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The Liberal Heart of a Contemporary Conqueror

  • Written by Renee
Renee Gray profiles Paul Underwood, an International school teacher in Nanjing who has donated plenty of time, energy and money into helping better the lives of Cambodian orphans. Two years ago, he adopted two boys, who now live with him here in Nanjing.
{xtypo_dropcap}A{/xtypo_dropcap}t first glance, Mr. Paul Underwood seems like just another professional teacher working at an elitist international school in Nanjing. In reality, his is a story of courage, defiance, love and generosity.

Several years ago, Irish born 42-year-old Paul Underwood moved to Nanjing and began teaching for an international school. He quickly got settled in and began to use his generous holiday time to do some volunteer work in SE Asia. “I have always tied in some volunteer work with my travels” he said.

These days, he worked exclusively with an organization in Phnom Penh, but finding the right place to work with actually took him several years.

Sifting through scams

In 2002 Paul went to Cambodia on holiday. On one routine visit to deliver food and money to an orphanage, he discovered it was a scam. “When I got there-there was a makeshift entrance way with a desk. There was A4 information sheets in Khmer and English detailing the 'work' they did. There were no pictures of kids. Behind the desk there were dwellings with adults poking their heads out of. When I asked where the kids were, I was told they were on a day trip.

"I thought something was amiss, so I enquired as to when they would be coming back. I was told that it would be later in the day. I replied that I was happy to stay and wait – sensing I was being led on a merry dance, I wanted to make them think I would be willing to hang around. They then changed the story and said the kids would not be back for a day. I replied that I could come back the next day with food that I wanted to give it directly to the kids. The story changed again to 3 days. I then asked where they were, as I was prepared to go to them if necessary. They said it was very far away over the river. I said that that was fine as I had a lot of free time. They then stated that they couldn't remember the name of the place the kids went to. At that point I just left”.

According to Paul, exploitation is common in the charity field. Typical scams usually involve gangs, rather than 'organizations’. For example the kids begging outside the History Museum and the Waterfront are run by gangs – most likely from Vietnam. The babies in the kid’s arms are often drugged to remain lethargic – this brings in more money when the kids look tired and sad.

Phnom Penh orphanage

A few years later, Paul hooked up with a ramshackle orphanage in Phnom Penh. "It receives no government or NGO funding and only survives thanks to the generosity of visitors”. There are ninety two kids there. Six of them have AIDS. Thirty one have been abandoned. At least two have been raped. Twelve have been rescued after being exploited. All have rough backgrounds that are hard to comprehend. The children range from two to seventeen years old.

“I always aim to engage with the adult workers to help improve their English. At the Phnom Penh orphanage, I always go with the cook to buy food, play games with the kids, spend time talking with the adults to find out what they need, go off and buy what is needed, talk with the Director about the big scale projects, arrange tuition for kids, and just generally hang out and use informal engagement as a way of improving the kids and adults overall level of English”.

As he told us about his time in Cambodia, he spoke in a modest manner, implying that this is not something he does for praise and attention, but rather something he feels needs to be done, like having a daily shower.

“The Director is a property developer in Phnom Penh. She donated a plot of land to be used to help kids from the village she grew up in. It is basically a case of someone giving back to the community she came from. It is run by a number of volunteers who do a great job with limited resources. Luckily a benefactor from Australia raises the funds for big projects, like building rooms and classrooms. But they are always in need of funds for food and utilities. There are now 92 kids at the orphanage and they all need feeding.”

Adopting orphans

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Helping out

Paul Underwood intends to raise USD$10,000 this year, which will be used to send 10 kids to school and also purchase much-needed supplies for the orphanage.

Says Paul: "One of the main aims of the orphanage is to have as many of the kids attending English Language schools. If they learn English they stand a much greater chance of getting a job when they leave school. This would greatly help break the cycle of poverty.

There are now over 20 kids attending these schools thanks to the sponsorships I received."

For more information about how you can help make a difference, check out Paul's website. {/typography} Two years ago Paul adopted two Cambodian boys from the orphanage, “I started researching and looking in earnest about five years ago. I talked at length with people who had adopted and joined many forums to learn all the benefits and pitfalls of adopting. Prior to meeting the boys I was open to adopting from any country – I never had a plan that I would specifically adopt from Cambodia. But when I was there and I got on so well with the boys, it made sense for it to be them.”

Since adopting them, they have been living in China with him and attending one of the finest international schools in the country. “I had always thought that I would adopt one kid - not two. I also imagined adopting older ones –  not a 5 year old, and definitely not two 5 year olds. But the more times I visited the more we got on like a house on fire and it has been great. Luckily they are very independent and are very strong in themselves. So they have adjusted to life away from Cambodia very quickly and almost effortlessly.” They go by the names of Ati and Ato. Their full names are ChangSongty and Chea Vitou.

The process took around eight months. This was in a large part due to the fact that he didn't use an agency and he was in the country a lot of the time.

“The boys have adjusted incredibly well and settled very quickly into life in China. It has helped that they have joined a community of people who are also not living in their native countries. We do keep in touch with people they know from Cambodia and we also go back and visit the orphanage that they came from. It is good for the boys to keep in touch with their roots and for me to keep helping the kids who are still there,” he said.

When I praised Paul for his efforts, he replied with a shrug. “Such is life, it’s the least I can do.”

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