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Humans In Melbourne: This is one of my favourite stories ever and it is definitely one that will be in the book later in the year!
Koky: “I was born in a prison during the Cambodian civil war. Over 3 million people died during that war. My mum was pregnant when it broke out and she was imprisoned. The first 3 years of my life were spent behind bars with my mum, where she was beaten and tortured and starved…
When the war ended there was a lot of turmoil. We escaped prison and we found my father and other siblings. We walked for 3 days and 3 nights to the border of Thailand and got smuggled across.
People often say when I tell them this story “Oh, you were so lucky to survive.” As I’ve grown older and thought about it, it seems to me luck had nothing to do with it. People’s kindness and courage is what allowed us to survive. There were the doctors and nurses that helped us when we got to Thailand. The prison guard who would always bring my mum some extra food to help her… There was a French doctor who helped us by calling all of these embassies around the world trying to find one that would take us. The first country that said yes was Australia.
We moved to Melbourne and we settled into the community. I learnt English and had a great education. When I got older I decided to travel back to Cambodia to try and help rebuild it. I was thinking I could help in education somehow. Something I had benefited from that was so rare in Cambodia. My dad organised the trip for me and told me he’d found a village that was willing to give me some land, under the proviso I built them a school. I was amazed!
I told my sister Sophia and my friends all about it, we are a bunch of dreamers and romantics, and in 12 months we raised over $50,000. We all went to Cambodia and lived in this village for about 2 and a half months and we built the school.
One day an elder of the village came to me and asked “Koky, did you know that I hid you from the soldiers when you were making your escape?”
“No, I didn’t,” I replied. He then asked me a question that would shock me:
“Did you know that where you were born is just around the corner?”
My parents had sent me back to where I was born without telling me. It was so overwhelming and I felt like I had made a difference to a place that meant a lot to my history.
So that was that. I had completed my mission. That was until I got contacted by other villages asking me to build schools for them.
“We don’t have a school either, we have land for you, can you come and build a school for us as well?”
So in 2007 I set up a proper charity, Baby Tree Projects, and set about raising finds to build these schools. That charity still operates now. We have built 5 schools so far and hope to build more.
While all of this was going on, myself and my sister Sophia thought “There are so many profitable businesses out there, why can’t we have one that also helps put kids through school?”
We started to develop the idea for a new business which we named “Boy and Bee”. The idea behind it was that there is this 10 year old kid who wanted to change the world, he went out and tried, but he failed. He then realises that if he wants to change the world he has to work with others, especially his best friend,The Bee. Sophia was my Bee… My best friend.
While we were trying to build the business Sophia was diagnosed with cancer… She fought very bravely for a year and a half but then she had to let go…
In her will she left me her car with instructions to sell the car and to use the money to make sure Boy and Bee happens, to inspire change in the world.
I struggled to deal with Sophia’s death. I was suicidal and I wanted to leave this world too. I think that everyone that has suffered severe depression understands what I mean when I say that you go to this edge, for me the edge was looking into this abyss… this black darkness, but it was a peaceful and mesmerising place. I remember wanting to just slip into that next world, to just find peace there.
But I decided not to. I had made my sister a promise, a single promise that I had to keep. I thought “I’m going to keep this promise first before I earn the right to join her.”
I spent the next 3 and a half years trying to make this happen. People often ask me how I built this business. The truth is I used my heart and soul. That may sound vague but it was those 2 things that made me never give up when I had zero money left. When I was in Cambodia eating 2 minute noodles, struggling with no idea how I would pay the rent… It was my heart and soul and this promise I had to keep to my sister that kept me going.
I developed a new business, I named it Beekeeper Parade. I wanted to make backpacks but backpacks that do good for the world. Something not a lot of people know is that in Cambodia we get a lot of the third world’s rubbish. Especially a lot of used clothes. The average Australian only uses 20% of their wardrobe. The other 80% is only used once or twice and then never again until they are either thrown out or donated. A lot of the clothes that get donated actually end up in landfill or in shipping containers in Cambodia. So I thought that I could re-purpose this clothing to make the backpacks.
That’s where the idea came from…
We started with T-Shirts and we made one of a kind bags out of them. They looked great and the response we got when people saw them was amazing. Then I realised that factories were throwing out new stuff as well! Off cuts, end of roll fabrics, remnant fabrics, so I designed another bag to make use of that as well. It’s win-win because the more we make the more kids we help and we are keeping the clothes out of landfill as well.
For every bag sold we send a Cambodian child to English class for one whole year. So far we have sent close to 1000 kids to school.
My sister’s dream is still very much alive.
Doing all this has healed me. A friend recently asked me how I was… “I am happy again. For the first time since Sophia left I am really happy.”
BabyTree Projects is supported by BeeKeeper Parade.