When I spoke to my Director about this blog, he immediately wanted to introduce me to Koky. Trusting his opinion, I jumped at the chance to attend a fundraiser where Koky would be sharing his story, alongside three other inspiring Melburnians who also doggedly pursued their passion. Koky’s story was both heartbreaking and hopeful. I was eager to hear more. So, a week later, over salted caramel scones and lemon and ginger tea, I learnt all about Beekeeper Parade, the charity it supports and the courageous man behind it all. While I’m incredibly humbled to feature Koky on this blog, I know this short post can’t do his story justice.
“When I was 10 years old, I wrote a story about my escape from Cambodia. My teacher asked me to read it out to my class and they became quite emotional.
I realised then, in that room, that I could make a difference in the world.
I had arrived in Australia when I was three. I was one of nine children and we were very poor growing up. Going to school and learning English had helped lift me out of poverty so I dreamed of making a difference in the world through education.
Then the opportunity to do just that presented itself. My Dad told me there was a village in Cambodia who were willing to give me a plot of land on the condition that I built a school. I was blown away! Never in a million years did I expect to receive land for free. I just had to raise money for the build. So, in 2006, my friends and I raised close to $100,000 and built our first school. What Dad hadn’t told me was that the land was in the village of my birth. The place of my imprisonment for the first three years of my life.
In some ways, returning was traumatic. I saw bullet wounds in trees. I saw blood stains on buildings. I heard stories about the Khmer Rouge cutting people’s necks with palm fronds.
But it was also beautiful. Building that school allowed me to say thank you to those who saved my life. The prison guard that gave my Mum extra food when she was pregnant. The elder who hid my family before we escaped. The soldiers that smuggled us across the border into Thailand. The volunteers from all over the world that came to our refugee camp. And the people in Australia that sponsored us.
If it wasn’t for their acts of kindness, I wouldn’t be here today.
When I came back to Australia, I started getting letters from other Cambodian villages that needed a school, so, my sister, Sophia and I founded a charity, BabyTree Projects. In line with the Cambodian government’s education plan, we built four more schools.
We wanted to continue to address the needs of these schools in an ongoing capacity without relying on donations. Sophia and I decided there was nothing stopping us from creating a business to do just that.
But, in 2012, Sophia passed away after fighting for her life against cancer. I had never seen myself as a business person but before she died, Sophia made me promise that our business dream would come true. I’ve had some really dark moments since then, but Sophia tied me to this world with that single promise.
Through loss, I learnt some really beautiful and critical things about life:
- The importance of keeping promises. I was so intent on keeping my promise to my sister that I always found a way to keep going.
- True courage. I didn’t recognise it until 2012. My sister’s morphine had stopped working and she dragged herself to the side of her hospital bed, looking at me with red eyes. She didn’t need words. She was telling me she was going to let go. I was on the other side of the room in internal chaos. I was breaking in front of her, but she was at peace. I decided that if my little sister can face her death with such calm and such grace, I don’t need to be scared of anything in this world.
- The world needs me here. It needs me here with all of the other dreamers and explorers to make this world a better place. Giving up is not an option.
- Finding myself. That has perhaps been the biggest challenge. Overcoming the voice in my head that tells me I don’t deserve to be here. Choosing to stay in this world makes any other challenge, including building a business, appear easy.
The business started online, and it started slowly. I was still processing my grief and it was a big struggle. My research had told me that lots of fabrics and second-hand clothes get wasted in the garment industry, and that fast fashion is the second biggest cause of pollution in this world. I started asking myself how I could turn discarded fabric into something useful and came up with the idea of turning old shirts into backpacks.
I didn’t know much about the fashion industry or the principles of fair trade. I didn’t even know the regulations around hiring a person in Cambodia, I just knew that I didn’t want to harm the planet or its people and that resulted in my business, Beekeeper Parade, being a sustainable one.
A lot of people told me it wouldn’t work, but my heart said it was the right thing to do. My BabyTree Projects supporters liked the idea and I launched a crowdfunding campaign. That, along with the sale of the car that Sophia had left me to invest in the business, was enough to make a start. In 2015 we sold our first bag. In February 2016, Melbourne Central offered me a space for five weeks, and our pop-up, Beekeeper Parade, has been here ever since.
Most people look into my shop and see a person selling a bag. But, I see myself laying out my dreams, knowing that people will walk all over them. I do it anyway, because there are a small handful of people who understand it completely. We have beautiful conversations and an incredible connection. That’s what I want life to be about.
I’m not running a business, I’m pursuing my passion. And when you see me stitching a bag, that’s me keeping a promise.
I gave my sister’s eulogy through a fog of depression, but I had made three promises which I intend to keep. The first was making our business happen, which I have done. The second was building a school on the beach in Sophia’s memory and the Sophia Saly School opened in January 2014. The third promise was providing a scholarship for dreamers and this will be next for Beekeeper Parade.
My brother’s made-to-measure suit business will donate $100 from every suit sold to launch the scholarship. We will also open a school of storytelling, equipping people in Cambodia with the skills to tell their own story in their own voice, through video, dance, writing or drama.
As for what’s next for me, I’m writing a book. Writing made me realise that to overcome my grief and understand my feelings, I couldn’t live in this world all of the time. Through my writing, I’ve created a world to escape to, where my sister lives on.
I thought remembering my sister would always be painful. But being in this shop is healing. My burning scars are gone because of this business. It saved my life.
When I step back from it all, it feels so surreal. I often wonder how a child born in prison in Cambodia, got here, to Melbourne Central. It blows my mind and I’m forever grateful, for everything.”