Her first trip to Southeast Asia in 2009 had been planned as a typical college backpacking trip, but it would eventually alter the course of CSUN communications major Rona Attia’s life.
Attia, 24, stumbled upon an orphanage near the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia during her trip, and she spent a day with the children. Her trip ended and she returned back to school and work. The memory of the orphanage nagged her, she said.
“I started working in the fashion industry, and I worked a little in P.R., and I dabbled into all these different, really fun kind of jobs,” Attia said. “And in the back of my mind there was always something that told me to not get too comfortable.”
In the spring of 2011, Attia began feeling bogged down by her lifestyle and she decided to travel oversees for a month and a half to “clear her head.” Once again she found herself heading to Southeast Asia.
“I kind of had an epiphany,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m already here in Southeast Asia, I might as well go back to Cambodia and visit the kids again and see how the orphanage is doing. See if I can raise a little money along the way.’”
Attia was born into a life of travel and charity. She was traveling in the womb as her parents hopped around the globe. They’ve lived in England, Brazil, Israel and more, she said.
Her father still makes regular trips to Haiti as a volunteer and is in the process of adopting a Haitian child. Attia said she inherited the charitable gene from her parents, but until she came face-to-face with third-world suffering, it had not been at the forefront of her personality.
“While I was in Southeast Asia, specifically while I was in Cambodia, you see these people,” Attia said. “You see these children that have close to nothing, but they are just the happiest most cheerful, full-of-life and inspirational children.”
Attia rented a guest room in Cambodia for $6 a night and extended her stay. She eventually stayed six months, three of which she spent working at the orphanage.
During the six months she taught English, organized fundraisers and used social media to raise money for the children of Cambodia. But her time there was not always pleasant. She got dengue fever from a mosquito bite, and she battled with corruption in the orphanage.
“There was one day where I was brought down really bad,” Attia said, but would not give details. “I was faced with a very difficult situation due to corruption. I did kind of lose motivation during that point because I saw how bad things can get.”
But she was not completely defeated, she said. She embraced this opportunity and discovered a new calling in life. By the end of her six month stay she was in the planning stages of founding a non-profit organization dedicated to providing clean water and other necessities to the area near the orphanage.
Upon arriving back in the U.S., Attia says she was glad to be home but expects to make another trip to Cambodia by the end of the year.
“I missed my friends and family,” she said. “But I didn’t miss my Blackberry. I didn’t miss my car. I didn’t miss my routine or to-do list.”
Today, Attia is attempting to complete her non-profit registration while taking five classes and working as a personal assistant. She also has a team of volunteers from a reliable agriculture company in Cambodia waiting for funding and a project.
“There’s such a focus on this materialistic lifestyle in our society that takes away part of the soul,” Attia said. “Living in a western society we have these ideas that how we behave, what we do, our routines are the right way. And that’s not necessarily true when you go to third-world countries like Cambodia.”