Support Group will celebrate 30 years in 2013. That’s 30 years of evolution from a primarily refugee-sponsorship organization to an agency that operates in the country of Cambodia, helping Cambodians help themselves.

And it’s all happened without a plan, says Arne Sahlen, who has been with CSG since the beginning.

“It’s been an inspired stumbling along,” he said. “We began in 1983 by sponsoring refugees from Cambodia — what Friends of Burma is doing now. Now we primarily work within Cambodia. Both are equally needed in the world of relief and aid. We are very lucky to have two such powerful agencies based in the East Kootenay.

“I don’t think CSG could have been as successful if we’d tried to create a plan.”

There is no particular plan that will work because you are dealing with traumatized people, Sahlen says. “Some had a very difficult time adjusting, others just landed, got jobs and off they went. But as we stumbled along we resettled 204 people in Canada. What happens is you sponsor one person and that person has a friend or a sweetheart.”

After resettling so many, CSG began to evolve again.

“We looked at CSG and said now we have all this experience, why don’t we do something to help the country? Cranbrook United Church was a key player. They gave us seed money to begin to help in-country. It primed the pump and away we went. Now CSG resources are mainly focused in-country.”

But again, CSG doesn’t operate like other aid agencies.

“We just went over to find out what people were doing and how we could help them. Over time it evolved into a fantastic portfolio that addresses the overall quality of life. It wasn’t done by intent, but by discovery. We have a project training disabled people for employment, a women’s agency for gender awareness, aid to the poorest of the poor and there is always an arts element as well. I’m a musician myself, so I just asked what’s happening here?”

What he found was Cambodian musicians wanted to revive their own traditional music. CSG set up a sponsorship program that has so far provided 100 traditional Cambodian instruments.

“Our focus has always been on the people and the projects take care of themselves. We want the Cambodian people to lead and change things on their own. It’s a respectful foreign partnership, a collective, not donors and recipients. We’re all in this together.

“I always made a point to not be paid for anything I did. We were there because we wanted to be. We’re like a family and we work through things together.”

One of the sponsored Cambodians who has become like family to Sahlen, is the young tenor Hy Chantavouth, who is currently at music school in Victoria.

“He has taken some enormous steps in his operatic development,” Sahlen said. “He’s gong to Cambodia in January on his own as a CSG representative and also to give concerts. And he will be connecting his music school to one in Cambodia via online learning.”

One thing that must be remembered in all the success, Sahlen says, is that it all happened because of past horrors. The need for aid is ongoing.

The Cambodia Support Group will be hosting a number of fundraising events throughout their anniversary year.