Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Somnang

Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint a favourite moment from a trip that encompasses so many moments and emotions. This trip to Cambodia is no different, there were moments that just stand out in my memory and keep coming back to me but none more than this one, captured by my friend, Juanita.

I was sitting on a bench outside of the baby house, while others on my team were inside visiting and photographing the littlest residents at Place of Rescue. It was hot and I was enjoying just sitting for a few moments, listening to the sounds of the preschoolers learning lessons through a nearby window.

An older woman came around the corner, carrying the most beautiful little girl. I had seen her on our first visit to Place of Rescue but I hadn't had time to really meet her other than to hold her hand and say hello. As they came over, I offered to hold the little girl for her house mother. She handed her over to me and I held her in my lap. Her name is Somnang and she has lived at Place of Rescue since 2011, when she was found at night abandoned in a market place. She has some severe disabilities that may have resulted from a birth trauma or perhaps from her parents trying a rope around her neck and dragging her. Whatever physical deficits she may have, she has an incredible joy and smile that completely radiates from her. Holding her, she smiled and looked into my eyes and though language was an obstacle, I started to play with her as she put her fingers on my face and near my mouth. Pretending to chomp on her fingers brought gales of laughter. This sweet little one is so beautiful and her life is completely different than it would have been had she not been brought to Place of Rescue. She has a mother now who takes such good care of her, and treats her with love. She has siblings that know her and play with her and speak with her. She has a safe place to live and learn and grow, and she has those that are working hard to get her to Bangkok, so that she can be assessed and treated for any of her disabilities that can be improved.

You'd never look at Somnang and think of her as "lucky" if you didn't know the story of her life, but lucky...blessed...loved....these are all words that describe this small girl. And they are the words I would describe feeling just holding her in my arms and playing with her for a short while.
A favourite moment with a very special girl...

Friday, December 6, 2013

How Lucky We've Been to Have Share the Earth with Him


May we all strive to live according to the struggles and forgiveness and fortitude he exemplified.
Rest well, Madiba.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Place of Rescue - Cambodia

Down a long and bumpy road, outside of Bek Chen, Cambodia, is a long driveway and a small sign that marks "Place of Rescue".  At the end of the drive, is a lovely house on stilts, with a large verandah and beautiful flowers surrounding it and it's there that we find Marie Ens. Marie is one of those women who should make Barbara Walters' list of most fascinating people but probably never will while there are the Miley Cirus and Kardashians of the world to watch. It's only one of the many injustices in our lives that we become immune to. 

Marie is 79 and she first served in Cambodia with her husband and small children in the 1960's. She is feisty and determined, a fierce advocate for the children of Cambodia. Over the years, she has been evacuated from Cambodia several times in the face of the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnam War. She returned to Cambodia late in life and plans to live out her days right where she's at. In a little home on the edge of a piece of property that has become sanctuary and home to children who most likely, without this place, would be orphaned and on the streets, hungry and exploited. 

When we arrived on the property, we were greeted as old friends, each of us. Marie has an uncanny ability to remember names and faces though she travels and meets countless people over time. We sit down with her and hear the story of how she came to be in this place, living out her life, pouring into the committee that she has in place to run the NGO. She believes in Cambodia and with the exception of the English teachers, has only Cambodian leadership in place. She used to be counted as the only non-Cambodian on staff but she recently was given her full Cambodian citizenship - an honour that absolutely delights her. She can't hide how proud she is to be a Cambodian. 

Sitting with Marie and hearing her passion for the people of Cambodia, it's hard to imagine how we live our lives without such drive and passion for something meaningful. It's the very thing that energizes her and allows her to live so fully. It's enviable. 

We head onto the property for a tour and the first thing we see is a couple of rows of houses where families who have HIV/AIDS are able to live together and receive treatment and support. It's an incredible ministry because it allows families to stay together and for children to have access to school and support, instead of having to go out and figure out ways to provide income for their families.  If families lose both parents, the children are integrated into the homes at the orphanage and  continue to live in stability with familiarity around them. They are already known and loved and so the grieving process is not complicated by the uncertainty of new surroundings, unstable living conditions or loss of basic necessities. 



A row of homes where families with HIV/AIDS live 

Place of Rescue has lovely homes, in groups of 10 around an inner grassy courtyard, lined with trees and flowers.  Each home has a housemother who is responsible for the family of children entrusted to her. Children from pre-school to high school age live together as a family. Having dinner in the homes, we see first hand how it really is a family environment...a beautiful departure from the institutional approach to orphan care. Finding the right women to be housemothers remains a huge challenge for Marie and her team...it's not easy to find women who are willing to live with a household of children that are not their own, but to love them as if they were. The housemothers have strong faith, compassion and love to give. When you meet these mothers, you realize that they really do love the life they are living, it's not just a job to them. And thankfully so, because they are in it for the long haul, raising children to become successful adults is no easy task. 



We're greeted by these two little guys...always happy to see Marie or Makyeay (grandma)
as they call her.
As we walk around, we also meet some of the children, returning from school. When children are 11 at Place of Rescue, they are each given their own bicycle. It doesn't matter that they are used bicycles and well worn, each 11 year old is excited to participate in this rite of passage. No longer do they have to walk to the nearby school, but they are able to bicycle. For the children that go to school off the property, it is a rule that they must double another smaller child on their bicycle. No bicycle goes through the gate with just a single rider. It's lovely to see the older children caring for the younger ones in this simple way...it's just part of the fabric of life here at Place of Rescue.

Three sweet girls that now live together with 7 others and a house mother at
Place of Rescue were proud to show us their home.

We meet several girls and as we leave their home, we hear the stories of their rescue. Children who were orphaned and left alone. Children whose own mothers tried to drown them out of some form of desperation or mental illness. Children who were being exploited by family members and unable to attend school or even eat daily...brought to Place of Rescue and placed into family style homes.
We had dinner with this beautiful household of girls from age 3 to 13.

As we shared dinner with the girls, we learned bits and pieces about their lives before
they came to Place of Rescue. 

This family of girls and their housemother (far left) were so sweet.

One of the beautiful components of Place of Rescue is their commitment to Cambodia as a country and a culture. Children are raised by Cambodian house mothers, taught by Cambodian teachers (with the only exception being English teachers) and taught Cambodian traditions and dances so that they can integrate back into Cambodian society as adults. This is definitely not an easy mandate to uphold but the community ownership component of it is the kind of benchmark that many NGO's fail to recognize and it becomes their undoing. Instead of "importing" housemothers and teachers, volunteers from other more developed countries...which could be financially advantageous to an NGO, Place of Rescue sets a high standard and doesn't compromise the care or teaching given to the children. This is one of the reasons that I love the model of care that they are providing for these kids. It's evident in the community that Place of Rescue is a community of loving homes. Children here are very fortunate, even in light of their harrowing stories of early life. They are loved, they are cared for and they are being given the chance to grow into educated, compassionate, confident adults that really and truly can change the Kingdom of Cambodia for the better.
After dinner, we gathered everyone together and the kids sang and danced for us.
Children are taught traditional Cambodian dances in an effort to preserve their culture
so that one day, they will integrate as seamlessly as possible into Cambodian life.

The boys and girls practice their dances and love to perform
for their peers and any visitors.



Monday, December 2, 2013

Waking in Pnomh Penh





The view from the Tuk Tuk 


The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh

The Presidential Palace in Pnomh Penh

A small boat along the Tonlesap River where it meets the Mekong River 

A street vendor sells lotus flowers as offerings for Buddha


A child holds to a large balloon overhead on the lawn of the palace

A small boy pulls and releases the tether of a large balloon, making it dance overhead
Construction workers on the street pass materials from window to window


So happy this morning. Maybe that's the wrong word. Content. Sometimes the biggest luxury of travel is feeling like you're right where you're meant to be in the world, even if it's somewhere you never imagined.

The voices of Cambodia outside my window. Builders working nearby. Housemaids in the hallway. Tuktuk drivers calling out to those on the street. 
Cambodia is beautiful. The city is filled with details. Bouganvillea and candles floating in pots of water are fragrant homages to artistry and beauty. Intricate carvings, statues, and wood totems embellish even the most humble of dwellings and businesses. Even the very language, printed out, is a beautiful script, involving artistry to undertake.

Walking along the waterfront at the Mekong, colonialism and asian artistry coincide. We walk along the sea wall and there are people in droves coming out into the cooling evening. Incense fragrances the very air, interrupted at intervals by the wafting smells of street food and garbage, sewage and sea air, mixing to assault the senses. 

Golds and reds, greens and yellows, mahogany and metal make up the city. Elaborate artistry in the form of metal gates and pagodas. Rooflines run every which way and jolt the eyes seeking to find a skyline. Clouds are billowing and darkening in the humidity but the wind is cooling and the large, oversized balloons tied to the lawn in front of the King’s Palace have children pulling their tethers, causing them to bob and weave in a dance on the expansive lawns. Families and friends gather and it would all be idyllic if not for the sight of middle aged,  men strolling with heavily made up women in tow, teetering on their high heels and short skirts, trying to look confident in their vocation but somehow still emanating the aura of childlikeness and victim.
I seeth at these men, in their middle aged baldness and high waisted jeans. Those who somehow believe that they are entitled to the rape of these women simply because they have the means to pay for it. I find it hard to mask my disgust as I watch a man, who by western standards would be considered averagely unattractive, wield his power over a heavily made up young woman. Even the way he holds her hand is assertive, not affectionate. Leading her away without speaking to her, purposefully, her purse in his other hand as if she would have to give up the rights to it to even change her mind. Her heels are high. Her hair is lacquered into a tall, french roll. Her dress and tights are made for a dance floor not an evening on the river walk. 

They walk past a shrine to Buddha and the street vendors selling flowers, incense, and caged birds. Offerings to earn merit with Buddha. Golden snakes line the sidewalk and as I watch this couple walk decidedly past, I wonder what this young woman has to tell herself to reconcile selling herself in sight of the Buddha. How many 
caged birds would she need to free to build merit back up for what she has to do to survive. Who will free her?

I know many are working in the country to do just that. NGO's (non government organizations) made up of ex-pats and Cambodians alike, working so hard to give families options that will prevent them from selling their daughters, their very flesh and blood, and their futures out from under them. I watch this young woman teeter away and she is very still within herself, only her feet move, not her eyes, not her face, not her hands. She walks beside the one who has paid for the rights to her as if she's hidden somewhere inside herself, or not even there at all. 

Returning to our hotel,I get ready for bed, cool and content in an air-conditioned room. Laying in the dark, I feel blessed. Cambodia is already conflicting for me. It’s jarring. It’s comforting. It’s welcoming and yet alien. I don’t love the western attitudes I represent when I walk through the streets, approached by beggars, one man so burnt and disfigured, I wonder how he can see me to ask for change. Grandmothers with betel nut stained teeth carry tin cups and smile, trying to beguile but only revealing the distress of a life lived out in difficulty and humiliating poverty. On the way home from a beautiful dinner, our group is approached by a mother carrying a small, sleeping child over her shoulder. Dirty and disheveled, using English words between her chant-like entreaties for money, words like “family” and “sisters”, “children” and “hunger”. I look her in the eyes and apologize, having no cash on me. I want to be respectful and treat her well. I want her to see compassion but I wonder if empty hands and bellies preclude it. I never know what to do with poverty that boldly encroaches on my space when I'm unprepared. I'm only walking by. I haven't any money but I feel I'm cheating her. I feel challenged again and again and I’ve never come to a comfortable agreement with my conscience on any of it.

I feel Cambodia stretching into my heart, the glimpses of history opening my mind in ways I didn't expect. I'm learning as I go and for every observation, there are hundreds of questions attached as well. Peeking into a country and a culture is an absolute privilege but I am the first to admit that for all that I've seen and learned and shared in these notes, it's only a simple snapshot. I can't speak on Cambodia. I don't know Cambodia. I haven't slept in her communities or shared meals with her people. Until then, these are just observations from an outsider, much the same way someone who was invited into your home would have just a glimpse of your life as opposed to someone in the family who stays regularly and sees the ins and outs of your daily life, eats your food and hears your family argue around the dinner table. I'm hoping to be invited into life here. Share meals with her people and hear the family arguments. Just like a welcomed guest in a hospitable home, I'm hoping to return and be welcomed into deeper relationship with those that live here. 


A lotus flower, peeled and folded, an artful offering on our table.