Under Foreign Skies: Billy Barnaart

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Billy Barnaart
Billy Barnaart (© Eric Beauchemin)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.

Dutchman Billy Barnaart is a physiotherapist, who specialises in working with the mentally disabled. After working for ten years in a centre in The Netherlands, he got an opportunity to apply his expertise in Bangladesh, and then in Cambodia, a country he has fallen in love with. He talks about the challenges and opportunities he has encountered along the way, as well as his new field of interest: Cambodia’s AIDS orphans. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: April 25, 2006


Billy Barnaart was born in Indonesia of a Dutch father and a Chinese mother. At the age of four, the family moved to the Netherlands. After graduating from high school, Billy decided to become a priest, but unable to reconcile his own beliefs with those of the Catholic Church, he decided instead to study medicine because he thought it was a way to help those less fortunate than himself. He was unable to get into medical school in The Netherlands, so he went to Belgium. It was the beginning of a journey that would take him half way around the world.

One of my ideals in life was to do some work in developing countries, and I thought as a medical doctor it could be possible to go to a developing country. But then I observed the establishment in the Belgian society but also in the Netherlands society and I didn’t want to become part of that and that’s why I decided to switch to physiotherapy and work in a centre for the disadvantaged. EB: What do you mean a centre for the disadvantaged? The mentally retarded. I got to know them during my practical training and I said yeah, this is something that I would really like to do. As I didn’t want to start a private clinic for myself because it has never been my goal in life to earn a lot of money or something like that, so I had the opportunity to start in a centre for the mentally retarded, as they called it at that time. I started as a young physiotherapist. And I worked there for more than 10 years. During the years I became first a therapist and then the head of the department and I became the chairperson of let’s say the union of physiotherapists working in this field of expertise. And then in 1988, the Foundation Bishop Bekkers requested me to find a physiotherapist with a lot of experience who really wanted to go to Bangladesh. EB: What is this foundation? The Foundation Bishop Bekkers is a foundation which has been established in memory of Bishop Bekkers who had a warm heart for people with mental retardation. So they requested me to find a physiotherapist, and I said I don’t think you have to look further because I was really willing. Was your wife also happy to be going to Bangladesh with you? She supported me but Bangladesh had a negative reputation, so I went there and it was just after the biggest flooding in history: three-quarters of Bangladesh was flooded. And I went for example to an orphanage of Terre des Hommes The Netherlands somewhere in the north and I saw babies, children dying of cholera and I said at that time, it’s not a place where you go with your family. So we decided OK she would stay behind with our son, Jesse, and I would go alone. After six months I discovered it’s not a bad place to stay with your family, so I said, OK you can come over. EB: And they did? And they did after six months, yeah. EB: How long did you work there in Bangladesh? More than 5 years, from ‘89 to ‘94. EB: And after that what did you decide to do? Did you want to go back to The Netherlands? No, because after one year, people were giving me the name of being an expert in starting up community-based rehabilitation programmes because of my training. So the organisation sent me out to different countries: Vietnam, Nepal. I want to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, where I trained local people in the basic technique of physiotherapy.

EB: But you said that because of your training, but you actually didn’t have any training in community-based development work. Before I went to Bangladesh, I followed two training courses: one was what they called an acculturation course and the second was a special course for medic and paramedic staff. The basic principles of community-based rehabilitation, community development was lectured during these training courses and using your normal intelligence and using your education as a professional, it was easy to start community-based rehabilitation. EB: Can you give me an example of how that worked? For example, you said for example that you went to Nepal, so what happened when you arrived in Nepal? Before I accepted the job to conduct the training course, my condition was let me go first for 10 days, 2 weeks so I can have some feeling with the society, with the community. After that I could adjust my training courses to that specific society: what is the religion for example, what are the specific skills or real cultural things in this society. Like Nepal, you have the caste system. Alright, how can you use this in your training. In Vietnam or Cambodia you have Buddhism, how can you use this. In that way, I could prepare my training and then after maybe a month later, I came back and I started the training and most of the time the local organisations selected the participants. And the base of my training is the haptonomy, the haptonomical approach in your therapy. EB: What is that? It is based on the touch and feeling. How you experience my touch and how I experience feeling you. If I touch you, it can be in a very aggressive way. It can be in a soft way. It can be in a gentle way. Because here in Asia there is a huge difference in what the people understand what is care, what is love, what is taking care for, and yeah, I can say it was a success. EB: How long did these courses last? One month in total. EB: So during this time your wife and children were back in Holland? No, they stayed in Bangladesh. EB: Oh really, why? Because I was based in Bangladesh, and from Bangladesh I went to Nepal and I went to Vietnam and other countries, which was of course much cheaper than to fly a specialist in from The Netherlands. EB: And while you were in Bangladesh, you also adopted a Bangladeshi girl, didn’t you? Yes, Lara. She was left behind at the gate of a consultancy office and after one month being taken care for by one of the consultants, this family went for holiday to Indonesia and they asked us if we can take care for this baby. And we said yes, and they went for one month or six weeks and in this period, you developed a real relation and we were saying, what will happen because the other family had already 4 children and Lara at that time was behind in her physical development, and as a physiotherapist with a specialty in early childhood development was it easy for me to get her on her feet and within a month she was standing and walking. EB: How old was she then? 10 months. So Jeanine and myself we were discussing maybe we could adopt her. But at the same time, the family in Indonesia while on holiday, they were discussing it might be Jeanine and Billy will adopt Chahinur at that time. So when they came we invited them for a meeting and we said what do you think if we could keep Chahinur in our family and we will adopt her, and they said of course fantastic because we were hoping for this. And that’s the way she got in our family.

In 1995, Billy and his family decided to leave Bangladesh and go to Cambodia. They went at the request of Camara, the country’s first local non-governmental organisation dealing with physically disabled people. Camara’s director was Mrs. Sukua.

Sukua was a very, very determined lady, woman, very committed and motivated to rebuild her country. For 12 hours she put me on a grill, asking questions, the most stupid questions but also the most intelligent questions, and after this session, she said to me I want you here. I want you to be part of the reconstruction of Cambodia. EB: So what did that entail reconstructing the services for the disabled here in Cambodia? It was more to get all the international organisations on one line. In ‘93 during my orientation visit which was financed by UNICEF, it came out that everybody was working on an island, and with that kind of attitude: don’t touch my island. They were also not really looking into the future that you have to train local people to take over your position, your way of functioning. I wrote a very critical report on this, which was accepted by UNICEF. That’s why Musukua really wanted me to come and in ’95 it was realised that my family and myself could start our life here in Phnom Penh. EB: So did it involve going travelling around the country and setting things up? No, Sukua requested me to set up a national curriculum for community-based rehabilitation. So in the beginning, the first two years, I conducted training courses of a month, and then six months later a follow-up of another month in community-based rehabilitation principles and techniques. I was part of the establishment of the National Centre of Disabled Persons which was finally established in ’97, realised with Dutch funding and Japanese funding. At that time Sukua moved into the advisory position of Prince Ranarridh of the FUNCINPEC party and Camara was not able to handle my programme because it became nation-wide and then I was transferred to the National Centre of Disabled Persons which I myself helped to be established and we set up there a national programme with every month a training, either a follow-up training or an initial training. And that we followed up in the rural area. EB: Was it very important to set all of this up? Yes, because at that moment, it was centre-based, not community-based. So in the training courses also staff of international organisations we had participating and they came back to the international organisations and they started also a CBR programme. And each international organisation took a certain area here in Cambodia to take care for, like for example Handicap International in Kampongchan. In Sihanoukville Cambodia Trust. So it was decentralised provincial office and headquarters and volunteers, and especially volunteers who did the work. EB: At some point did your position become obsolete? Did you move on to do something else? Yeah, my goal in ’95 when I started was to get a team of persons with disability into the Paralympics in Sydney because I started also the sport movement here in Cambodia for the persons with disability. And I succeeded in that: I got the national volley ball team for the disabled participating in the Paralympics with the help of the chairperson of the International Federation for Volleyball for Persons with Disability, who was a Dutch person, and I could convince him. Although we were not qualified he put us on number one on the substitute list and when England withdrew themselves, we were there and it was fantastic. So for myself, my task in the disability sector was finished. EB: Why did you remain interested in disability for such a long period of your life? Because I myself am very able. I’m an athlete. I can swim. I can run. I did all kinds of sports and I was among the best and I believe yeah, trying to transfer these kinds of skills or use these skills in your rehabilitation techniques, in your way of motivating the disabled persons, I think that was a kind of motivation in my life.

You’re listening to “Under Foreign Skies”, a programme from Radio Netherlands. After working for several years with the disabled in Cambodia, Billy decided to start a new chapter in his life.

During my last years in the disability sector and because of my work in the community, I encountered the AIDS problem. And then I also got involved when I went out with the young prostitutes, the pick-up bars, the discotheques, I met many young girls who were positive, and they were asking for help. Of course in the beginning financial assistance, medical help and Jeanine and myself were very open for this. EB: Jeanine is your wife. Yes. We went to these places in the weekend and these girls came to our house, had dinner, take a shower, got first medical assistance when needed, counseling from Jeanine. At that time I can say we had a very wonderful life. Every evening, there were always 3 or 4 young girls 16, 17, 18 years, HIV positive, but we could provide them a home, a kind of a family home. They were playing with Jesse and Lara and giving them massage to them. And yeah that was a real nice period in my life, I have to say. EB: You weren’t earning any money doing this were you? No, from 2000 I was at the end of my contract. I could have extended it, if I would have worked for the National Paralympic Committee. But I said no. I think the biggest problem at the moment is AIDS at the moment, so I got involved with an orphanage and they asked my help. Jeanine was working as a teacher at the International School and we said to each other, OK, Billy you have a couple of years you don’t have an income, fine. I have an income we can survive. So in that sense she provided me the chance to work with orphans, to work with HIV infected people.

EB: Then something dramatic happened in your life. Yeah, after 2 years, in 2002, the night of our wedding celebration, 10 years after our wedding, Jeanine died suddenly in her sleep from a massive brain haemorrage. You don’t know what is happening. Thinking back I don’t remember every….that whole week went in a huge fog and I know that I spoke with people. I know that for example a good friend from The Netherlands’ embassy came over to assist. I know that Musukua, at that time, spoke during the cremation, but it’s all vague. It’s like in a huge fog, and I got of course then two weeks afterwards an accident myself, in a motor accident. I hit a pig because yeah, your concentration is not that high any more. I got sick and the first half year or so, yeah. EB: So how were you surviving because she was the one who was the bread-winner basically. You were unemployed. You had two children to take care of at that time. How did you manage? The International School was very good in this. They said to me the day that they came to say goodbye to Jeanine, Billy don’t worry. They knew our social situation and they said Jesse and Lara, as long as they go to the International School of Phnom Penh it’s free and we will pay one year the salary of Jeanine. So together with her pension, what she built up in The Netherlands after more than 10 years work and the years abroad because she worked also in Bangladesh and in Cambodia for local NGOs, we could manage to survive for 1½ years. And then a year later, people in The Netherlands wanted to make a documentary about my life. And the production team came over and they made the documentary and it was the start of a new foundation in The Netherlands, the Water Carriers. They collect money from friends, family members, and every month they transfer money to me so I can survive for a part of my life. And I borrow money from friends, again from family members and now, SKAN – the Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland, it’s a foundation for children’s stamps – is providing a kind of a salary, but it is of course not enough. So I’m still per month, I should need $1000 more, but OK, if I borrow this money then it will be OK.

EB: What are you doing exactly at the moment now? I’m training staff in management. I try to raise funding for the organisations. I have established an AIDS organisation. I have established the Jeanine’s Children’s Association. And I’m the main fund-raising. So it’s a lot of proposal-writing, talking, trying to meet the big donors or the small donors, because every donation has the same value for me. If you give one dollar or if you give 10,000 dollars. If you have only 2 dollars and you give 1 dollar, I think that it’s more worth than if somebody has a million and who’s giving 20,000 dollars. So in that sense, any donor is of equal quality, equal value for myself. EB: The Jeanine Children’s Centre Foundation, what does it do? It’s taking care of children whose parents died of AIDS, and they are not positive, because we don’t have the capacity, the knowledge to take care for HIV positive children. So we refer them to Mary Knoll, for example. It’s another international NGO here in Cambodia. How many children are you taking care of? Inside of this centre, we have 87 children and outside in the community, we have 15 children, so a total of 102 children. EB: If the centre did not exist, what would these children do? What would happen to them? I think many would end up on the street or finally in prostitution, especially the girls or in the criminal world. There are several boys for example and also girls who were already on the street and who were picked up by the Ministry of Social Affairs and sent to our centre. So I think we can contribute to the reconstruction of Cambodia via these children. So I think it’s very important. Otherwise the whole society will deteriorate and everybody will become afraid to go outside, to go out because there are so many criminals, prostitutes and this kind of things. I went to the centre today and I saw the youngest child there I think was a year and a half, the eldest one around 17. EB: When they reach the age of 18, are you going to turn them out onto the streets? No, it’s like I have adopted Lara from Bangladesh. Officially is that on paper I am the father. I see these children in the same way. They have come to JCA, Jeanine Children’s Association. We are the parents, so we take care of them. And that means you are a parent for your life. That doesn’t mean that they stay in the centre, not at all. They will build up their own life, independent, but they always can come back. They always can fall back and if they need support we should be there. I think that is the idea of a parent. The number of AIDS cases in Cambodia is enormous and there are going to be more and more AIDS orphans. EB: Are you planning anything else to try to help these kids? One of the programmes JCA needs to start really nation-wide is a kind of advocacy, lobbying, awareness programme to point to the society that they are responsible for these children. They have to take up the responsibility. It is not the responsibility of the child or an NGO or a charity organization. It’s the society. These children are the future of Cambodia, so the society should take care for their own future, and their future are these children, so that is I think that is a main idea, what I see as a people’s movement in Cambodia what I would like to achieve in the coming years. EB: So you are going to continue doing this work for several more years. Yes, that is for sure. I think it is needed. At this moment, I believe I am the only one with this kind of idea: you have to develop a people’s movement, people’s movement in the sense that you want to love these children, you want to guarantee them security, education, health services, food, and I believe that that is possible at the moment in Cambodia after these many years of civil war, fighting and terror.

EB: Why do you give so much of yourself to others because you are struggling to survive basically – you have to borrow money constantly from friends and family – and yet you are giving so much of yourself to a society which is not even yours? First of all, the society I met here, I visited in ’93 for the first time, my first emotion was pity, pity, and I never had that before. Even in Bangladesh people are much and much more poor. I have seen dying children but the pity that I felt for this society, for these people is tremendous. They went through so many things and they were cut off from very basic things like having emotions, having relations and then seeing them in this situation where a handful of the powerful people is keeping them away from access to food, to housing, to education, health services, then I say it is a reason to fight for, trying to mobilise the community, and you start low and you start with one but hopefully it will spread and that is what I mean with a people’s movement but in a positive way, not in a negative way, in a real social way. The social structure was completely destroyed in Cambodia, so taking care was not any more part of their dictionary. They didn’t know how to do. You see it on the market, when you are walking with a baby, how they touch a baby. It is with a kind of violence. You never see it in other countries. Of course, in other countries to show your affection can be also in a bit violent way but here it is quite extreme. EB: Have you fallen in love with the country and the people? I think so, yes. It’s like a good marriage. It’s kind of love-hate relation. Of course I get frustrated. Of course I get irritated, angry, furious even, but basically I love the people here. Yeah. EB: Do you ever plan to return to The Netherlands? If I hear and I read the stories about what is happening in The Netherlands, I’m asking myself do I have reason to go back or to live there. To go back, I always have reason because I have friends, I have family, very good friends who are very close to my heart and I am missing them for sure, but to live there permanently, I’m not sure. I’m proud to be a Dutch national, but I’m not sure, I don’t know. To be exact, I don’t know. Jesse and Lara are still studying. The third one will start study, so I don’t know. I’m not sure about that. The second reason that I have a special band with Cambodia is that I dispersed the ashes from Jeanine here in the Mekong River, and it’s creating that band, so every year we go to the river and we are talking to Jeanine, remember the good things we had. So if I’m leaving this country, I don’t have that, although of course you always carry her in your heart. But that kind of physical touch, you don’t have that if you are staying in The Netherlands.

Billy Barnaart in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. Under Foreign Skies is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.

If you have comments on this or any other Radio Netherlands’ programme, please write to us at letters@rnw.nl or the English Language Service, Radio Netherlands, Post Box 222, 1200 JG Hilversum in Holland.

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