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Catawba Professor Finds That Learning English Can Turn Tide for Foreign Orphans

September 14, 2004

Category: English, Faculty


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There is a way for orphans in both Russia and Cambodia to improve their lots, Catawba College Mathematics Professor Dr. Paul Baker learned this summer during mission trips to both countries.   Those orphans can learn to speak English.

Speaking English provides an escape route for these children, Baker says, allowing them to work as translators, or to work in hotels frequented by international travelers.   These options stand in stark contrast to the normally preset fate for Russian boys, who typically head straight into the military at age 18, or to the fate of Cambodian youths who look forward to poor- paying jobs as young adults in agriculture, mining or in sweatshops.

Traveling with his 17-year-old adopted Russian son, Kolya, Baker made his ninth trip to visit orphans in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area.   Kolya served as his father’s interpreter as the two first looked up orphans befriended on previous mission trips, now young adults, to check on their progress.

They reconnected with Yura, “a nice fellow, who admits he smokes and drinks too much,” Baker says.   And they found Andre, now going to the university and living with his brother Alexi.

They met with a former translator from Baker’s 1995 trip, Ivan, now Dr. Krulov, who recently earned his doctorate from St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University in computer science after completing a year of graduate study at M.I.T. in the United States.   “That was sort of neat,” Baker recalls, “to have seen him as a kid and now as a colleague.”

The pair also traveled to Boravichi, 200 miles outside of St. Petersburg to visit orphans participating in a summer camp there.     They made the acquaintance of Edgic, a small-for-his- age, 14-year-old who Baker describes as “tough as nails.” And, they befriended Serozha, Baker’s 13-year-old shadow who seemed to be wherever Baker was, and Nadia, a very athletic competitor.

Of Edgic, Baker says, “He’s a survivor, so he’ll do okay. Everybody worked, but nobody worked really hard like Edgic did.”  

And after almost a week of visiting with the orphans, it was time to say farewell – something Baker admits he’s not very good at.   “I didn’t want leave them,” he recalls.

Kolya boarded a plane to head back to the United States, while Baker headed in the opposite direction – to Cambodia.   He was a guest in the home of Julio Jeldres, the personal ambassador of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, an employee of the United Nations, and also head of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.   Jeldres arranged for Baker to visit a Cambodian orphanage.

The conditions in the Cambodian orphanage were not dismal. Baker found everything very clean, the children well fed and well behaved, and even a couple of computers for the children to use at the orphanage.   As in Russia, he learned that about one-third of the orphanage’s residents were actual orphans, while two-thirds have at least one parent living but unable to provide for them.

He met Jen Lin – the 12-year-old boy “who can fly,” thanks to Baker swinging him around in the air.   Jen Lin’s father abandoned him and his mentally ill mother could not take care of him.   And there was a girl in the orphanage who made a lasting impression on Baker with her gift to him.

“I was taking photos with my camera, and she asked for me to wait a minute and ran off.   She came back with an intricate crocheted bag that she insisted that I take.   She wanted to give me something so I had the joy of receiving it,” he recalls.

Baker saw widespread poverty in Phnom Penh – families living in tenements in war-damaged buildings, with few social programs available for them.   Seventy percent of the Cambodian government’s budget is provided by foreign aid, he says.

And Baker saw many handicapped individuals, victims of landmines.   Cambodia, he also learned, has the highest per capita handicapped population. Baker was told that an individual maimed by a mine is a much stronger reminder than a dead individual.   So, landmine makers ponder how to make better mines – those that will help both victims and their friends and families remember the threat of those who planted them.

He found “more joy in Cambodia, than in Russia,” and people with “kind spirits.”   “They probably don’t have the altruistic instinct,” he explains, “because they can’t afford it.   They don’t have a jealousy of success like the Russians, but then, there isn’t a lot of success in their country.

“At least they admit there are Gods – too many Gods for me, ” Baker continues, noting the majority Buddhist population of Cambodia.

What Baker discovered while visiting the Cambodian orphanage was a desire by many there to learn English and now, he’s pondering how to meet this need.   “Cambodia was uncharted territory for me.   I don’t want to go back just to go back.   I want to be able to do something.”

The coming months will find Baker planning exactly what to do next within his church, Resurrection Lutheran in Charlotte, which continues its strong support of missions.