There was such a degree of happenstance in Jesuit Fr Ashley Evans’ call to Cambodia that it could only have come from God. Having initially been denied his wish to serve as a worker-priest in Birmingham, Fr Evans volunteered for the newly formed Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) and was sent to Thailand. There were two camps there, one Cambodian, the other Vietnamese.
In 1986, having completed his degrees in teaching and philosophy in Galway, Fr Evans volunteered for JRS and was sent to two camps for Cambodian refugees in Thailand”
“It wasn’t something I had pre-planned, it was something God had planned,” Fr Evans tells The Irish Catholic. “Even when I arrived in Thailand, I remember the conversation with the guy in charge. He asked me, ‘Did your superior send you for two years or one year? If he sent you for one year, we’ll send you to the Vietnamese camp, if he sent you for two, we’ll send you to the Cambodian camp’. I said, I think he sent me for two years. And that’s I how I ended up in the Cambodian camps.”
It was the beginning of a 30-year connection between Fr Evans and Cambodia. In his time there, he was able to fulfil his two callings, the first to the priesthood, the second to teaching. His desire to combine the two was what called him to the Jesuits in the first place.
“I went to Belvedere so I knew the Jesuits from my school, but I was also very involved in the parish and in the scout movements,” Fr Evans explains. “I felt the call to being the priest first, to care for the people for all that. Then gradually I realised that I loved teaching, so I felt if I joined, I could find a way of doing these two things together.”
In 1986, having completed his degrees in teaching and philosophy in Galway, Fr Evans volunteered for JRS and was sent to two camps for Cambodian refugees in Thailand. Although the brutal Khmer Rouge regime had ended a few years previously, Cambodia was under the control of Vietnamese troops. It meant the Cambodians could not return and Fr Evans worked as a teacher-trainer among the 150,000 refugees in Site Two, the largest of the camps.
“I was there for two years,” he says. “I got to know the situation of the Cambodians, it was only about seven years after Khmer Rouge fell. The Khmer Rouge stories were very alive, the people had suffered an awful lot from the regime. The Church was very small and not many groups were working in Cambodia because it was occupied by the Vietnamese soldiers. The Jesuits saw the possibility of us going in there after peace came. I volunteered then to go back if the peace agreement worked and it did work in 1991. I finished my theology then and went into Cambodia.
“I arrived in 1993, we were a small group,” he continues. “We had a few programmes of our own that we took from the refugee camps. One of them in the early days was a technical school for handicap soldiers, to help them learn a trade. They’d come for a year, learning electricity, later on agriculture.
“That was our first activity. The soldiers had been fighting each other and there were four different factions, actually all had handicap soldiers. We had soldiers from all the factions, so there was reconciliation also. Then they learned how to accept their handicap and be reconciled and realise that their life wasn’t over. That psychological and spiritual healing was also very important.”
After that, Fr Evans spent the next twenty years in Phnom Penh – capital of Cambodia – teaching Mathematics and Philosophy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, being the Director of the Catholic Student Centre, serving as curate in Phnom Penh parish and teaching Theology at the Cambodian seminary.
“There were very few priests at that time, so I worked as a kind of a curate,” Fr Evans says. “I stayed there in that parish for eight years. It was not a typical Cambodian parish. What was very different from Ireland was the whole liturgy was enculturated in a certain sense. I had to learn new gestures and all the people were sitting on mats. We were in our bare feet, all that kind of stuff. We took a great effort to respect their culture.
After 20 years, the Jesuits asked Fr Evans to start a new school in the north-west”
“The Church set up a hostel for poor students from the countryside, a Church hostel, for men and women studying in different universities in Phnom Penh. I was in charge of that hospital for the Church for about 10 years. That was very important work, lots of the young people came out of that with jobs with NGOs, the government, private businesses and created a network among themselves. I really enjoyed that, and I did that for the Church. It was a very dynamic place.”
After 20 years, the Jesuits asked Fr Evans to start a new school in the north-west. After that, thirty years since his fateful trip to Thailand, he was able to take some well-earned rest.
“It took a long time to get the school off the ground,” he begins. “I went out there and we bought the land and set up a community learning centre first, then a kindergarten, a primary school, then a secondary school. I was in charge of that project for four years, then they gave me a sabbatical. I was here and in France, then spent two final more years in Cambodia. Finally I came back to Ireland. There were plenty of young priests to take on all the works, so I finished.”