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Introducing Aklile Mekuria – JWOC’s new Fundraising and Communications Manager

Aklile Mekuria

Here at Journeys Within, we are always excited to meet the new staff at our sister non-profit, Journeys Within Our Community, and share a little about them with our travelers who might pay them a visit on their next stop in Siem Reap. And we’re especially excited to introduce Aklile Mekuria, JWOC’s new Fundraising and Communications Manager, who comes to the organization with an interesting CV from around the world…

Coming from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aklile has joined the dynamic JWOC staff as the Fundraising and Communications Manager. Born and raised in Kenya and Ethiopia, Aklile is no stranger to working with cross-cultural programmes. Having graduated from St. Mary’s College in Hyderabad, India with a degree in Mass Communications and Political Science in 2015, it was only a matter of time before she was back in Asia.

Journeys Within: Where were your born and raised?

Aklile Mekuria: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. My family lived there for about 25 years. When I was about 7 years old we packed up and moved back to Ethiopia.

JW: What was your first memorable travel experience?

AM: Taking the train to Mombasa from Nairobi. I was perhaps 6 years old but I remember the commotion on the train so well. The trees rushing past the windows, the excitement of going to the beach! When we got there we had such a memorable time, from monkeys stealing our groceries, to camel rides along the beach, and delicious grilled fish by the ocean!

JW: What inspired you to get your degree from a college in India?

AM: India is such a melting pot of cultures, traditions, languages, and food! I could honestly think of no better place to learn how to work in a multi-cultural environment than incredible India!

JW: What did you study and why?

AM: I studied Mass Communications and Political Science. I’ve always been a lover of writing and I knew I wanted to work in the international field and these two subjects lined up perfectly for that.

JW: What other not-for-profits/NGOs have you worked with? And how were those experiences?

AM: I’ve always volunteered for NGOs, especially during summer holidays in high school, my parents would always encourage me to give back in any way, even if it was just one hour in a day. Well that grew with me and my first job out of university was the Programme Manager for Girls Gotta Run Foundation in Ethiopia, an organization that empowers young girls through running and education who are at risk of underage marriage in rural Ethiopia. It was such a privilege to work with these strong girls who have taken back ownership of their own lives.

Most recently I worked at the Sustainable Development Goals Centre For Africa in Kigali, Rwanda. It was interested to work at such a macro level and see the way policies were created and carried out after having worked at the micro level in communities. It was really cool to work alongside influential people that have been key to the development of Africa.

JW: When and why did you first visit Siem Reap?

AM: The first time I visited Siem Reap was in February 2017. For as long as I remember I have always wanted to visit Cambodia, but I never really acted on it. Then earlier this year I decided to pack my bags and go for a visit. I initially had plans to travel around South East Asia but I fell in love with the quiet town of Siem Reap and spent the entire month here.

JW: Why did you want to work at JWOC?

AM: The main appeal at JWOC was the solid stance on child protection in all their programs and operations. It’s unfortunate that children are sometimes used as bait to attract donations or guests, however at JWOC I respected the way in which the needs of the child is always prioritized. Additionally, I liked that this organization focuses on Cambodians working with Cambodians for Cambodia. The teachers, community leaders, and the majority of the staff are Cambodians. Who better understands the challenges of Cambodia than Cambodians?

JW: What JWOC projects/initiatives are you most excited about?

AM: I love the Community Support programs! They’re so specific to the challenges Cambodians in the villages face. I had the pleasure of joining the financial literacy training and was immensely impressed in the way Konthea, the Educational Manager, was able to relate and connect with the villagers and provide simple everyday tools that they can adopt.

JW: What’s your favorite cafe/bar in Siem Reap so far?

AM: The Siem Reap Food Co-op, the company is always great and it’s the perfect place to laze around and eat great food.

JW: What’s your favorite Cambodian food?

AM: I love love love amok curry with tofu! Oh, it’s just too good!

JW: What has surprised you the most about living in Siem Reap?

AM: It’s so interesting to view Cambodia through the eyes of someone living here opposed to being a tourist. Experiencing the everyday life beyond the Angkor Wat Temples and pub street has probably been my favourite so far. It’s the small comparisons that remind me of home and family.

JW: What other regions are you most looking forward to exploring?

AM: I have yet to see the Mekong River and I am so excited about it! I also can’t wait to visit Laos, it’s quite high on my list!

This Mother’s Day, help a Cambodian mother

This Mother’s Day, we are reposting this appeal from Journeys Within Our Community because we can’t think of a better way of saying “thank you” to moms everywhere. We hope you’ll consider donating…

Our mothers are heroes. From the moment we’re brought into the world she cares for us; she strives to give us every opportunity, encourages us to pursue our dreams and is not afraid to tell us when we are wrong! She is the role model who encourages us to become the individual we are today, teaching us values and morals to live by and always standing by us when we feel the rest of the world is against us. This is the case throughout the world, whether you live in the US, Europe or Cambodia! Our mother wants us to be the absolute best we can be.

However, despite improvements over the past decade the sad truth is that in Cambodia many mothers cannot give their children the same opportunities and head start in life that others receive elsewhere. Cambodia still has one of the highest infant mortalities in Asia with 25 children per 1000 births not living beyond 5 years, highlighting the importance of access to proper services and healthcare to mothers and their children, especially in rural areas.

Mother's Day in Cambodia

This is why JWOC is working directly with and training rural women to overcome such hurdles, so they can give their children every chance to maximize their health and prospects for the future. With the support of village chiefs and a trained midwife, we are working with women to deliver maternal health training in areas such as family planning, pregnancy and mother/infant health in an engaging and informative way. In 2016, JWOC aims to deliver training through our scholarship students to over 300 women across 5 villages, a service most would not have access to or be able to afford in rural communities.

So on this Mother’s Day here at JWOC, we are not only celebrating our own mothers but also the millions of mothers throughout Cambodia who are putting their children first. With your support, we can help more women within Siem Reap province, just $30 can provide a woman with maternal health training, a donation of $300 would cover training for half the women in a village and $500 training for a whole village. With each donation you will receive a special project report within six months that allows you to see the positive impact that your generosity has had on the health of rural Cambodian mothers and their children.

On this Mother’s Day, I would invite you to consider not only celebrating our own mothers, but also celebrate the determination of Cambodian women by making a donation that will give them and their children a fair opportunity in life.

Donate now.

JWOC_MothersDay3

A Unique Guest Experience at the Kulen Waterfalls

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“We have worked with our clients, Tania and her family, on trips to Cambodia in the past but this year we arranged an amazing trip to visit the dolphins in Kratie, the Koh Ker and Preah Vihear Temples, and Narla’s home village with an amazing homestay. The highlight, however, was a day we arranged for the orphanage where their daughter lived before she was adopted into their family. Below is Tania’s description of the day and some beautiful photos to illustrate it. This is what makes Cambodia so special, why my team is the absolute best, and why I love what I do!”

-Andrea Ross, CEO of Journeys Within

“We had a stunning day at Phnom Kulen with the kids from Happy Family Orphanage-I cannot even begin to tell you! ‘Ma’, who cares for the kids, had never been and so you can probably imagine her joy….this woman with so little, handing alms to the people on the stairs. That was just the first of many times I was tearful. Ma enjoyed her day thoroughly, the kids all stuck close to her as she swept them from blessing to blessing (and she swooped us in too, of course) for water blessings, and music blessings at the temple site. We’ve done this all before but it was so special this time, and really wonderful to have Narla there who added his own brand of warmth and cheer. Santhou was lovely as well and not only has knowledge but a calm demeanor, and somehow always appeared at the very moment he was needed (does JWTC have ALL the best guides in the country?? Every single one is a treasure with his own uniqueness).

The kids enjoyed the delicious (best.chicken.ever) food and best of all for them, the swimming!

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Sophia and the other kids finally were able to play when it came time for the water. She was glowing by the end of a day filled with connection with her ‘second’ family.”

Tania, Guest

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The following tours are some highlights from Tania’s trip. Contact us to help you plan your own trip to Cambodia!

21 Dec 15   Phnom Penh: Drive to Kratie

After breakfast, your driver will meet you at your hotel and you will drive to Kratie. This drive is approximately 8 hours, depending on traffic, and you will stop at a local restaurant for lunch along the way. When you arrive in Kratie, you will be introduced to your Journeys Within tour guide who will accompany you on the river crossing to the Rajabori Villas Resort for check-in. Enjoy your evening at leisure.

22 Dec 15   Kratie: Irrawaddy Dolphins, Mekong Turtle Conservation Center and Sunset at Sam Bok Mountain

After breakfast, you will be met by your guide and you will cross the river by boat before driving to the Irrawaddy Dolphin experience. Listed as critically endangered in 2004, the Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin is part of Cambodia’s national heritage and symbolizes the magnificence of the Mekong River and its biodiversity. The Irrawaddy is a shy, small dolphin that is dark grey in color with a small rounded dorsal fin and a bluntly rounded head. You will take a small boat out on the Mekong River and sit quietly as the boat rests amongst the Irrawaddy Dolphins; watching them feeding and playing in their natural habitat. Return to town where your guide can assist in choosing a local restaurant for lunch, or you can return to the Rajabori Villas Resort hotel for lunch. After lunch, you will drive north of Kratie town to Sambor district where you will visit The Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC), located at the beautiful and historic 100 Pillar Pagoda (Wat Sor Sor Muoy Roy). The MTCC was opened by Conservation International to increase the wild population of the endangered Cantor’s Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) in the nearby Mekong River, through head-starting turtle hatchlings from the community-led turtle nest program. The facility has over forty indoor tanks containing juvenile turtles which are kept for a 10 month period before releasing into their natural habitat. There are also many other Asian turtle species at the facility to see. After your visit to the MTCC, you can wander the grounds of the magnificent 100 Pillar Pagoda – a priceless architectural structure built at the site of the old Royal Palace Temple of Sambor District. As dusk approaches, you’ll drive to Phnom Sam Bok (Sam Bok Mountain) and climb the steps to the Phnom Sam Bok Pagoda to watch the beautiful sunset over the mighty Mekong River and surrounding countryside.

23 Dec 15   Kratie: Drive to Kompong Thom

After breakfast, you will be met by your guide at Rajabori Villas Resort and you will cross the river by boat before driving to Kampong Thom. When you arrive in Kampong Thom, your guide will take you to your hotel for check-in. Say goodbye to your Journeys Within tour guide, as tomorrow you’ll be met at your hotel by a trusted local community guide. Enjoy your afternoon at leisure.

28 Dec 15   Siem Reap to Preah Vihear: Beng Mealea and Koh Ker 

Enjoy an early breakfast at your hotel before leaving the crowds behind and heading to Beng Mealea, one of Angkor’s more mysterious temples located 40km outside of the main temple complex. After an hour you will leave the paved road and head out on to the beaten track running through rice fields and villages of rural Cambodia. At the temple, your guide will help you imagine how it once was as you pick your way through the rubble now surrounded by jungle. After an early lunch, continue on to the dirt road that leads to Koh Ker temple. King Jayavaraman IV made this city the capital after he moved it from Angkor Wat. The temple itself has faced a lot of vandalism and many of the once beautiful sculptures are missing heads, but it still serves as a beautiful legacy to the Khmer Empire. If you have the energy, and aren’t afraid of heights, you can climb to the top of the temple, the second tallest in Cambodia, so you can see above the forest line and enjoy amazing views of the rural countryside and the border of Thailand in the distance.  Around mid-afternoon, continue the last bit of your journey to Preah Vihear, where you will check into your hotel.

29 Dec 15   Preah Vihear: Preah Vihear Temple and Drive to Siem Reap

This morning you will set off early to visit Preah Vihear Temple, a Khmer temple situated atop a 525 meter cliff in the Dangrek Mountains in Cambodia, close to the Thailand border, but most notably in Cambodian territory. This temple has long been the subject of intense ownership disputes between the two neighboring countries, Cambodia was officially awarded control of Preah Vihear in 1962 by the International Court of Justice and it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As a key edifice of the empire’s spiritual life, it was supported and modified by successive kings and so bares elements of several architectural styles. Affording a view for many kilometers across a plain, it has the most spectacular setting of all the temples built during the six-century-long Khmer Empire. Spend a good few hours exploring this area before heading back to Siem Reap (a drive of about 5 hours).

03 Jan 16   Siem Reap to Thma Puok Village: Homestay with Narla

After breakfast, you will be met at your hotel by your driver and Narla at 9:00am. The drive to Thma Puok is approximately 3 hours, and along the way you will stop in a village for an opportunity to try local snacks such as fried crickets, water beetles and silk worms. You will also stop at Phnom Srok (District Mountain) to see a stone quarry and stone masons, carving stone as they have done for generations. When you arrive in Thma Puok, you will go straight to Narla’s family home which will be your homestay for the evening. A traditional family lunch will be served, and you will have some free time to relax and chat with Narla’s family. Later in the afternoon, you will take a village walking tour where you will meet some of Narla’s relatives and neighbors before walking to Prasat Kasen (Mote Temple), and ancient Hindu temple located next to the village. In the evening, return to your homestay and enjoy a traditional dinner with Narla’s family and friends.

First impressions of JWOC

JWOC team

Standing in the visa line in Siem Reap after arriving in a swathe of sunshine and tourism, I knew Cambodia was going to be very different from my previous country of residence, Bangladesh. Having traveled through Cambodia before, I knew a little about the country’s history and culture; and as the nostalgia pulsed through my veins in the immigration queue and my passport was being stamped, I was very much ready to make Siem Reap my home and take on a new challenge.

I was excited.

Let me provide some context: Siem Reap is a town built upon tourism. The temple complex of Angkor Wat draws in visitors from around the world to come and view its spectacle. This is great for the local economy, bringing in what I imagine is millions of dollars, which in turn should have a positive impact on the socio-economic development of those living in and around it. However, given that Cambodia is a developing country, we know that is not always the case.

Those who have visited Siem Reap know that as well as the five-star hotels and resorts, there is still visible poverty and inequality amongst many Cambodians who are looking to benefit from a portion of the millions available.

Josh

This is where Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC) comes in, providing a range of services and programs in and around Siem Reap, to make sure local residents can improve their quality of life. Through innovative programs based in the heart of the community (Scholarships, Free Classes and Community Support), JWOC has managed to create a rapport and understanding within the community beyond any traditional NGO.

Knowing this, I was still quite nervous on my first day (as most of us are); however, after walking into the community center for the first time, all my nervousness quickly subsided. Students were playing tag. What could be more natural? Phew!

This initial experience perfectly sums up JWOC and the aura that exists here – the enthusiasm and professionalism of the scholarship students and staff we have is exemplary and clear to see by all involved. I was lucky enough to arrive in Cambodia just in time to ride with the students on the 30 km “Race 4 Change” Angkor Bike Ride and to then celebrate their achievements at the graduation party. I have since experienced their fieldwork in villages, their classroom teaching and witnessed JWOC’s ability to transfer such enthusiasm and work ethos into the programs.

You may walk into JWOC with a frown, but nobody walks out with one!

Josh Layton

From the first day at JWOC up until now I have found myself engaged in every aspect of an exciting and vibrant organization filled with youth enthusiasm and spirit; and, with the 10th anniversary of the organization coming up next year, a celebratory mood.

As the Communications and Fundraising manager, I have the responsibility of highlighting and showcasing JWOC in the best way possible, both outside and inside our walls. And as far as I can tell, JWOC is already doing this for me!

So as the nostalgia in my veins runs out, I find it being replaced with optimism and anticipation for the coming months.

Josh Layton is the new Communications and Fundraising Manager for Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC). Click here for more information about the staff of JWOC.

Last Call to Support JWOC’s 2015 Race 4 Change

As we enter into the season of giving, our thoughts turn to ways we can help improve the lives of others. With the recent conclusion of our second annual Race 4 Change, our hearts are warmed by the impact we have made as a team through our efforts for JWOC.

Our team collectively ran and cycled over 900km to raise awareness for JWOC’s initiative to promote economic, educational, and improved health opportunities for Southeast Asian communities in need. The opportunity to impact the lives of the people who live in the places where we have the privilege to visit and work has been a gift to us. Read on to learn more about why our team participated in the Race 4 Change and what it means to them.

Andrea Ross, CEO

“I decided to participate in the Race 4 Change for a few reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to fundraise for JWOC to help us to continue into 2016 with all of our projects running strong and supported. I also wanted to train and run with the amazing team I have here in the US so we could not only come together as a team, but feel connected to our amazing team in Cambodia as well!”

“JWOC has come so far in the last 10 years and we have had an impact on so many lives. Just seeing our scholarship students and what they have accomplished inspires me to want even more for our community and our country.”

(From left to right) Courtney, Andrea, and April of the Journeys Within Truckee, Calif. office. Daisy, our Boston Terrier, was there too!
(From left to right) Courtney, Andrea, and April of the Journeys Within Truckee, Calif. office. Dazy, our Boston Terrier, was there too!

April Cole, VP of Sales

“I ran in the Race 4 Change for JWOC because I am inspired by the work JWOC does in the community, and even more so by the students who attend the JWOC education programs. These individuals know and appreciate the value of education. I have noticed that many of the younger scholars even head to JWOCs free classes after attending their government school! They are incredible children and adults who work very hard and are so grateful for the programs/opportunities that JWOC provides. I love JWOC’s new motto – Learn today, Lead tomorrow – this is what these scholars are doing. I will continue to ‘race’ however many miles it takes to keep supporting JWOC and the students!”

Courtney Ridgel, Booking Coordinator

“When I visited JWOC I was struck by how each person attending the free classes was determined to make a change in their own life for the better.  Aside from fundraising to help further these opportunities for people in Cambodia, I wanted to make a positive change for the better in my own life.  Running has never been my strong suit so I felt that running a half marathon would really help me to grow in an area that challenges me, in addition to improving my overall health.  So, here’s to health and self-improvement!”

Vin Kebblewhite, Regional Director of Operations – Cambodia & Vietnam

“I chose to cycle in the race because it’s a fun way to support JWOC and a beautiful way to experience Angkor – an early morning bike ride with the sun rising over ancient temples! Not a bad Saturday morning! For me, JWOC is not just an awesome organization doing amazing work; it’s also one of the great benefits of working for Journey’s Within Tour Company. I moved to here to work towards positive change for Cambodia, so it’s great working for a tour company with an active focus on philanthropy.”

Narla, Vin, Naida, and Kanika of the Cambodia office.
Narla, Vin, Naida, and Kanika of the Cambodia office.

Naida Dizdarevic, Ground Operations Manager (JWGO)

“The reason I chose to ride in Race 4 Change is because it was a good way to show support for JWOC. I think that JWOC is doing amazing work and I’m proud to be working for a company that takes responsibility to support the countries it works in.”

Narla Phay, Concierge and Customer Service Director

“The reason I chose to ride in Race 4 Change is because JWOC gave so much the local Cambodia communities. I was a scholarship student who graduated from the JWOC Scholarship Program. I continued on to a very successful life after I graduated from college and was enabled to support my family. The program itself helps its students directly and as an indirect result, their families as well.”

“There are many wonderful programs that JWOC is doing to make the local community in Cambodia better, so I believe giving back is the key to setting a good example for younger generations. Without JWOC my life would not be as good now!”

Narla riding his bike through the finish line in Cambodia.
Narla riding his bike through the finish line in Cambodia.

Makara Put, Country Director – Cambodia

“I like all kind of sports, especially running. I ran in the Race 4 Change for the second time because I am a former scholarship student of JWOC. Race 4 Change is a way that I can help JWOC in return by helping to raise funds. I wanted to show the people who donate and other scholarship students that as humans we need to understand the cycle of life – by this I mean that we should live for others as others should live for us. When we help each other, we smile together, and that is the real happiness!”

Makara of the Cambodia office.
Makara of the Cambodia office.

Kanika Peou, Accounts Manager

“The reason I chose to ride for Race 4 Change is because it was a good way to show support for JWOC and to thank JWOC for their hard work in Siem Reap to help our community, local people, and children. I think that JWOC is doing amazing work to help and develop education for our younger generation and local villagers. I am so proud to be a part of the company and the amazing Journeys Within team.”

Kanika and Narla of the Cambodia office.
Kanika and Narla of the Cambodia office.

Donations for the Race 4 Change will be coming to a close soon. We invite your support of JWOC’s wonderful cause and sincerely thank you for contributing to an effort that can truly change the world.

To donate or for more information about JWOC and the Race 4 Change, visit www.journeyswithinourcommunity.org. For more information about Journeys Within, visit www.journeys-within.com and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.