“You can prepare all you want, but you definitely need to be very flexible.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Abdullah Ghias
Age: 20
Hometown: Fullerton, California
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Hindi (fluent), Urdu (fluent), Spanish (intermediate), Arabic (beginner)
University: University of California San Diego
Degree: Physiology And Neuroscience
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for disabled children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: June 2015
Claim to fame: Abdullah has interned at his local library, and there he set up programs for children to help educate them about various aspects of literature and culture.

Why did you want to volunteer in Cambodia with UBELONG?
So when I was planning to lead my Alternative Breaks trip from UCSD, I had listed down, with my co-site, possible service options and possible service locations that we could go to. We had been in contact with various non-profit organizations, and after talking with Cedric Hodgeman, the Founder of UBELONG, I knew I really wanted to work with UBELONG. After discussing our want to work with the issues of special needs individuals, homelessness and poverty, and possibly water purification; Cedric told us that the most in need service was: helping special needs individuals, and that the most in need location, due to a lack of infrastructural resources, was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My co-site and I then decided to discuss our options, and get back to Cedric in the following weeks.

As we discussed and planned our trip proposals, we began looking into the beautiful country that is Cambodia. We began researching on the culture, the food, the language, and after a thorough investigation of the socioeconomic conditions that much of Cambodia was going through after the post-Khmer Rouge period, we decided that we wanted to do this service trip. We did so for the reasons that: neither of us had exposure to Khmer (pronounced “Kah-mai”), the service was something that we wanted to do, the non-profit seemed to be very resourceful and helpful, and that we wanted to have a service trip like no other, that encompassed a two-week service immersion experience. This is very different than most of Alternative Breaks’ trips as they tend to be 1 week trips, but we wanted a really meaningful experience. So then we sent our proposal to both Ubelong and Alternative Breaks at UCSD, and now the rest is history. It was the most meaningful experience I have ever had.

What was your favorite memory during your volunteer trip?
I have a few very favorite and distinct memories that I have come to cherish from my service trip.

1. The most meaningful experience I remember was having the patience and the care to help a child in the malnutrition room finish his food properly, after a period of an hour and a half, and then putting him to bed. This experience taught me so much about self discipline and taught me never to give up on someone, and to always have patience in everything I do.

2. There was one occurrence in which Hok was choking on a rambutan, and the “mamas” (caretakers) did not know how to help him, and were simply patting his back, and I was so glad that I had taken the proper measures to learn CPR before my trip, because I was the only one able to properly give him the Heimlich Maneuver, which was very difficult to due to his positioning on the wheelchair, but alhamdullillah (praise be to God), I was able to save him. I was so relieved when that rambutan came out of his mouth, and I proud that I had taken that course, because that day could have gone in a very different direction otherwise. It was one of the most stressful moments I have ever had in my life, but I learned that properly learning medicine in the future would be very meaningful for me, because I would and never will know the circumstances that may arise at any given time or location.

3. Our group was helping paint an orphanage with an attached classroom, and one of the students there started putting paint all over my face and a little bit later a bunch of the students started playing a variant of volleyball and having the opportunity to play and talk about all their dreams and aspirations was, alhamdulillah (praise be to God), an amazing experience. These students had dreams of becoming actors, football players (soccer), businessmen/women, CEOs, and Engineers, and I thoroughly pray that they all achieve greatness in their lives.

4. Through a really long chain of people that I knew, and their connections, one of my participants and I were able to attend Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Iftar celebration for the Cham and Cambodian Muslim population of Cambodia, since it was the Islamic month of Ramadan, which had over four thousand people and delegates in attendance from all over Cambodia and the world. I met a lot of really cool and interesting people from around the world, who I still keep in contact with, and I was able to eat some great food for “iftar” (fast breaking).

Overall, I was really able to connect with the similarities of people from all walks of life, and that has made all the difference in who I am as of today.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a future UBELONG Volunteer heading to Cambodia?
1. Educate and Orient yourself with the social justice issues you will likely be working with, and the culture, language, and socioeconomic history and the political basics of the community you will be working with. You do not want to simply have a voluntouristic trip, so try to be as ready and able as you can by the time service comes, and learn how to help with the sustainability of the program as much as you can.

Learning about the culture, language and basics of Cambodian history will definitely help you understand why things are the way they are, and how Cambodia can and will move forward, as well as how to make lasting friendships with the people that you meet. Though, nothing will prepare you for the actual experience, I still say that this is hands down the most important thing you can do, because you will be a delegate for yourself, your institution, your country, and you do not want to offend any one due to your ignorance. This is also important, so that you do not go into service thinking you are the “white knight” who will fix all of the “problems” that exist, because you need the mindset that you are a tool for helping the process, and that not all of your ideologies are correct for the specific cultural contexts and that you should not impose your beliefs and ideologies on other people.

2. Be flexible. You can prepare all you want, but you definitely need to be very flexible. You are doing service for the nonprofits that you are going to be partnered with, so be ready to help them with their specific needs, as opposed to what you want to do. Also, being flexible is the best part of having an adventure, as you will do the greatest things you have ever done, and meet the most interesting people ever by being ready to go with where the wind takes you.

3. Learn how to utilize your social capital, because even though Ubelong will be there to help you, the people you ultimately meet in Cambodia will make your experience the meaningful experience you hope it to be. Remember to ask the locals, the nonprofit workers, friends and family about anything that could be enjoyable or useful, as you never know what resources will be made available to you. This is ultimately true for any life experience you will ever have, as your social capital is your strongest resource that you can use.

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Related Post:
Meet João Miranda, a Universidade Nova Law student who volunteered with UBELONG in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the Teaching English project.