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From strangers to sisters: A story of a beautiful friendship - and bones that float

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From strangers to sisters: A story of a beautiful friendship - and bones that float

"Friendship is the only cement that will hold the world together." – Woodrow Wilson 

Whilst we often share inspiring stories about our scholars’ lives, we also shine a spotlight on the very real benefits for our own children, for whom life alongside our scholars changes the dynamic of classroom and campus life. We already have an impressively wide representation of nationalities on campus, yet the scholars provide depth to our diversity;  with scholars often coming from strikingly different socio-economic backgrounds and situations. Their different perspectives enrich classroom discussions, increase cross-cultural appreciation, and invite life-long friendships.


The opportunity for meaningful relationships with people from profoundly different backgrounds is exemplified in the beautiful story of best buddies and G11 students Naia and Sovichea (‘Sovi’).

“There’s a saying in Cambodia about how lucky bones float, how the sacred rises out of the suffering. Mine is a tale of hope: I’ve gained a UWCSEA education - and a sister. I trust that my bones float.”

Sovi sighs as she explains, “Before all this, I had a complex childhood, there were a lot of challenges in the family and financially. I just wanted love - and to fit in.” Coming from a small dusty village near Siem Reap, where food and day to day life filled the mind but not the spirit, Sovi’s dreamed of a different future. 

Her first lucky break came in 2008 when she was one of the 25 children selected to join a new village school set up by a wealthy donor. It was a chance for a better education, but learning proved to be rote, bullying was rife, and her mind soon wandered to horizons far away. “When I heard about the UWC scholarship, I thought it would be a dream opportunity for something better, a way out, but so many others applied from all over the country. The chance seemed very slim. My Dad screamed when they called him. Oh, yes, my Papa’s very proud of me!” 

But, the transition to UWCSEA was another challenge. Coming in Grade 8, as part of a special programme for Cambodian scholars, Sovi explains: “I was so shy. I really struggled with language, confidence, and a desperate desire to integrate and ‘fit in’. Arriving from a more traditional and conservative culture in Cambodia, it was only after entering the more open-minded world of UWC that I realised I too was holding stereotypes. I grew up understanding girls ought to be soft and weak, that fairer skin was prettier, and the wealthy were somehow better. But here people give more value to different things. There are less preconceptions and judgements, people are curious. You are who you are, as an individual. I had to learn how to learn all over again - and to open up. At first I felt like a guest here, but now, I belong.”

Sovi attributes this feeling of belonging in large part to her friendship with day student, Naia, that bloomed in the girls’ Grade 9 year. Her timidity has melted away in the light of their relationship - and the realisation that everyone smiles in the same language. “Friendship was the magic ingredient; when someone really cares about you and wants you there, then you belong.” 
Naia laughs at Sovi’s affirmation that it’s their friendship that has given Sovi the confidence to feel valued and a part of the community. “It goes both ways. She brings out the best in me - and it’s changed my UWC experience. Sovi brings light to everyone and everything. She cares so deeply about people, it’s like she feels their emotions.” 

The irony is that the two girls have never shared a class or activity together (meaning they’re hugely excited at the prospect of finally being in the same group for the much-awaited Initiative for Peace later this year). Yet, in school breaks you'll inevitably find them side-by-side sharing firm favourites - cinnamon buns and spicy lentil dahl,  loitering by the lockers, lounging and laughing on the Boarding House beanbags, or with books sprawled between them studying in the library. Inseparable.
Naia’s by nature clearly curious about other people’s stories and histories - the sort of person who wants to learn and understand the world through someone else’s eyes. “Despite the fact that we are so multicultural at UWC, there is a certain sameness in our expat bubble. We all have different passports, yet we share so many similarities and privileges. Getting to know Sovi was amazing - it was fascinating to meet someone with such a different starting point for their views and perspectives. Someone who was genuinely grateful for their life.” 
And it is clearly not just Naia who feels deeply connected to Sovi. “My whole family loves her so much. She’s a really important part of our family - I’ve gained a sister.” Hanging out at weekends, doing sleepovers, even going on family holidays together - Sovi’s been absorbed into the hustle, bustle and good energy of family life. 
Freddie, Naia’s mother, speaks with equal affection: “Sovi has an incredible light about her. She’s funny, down to earth and always speaks her mind. She sees the positive in every little detail. Having a friend like her has not only inspired Naia to do and see more, but also made our family love more of life.”
A recurring theme from student’s at UWC is how despite feeling more connected than ever with a global community, the deep interest and celebration of their various individual cultures, languages and foods unleashes a huge sense of national pride. And so too was it for Sovi; just when her eyes were opening to the broad horizons of faraway lands, peoples and ideas, so too did she find intense pride in the richness of her own Cambodian people, stories and culture. “She is such an Ambassador for her country - she makes you want to taste it, visit it, embrace it,” says Naia.
“Naia is so liberal - she deeply believes in freedom and equality. Her family does too.” Sovi ponders the differences in their cultural backgrounds, “I guess I am a product of my past, of my country’s past.” She continues with a quiet intensity, “I hate war. We need peace. In Cambodia political parties still fight for power, but me, I choose to concentrate on nature and the environment - on healing.”
Naia understands. She explains that despite already being dear friends the relationship dramatically evolved when Sovi joined Naia’s family on a trip to Cambodia. “I thought I knew her inside out - but on that visit I learnt so much more. Being in her country together, seeing her home, talking about her family and her past, let me see her so much more clearly.”
Cambodian history became real for Naia, as text books of the Khmer Rouge came to life in the story of Sovi’s parents. Suddenly the history was personalized. It was painful - but so too did the journey bring deep joy and connection. “Listening to Sovi as our tour guide, proudly jostling us through narrow streets and night markets, pulling us up the ancient walls of Angkor Wat and sharing the beautiful and terrible history of it all, I got to see a whole other side of her country - and herself.”
“Life and identities are complex,” both girls agree. ‘But friendships ground us.” Naia stands up. “This is what UWC and the scholarship programme is all about. We talk about bringing together kids of different cultures and backgrounds to find understanding - and, it works. It opens you up to different world views. And it teaches you about gratitude - and friendship.
So 20 February, UN World Day of Social Justice, when world attention is on promoting human rights and removing artificial social barriers based on race, gender, or religion, would be a wonderful opportunity to sit down and get to know someone different. 

Maybe it will be one of our incredible 101 scholars, maybe one of the Internally Displaced Persons here through the community’s support of the UWC Refugee Initiative, maybe it will be someone else who just looks a little lonely like Sovi once did - who may be feeling like they don’t belong and could do with a friend. 

“We’re all so lucky here - maybe we all have bones that float.” 


At a time when others may be closing doors or building walls, UWCSEA affirms its commitment to bringing children of the world together to learn, reflect and grow through the Scholarship Programme. Your donation today will help ensure a brighter tomorrow for deserving young scholars of great promise and potential.

5 Feb 2020
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