Interview with Fatin Arifin

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What prompted you to go to Cambodia to do social work?
I began working with the Organisation for Building Community Resources (OBCR) three years ago in 2011. I had met Reaksmey, the Founder, through the ASEAN China Young Entrepreneurs Network in Nanning, China in 2009 and we had stayed in touch. He was always updating me about the progress and challenges facing OBCR. I have always admired people who are involved with grassroots community work however, I realised back then that admiring alone wasn’t enough and that taking action was more valuable. So I made the commitment to head down to Cambodia for two weeks to experience what life is like there and to understand what getting involved meant. While in Cambodia I taught at the ETPC school run by OBCR which was at that time only able to accommodate 35 students in the kitchen area. It was hard not to fall in love with the children and the people and their simple view of life. Needless to say, the two weeks was enough to humble me as a person.

How have you and other Bruneians contributed to OBCR?
When I first started with OBCR, I was wary of making any promises or of giving any false expectations to OBCR and Reaksmey, particularly in terms of the sustainability aspect. So I focused on the low hanging fruits for example, creating the website for OBCR to give it a global platform. Other things quickly followed suit. For instance, upon my return from the first trip a friend asked about how she could contribute – a few months later we headed back together to Cambodia to deliver solar lights with the assistance of OBCR. In the beginning one of our main aims was the expansion of the ETPC school – we wanted this kitchen which was used for teaching 35 students turned into a proper structure that could accommodate over 100 students. So I created a ‘sponsor a child’s education’ programme as a way of bringing in funds.

Within a few months – together with the support of several friends, we were able to collect enough money to fund the expansion of the school for the September 2013 term. Through this we were able to start recruiting proper local teachers and were also able to pay them for their service. The next step was the ‘Teaching Volunteering Programme’ which is the most popular programme we have at OBCR. Since 2012, we have welcomed over 40 Bruneians and several international volunteers.

What makes your story remarkable is that you have opened up a channel for other Bruneians to contribute to the cause. The good work continues even though you are currently furthering your studies in the UK. Tell us about this movement you have started.
I would not say this is a movement yet. But it is certainly one of our ultimate goals to inspire more young Bruneians to take part in community work both within Brunei and abroad. The intention was to position OBCR as a platform for young people to experience doing community work abroad and at the same time learn about development so they can create their own projects. The hope was that the experience in Cambodia would be a beginning for many more initiatives and projects. I really hope to see more of our youth become actively involved in championing community projects and social causes.

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What have you learnt from doing charity work?
I am not comfortable with the word “charity” in itself. What I have learnt from the very beginning is that we must move away from the mindset that ‘doing charity work is doing good’ because this is a one sided perspective. When I spent my first two weeks in Cambodia, I was moved by the community spirit amongst the villagers. Despite having so little, there was a lot of sharing and helping each other out. This made me realise early on that the work that I would do in Cambodia was not going to be charity- but a partnership. The problem with the word ‘charity’ is that it tends to assume that the less privileged people are not capable of helping themselves or their communities. It is often the circumstances that limit their growth and development for example, the lack of education opportunities, mobility, resources and access to technology. As well as more serious issues that affect villagers like climate change that prohibits villagers from having a stable crop production; or being exploited by employers who pay very low wages. On the other hand, when you participate in community work anywhere, you most certainly get something in return – whether it is something intangible such as being humbled or something tangible such as knowledge and experience that can help you in your future endeavours. As such, it is a two way relationship, a mutual exchange.

Tell us about your study abroad. What are your plans moving forward?
I have recently completed an MSc in Emerging Economies & International Development at King’s College London as a Chevening Scholar 2013/14. The experience has been invaluable to my personal and professional growth. It has equipped me with a vast knowledge and understanding of the what, how and why of developmentfrom a theoretical aspect. Therefore, I look forward to contributing to the development of both Brunei and OBCR and perhaps, even beyond.

Fatin welcomes any collaboration opportunities with OBCR. For more information, visit: http://obcr.org

This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2014 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!