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The rewards from travel know no bounds. Adventure, foreign cultures, local celebrations and meeting like-minded friends deliver priceless experiences. Travel also opens our eyes and hearts to the plight of people less fortunate.

Through poverty, questionable governments, displaced communities, kids are often the worst affected. We want to help but we’re not sure how. Let’s meet Friends International and see how they get it done.

Friends International began in 1994 helping street kids in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Following the years of genocide and conflict in Cambodia, parentless kids were left to fend for themselves without homes, education or skills. These pint sized casualties toughened up quickly in order to survive.

Friends International. Cambodia.
Training & pic courtesy of Friends International.

Mith Samlanh (Friends in Khmer) was the original Friends project. In the first year, 17 children’s lives were changed. In the ensuing decades, this number has reached 100,000. Through carefully managed programs, both children and adults are provided with tools to develop skills and care for themselves and those around them.

Friends volunteers are #everydayheroes who visit and identify people in communities living on the margins of society. They provide care for drug and alcohol detoxification, HIV prevention and general medical conditions in preparation for the next step – education.

Friends International. Cambodia.
Training & Pic courtesy of Friends International

#everydayheroes provide remedial education to prepare kids to return or begin public school. Vocational training in hospitality, beauty, auto repairs, and cooking prepare both school-leaving kids and young adults with skills directly linked to market needs making them highly employable.

Friends Training Restaurant’s delicious menu is prepared and served by teachers and students. By dining here we’re helping Friends International continue their work. All profits are invested back into the students.

Friends International. Cambodia.
Seafood Laksa @ Friends Training Restaurant.

The same applies to ‘Friends ‘n’ Stuff’, a retail store manned by teachers and students and stocked by under privileged Cambodian artisans & designers. Friends Nail Bar is where students learn mani/pedis and head & shoulder massages from their teachers.Friends International. Cambodia.

Click on the highlighted links to find Friends International affiliated restaurants. In Cambodia, Friends the Restaurant & Romdeng in Phnom Penh, Marum in Siem Reap & Sandan  in Sihanoukville. In Laos, Makphet in Vientiane & Khaiphaen in Luang Prabang. In Thailand, Khanun in Bangkok and in Ethiopia, Bahir Zaf in Addis Ababa.

Friends International. Cambodia.
Teacher – Student Training. Pic courtesy of Friends International.

Friends International’s ChildSafe Movement is another volunteer program with a specific focus on child safety.

“ChildSafe works to protect children and youth who are: living and working on the streets, using drugs, affected by HIV, migrants or at risk of unsafe migration, in prison or in conflict with the law, victims of abuse and domestic violence, involved in the sex trade, school dropouts or unemployed, living in poverty or affected in any other way that prevents them from having their internationally recognized rights as children fulfilled.”

Their THINK ChildSafe campaign outlines 7 better ways to protect children during your travels. The tips are outlined below transcribed directly from their campaign information.Friends International. Cambodia.

“1 Children are not tourist attractions, let’s not treat them like they are.

Children living or studying in schools, orphanages or slums shouldn’t be exposed to tourist visits. Imagine a bus full of foreigners visiting a school in your country, would you find this acceptable?

Put child protection first and do not visit these places. Find alternatives that really help children at www.thinkchildsafe.org

2 Volunteering with children feels good but could be harmful – look for better ways to help them. 

Working with children in institutions such as orphanages is a job for local experts, not for travellers who are just passing through. Children deserve more than good intentions, they need experienced and skilled caretakers and teachers who know the local culture and language.

Make sure your volunteering is a great experience and has the best impact possible. Do not work directly with children, instead share your skills with local staff.

3 Children pay a price for your generosity – don’t give to begging children.

When you give money, food or gifts to begging children or buy anything from them, you encourage them to continue begging. This prevents them from going to school and locks them into a cycle of poverty.

There are better ways to support children and youth: use businesses with a social impact, such as training restaurants and shops or donate to organisations supporting children and their families.

4 Professionals know best – call them if a child needs help.

Helping children directly can cause problems because you don’t know the culture and laws. For instance, never take a child back to your hotel room – it’s dangerous for both you and the child. 

When you see a child in need, the best thing to do is to contact local professionals. Call a child protection hotline, contact a local organisation or the police. You could save their life and give them a first chance to build their future.

5 Sex with children is a crime – report child sex tourism.

Sex tourism involving children is a devastating reality. It happens in hotels, in bars, etc. You may even be approached and offered sex with children.

When you see such a situation, don’t put yourself at risk. Call a child protection hotline, contact a local organisation or the police, so immediate action can be taken to protect the child and investigate the situation.

6 Children should not be at work instead of school – report child labour.

Some children sell goods at tourist sites or offer their services as guides. Others are hired by tourism businesses like hotels or restaurants, and this is a problem when it hurts their education.

Do not buy goods or use services offered by children. If you think that a business employs underage children, call a child protection hotline, contact a local organisation or the police. They will check the child’s situation – many children are just helping their parents after school, but some may be exploited.

7 Protect children – be a ChildSafe Traveller.

ChildSafe raises awareness about how you can help children during your trip. It also trains and certifies many businesses in the tourism industry (such as hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and taxi services) to actively protect children.

Use ChildSafe Certified Businesses when planning and throughout your trip to avoid being involved in harmful situations for children.

Every action advised in these tips will make a big difference.”

Join the movement at www.thinkchildsafe.org

ChildSafe Hotline Phnom Penh: +855 12 311 112

ChildSafe Hotline Siem Reap: +855 17 358 758

ChildSafe Hotline in Sihanoukville: +855 12 478 100

Learn more about Friends International at www.friends-international.org

Discovering ways to pay back the generosity received in our travels: it’s a thing we love….