Cambodians thankful for fearlessness of Taiwanese Good Samaritan
Central News Agency
2010-02-25 09:59 AM

Wei-lin Yang was working as a flight attendant with Taiwan's flagship carrier China Airlines 20 years ago when she decided to dedicate herself to problems far more momentous than keeping airline passengers happy.

Confronting the despair experienced in Cambodia following a lengthy period of war and killing, Yang decided to actively improve the lives of the country's refugees, and her vision has remained firm to this day despite facing personal danger, cultural obstacles, funding shortages, and a long illness.

Her efforts were recently recognized by Reader's Digest, which named her as one of six nominees for the Asian of Year Award 2010.

Though she did not win the top prize, her Field Relief Agency of Taiwan (FRA) has consistently been a winner among the 70,000 Cambodian children she's helped over the years.

Ironically, it was through her job with China Airlines that Yang found her life's devotion.

Yang had already worked as a volunteer with Taiwan's 119 rescue hotline before graduating from college, and her compassion for the underprivileged became "globalized" after joining the airline in 1983.

One of her regular stops was Bangkok, and she could not look on dispassionately when Cambodian refugees from the Thai-Cambodian border gathered in the city in the mid-to-late 1980s -- the legacy of a decade-long civil war in the western part of the country following the murderous Khmer Rouge's rule between 1975 and 1979.

She quit the airline in 1989 to join a refugee service center at the Thai border run by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees.

Working for five years at the center, where she came face to face with death, injuries, horror and extreme despair on a daily basis, Yang became convinced that the temporary centers were not the long-term solutions to the Cambodian refugees' problems.

Crystallizing her conviction was something she saw in her first year on the Thai-Cambodian border. A fatherless girl, whose mother had also just died, was begging in a local market, carrying her six-day-old baby brother in a swaddling cloth on her chest.

The girl left after receiving some money for food, but Yang said that the image of the infant's wide-open mouth and dying face lingered in her mind for a long time and convinced her that money alone would also not solve the problem.

Betting on education, Yang eventually established the FRA in 1995 to help Cambodian people in poor and heavily mined areas get a better chance in life.

Over the next four years, Yang helped establish 15 makeshift schools, sponsored some 700 orphans, and managed to recruit 27 volunteer teachers from Taiwan to work in the schools.

But those four years also taxed her health and her sanity, posing the most formidable challenges she had ever faced in a philanthropic environment -- employee infighting, unfit Taiwanese volunteers, and funding shortages.

And some of the very orphans she was trying to help were skeptical of the group's intentions, fearing they would be sold or re-sold to human traffickers.

Yang was also undone by a series of mishaps -- a car accident she was lucky to survive; a serious burn to her hand sustained when she put out a fire in a frying pan when an aide was cooking in the wild; and a near-encounter with bandits, who were tracking her vehicle, hoping to get their hands on her relief supplies.

The encounter was averted when some acquaintances came to her rescue at the last minute, but that experience, and her mounting problems, left her so mentally and physically exhausted that she fell ill for six months in late 1999.

During that time, FRA operations in Cambodia came to a virtual halt, but her illness gave her valuable time to reflect on her campaign, and she concluded that more than compassion and enthusiasm was needed to deal with the orphans or refugees' problems and the conflicts within her organization.

Realizing that she needed to change her management strategy and raise more money, Yang returned to her base in Poipet -- a Cambodian town on the country's northwestern border with Thailand -- and restarted FRA operations.

She actually lowered the wage she paid to local employees from US$200 to US$100 per month, a shock that made them less prone to infighting and more diligent.

She also screened Taiwanese staff and volunteers more strictly, declining the help of those who could not withstand hardships or challenges.

And those orphans or refugees who were skeptical of the FRA's intentions were allowed to leave FRA shelters if they chose to.

The result is that over the past 15 years, Yang has helped over 70,000 children in Cambodia, taking in orphans and those afflicted with AIDS while providing financial support to others.

Vocational training centers have been built to help adults -- many of whom are survivors of land-mine explosions -- learn skills and make a living for themselves.

She has also trained Mandarin- and Cambodian-language teachers to teach at the schools she established and to travel to rural areas in 10 provinces around the war-battered country to help the needy.

"This is a labor-intensive job, and one's work is never done, " admitted Yang, a Kaohsiung City native who is also a writer for the United Daily News and author of two books. "I've probably been defeated by difficulties, but I never gave up."

Funding and donations remain a concern, but in early 2008, Yang caught a break. She told a Liberty Times reporter that she needed 3,500 stationery kits to be distributed to Cambodian children, many of whom had never seen a tube of glue or a pencil sharpener in their lives.

The story was posted online, and to Yang's surprise, stationery supplies flooded her Taipei office from all corners of Taiwan.

The FRA packaged the scissors, staplers, erasers, pencils, sharpeners and white-out received into kits, which were then transported to Cambodia in three 40-foot containers. The kits have been distributed over the past two years on weekends to 66,000 children, many of whom live in villages that are inaccessible by car.

"All the work is worth it when you see the amazement and happiness on the children's face when they open the kits, " she explained.

In recent years, Yang's organization has moved beyond its core education programs. It has helped drill wells in areas where tap water was just a dream, after making sure the underground water was safe to drink, she said.

When the underground water in a village in Ratanakiri province in northeast Cambodia was found to have an excessive amount of arsenic, the FRA bought 625 6,000-liter water containers made of gravel and cement locally to distribute to local families to collect rainwater.

In another village in the province, Yang and the FRA workers took action when they found a hospital with only one operating table and no beds for women to rest on after giving birth, buying two medical beds for the facility.

"We don't turn our back on problems. We look for them, " said Yang, whose goal for 2010 is to build a hospital in the province if she can raise NT$5 million.

The hospital will be a "land-mine hospital" because many residents in the area were victims of land-mine explosions who need constant medical attention, said Yang, who has twice been given the medal of national honor by Cambodia's government.

The 50-year-old Good Samaritan said her longer-term goal is to hand down her skills and vision and plant more altruistic "seeds."

Yang actually began preparing for the goal two years ago when she began studying for a doctorate at National Dong Hwa University -- her ticket to teaching at the university level where she hopes to cultivate the Yangs of the future and broaden her impact on the underprivileged in Cambodia and Asia.

CNA photos 2-5 by Deborah Kuo, CNA staff writer

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