Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Come to Cambodia ~ In Words

For those of you who did NOT brave the -50 windchill last weekend and make it to my presentation on Place of Rescue,  I am posting the link for the video and some of the photos/editorial for the presentation. It's pretty gracious considering you were tucked into your warm beds sipping coffee while I had to thaw my car, my husband's car, boost both vehicles off our neighbour's car, scrape the windows both INSIDE and outside of said cars and still speak publicly in front of nearly 80 of your heartiest friends and neighbours! Ok, enough martyrdom. Enjoy the photos. The slides. The lack of quivering voice accompaniment.

Place of Rescue Cambodia 2013 ~ Some of my favourite photos from Place of Rescue and surrounding area.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, our team ditched our luggage at our hotel, making wide berth around the beds that seemed to beg us to fall into them in our jet lagged state. We headed down to the river front area of the city. The city is beautiful, crowded, busy, and vibrant. It's tropical and the scent of jasmine and frangipani mix with traffic sounds while the ornate and colourful architecture hit our eyes, a serious full scale assault on all our senses, waking us up and completely engaging us.
One of the first things we notice is the traffic, constantly flowing, ebbing, with some unwritten pattern that allows scooters and tuktuks to merge seamlessly with cars and cargo vans, while pedestrians integrate themselves into any available space. For all the motion and seeming confusion, we don't witness a single accident or incident of road rage. Amid overcrowded tuktuks and families perching precariously on their scooters, small infants on their mother's breast feeding contentedly while in transit, to elderly women riding side saddle behind the driver, not even holding on, just balancing perfectly as they tilt in and out of traffic. 

We jump out of our tuktuks at the grounds of the palace and as we cross the expansive lawns filled with families and vendors, it's clear that this is a congregating point for many after the work day. Families are sharing food on the lawn, children chase each other and vendors sell everything from balloons to fruit to full meals to flowers. It's amazing and busy and overwhelming. We head across the busy boulevard to the river walk. Looking at the people around me, I become aware of the men walking purposefully with young girls on their arms. I see the transactions and the conversations and upon closer look, I can see that what I think is a young woman in her 20's is possibly just a young teenager, dressed up in makeup and heels, trying to earn a living - either for herself or someone else, that is unclear. What I do know is that once I recognized the players, I couldn't avoid seeing them everywhere,  even if I wanted to. 

We walked for longer than half of us wanted to but it was the only thing keeping us awake at that point. We were stretching for an 8 pm bedtime local time and we were not long past 6. We strolled past a row of temples, intricately adorned with carvings, scrolled tiles and embellished with gold. The smell of incense is so tightly connected to oxygen that after a few deep breaths, you forget the smell of it. Older women and young children situated themselves near the shrines and temples, selling lotus flowers, hand peeled to reveal their inner beauty, and incense sticks for pennies to offer to Buddha for merit. Caged birds would be set free for just a few cents, in order to earn merit in Buddha's eyes. Watching for a moment, I was struck by the contrast between the vendors, making a few cents here and there, day after day, and the extravagant decorations and ornamentation on each shrine. Surely merit should extend to those sitting at the foot of the shrine, if only for tenacity and work ethic.

Our first night, I slept soundly and woke early. Dressing quietly and heading for the balcony of the hotel lobby, I was amazed at walking into a wall of heat and humidity in the early morning hours. Below the hotel, the tuktuk drivers still slept in their seats, a few passersby hustled off to work or market, and the city began to wake up in front of me. 

Our days began with breakfast in the hotel's dining room...a buffet of asian food that I had to adjust my tastebuds for. Fried rice is actually very good for breakfast and sautéed bok choy is not bad with toast but most mornings, I didn't venture far past the toaster and the jar of peanut butter I'd packed along.  Tropical dragon fruits, persimmons, grapefruits and oranges were the highlight of the morning for me...I felt like I was consuming summer, far from the winter depletion of fresh fruits in the prairies.  

We headed out to Toul Sleng prison for the morning. It promised to be a sobering visit and it really did seep into my thoughts and my heart, the absolute terror and horror that so many Cambodians my age had lived through. In many ways, those who live with the memories, such as our guide, have been made to bear the injustice every day since the 70's, for there has been no reckoning or judicial justice for those who committed genocide against their own people. I wrote about  The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison here, and I have no more words for it, other than that it stays with me, night and day, months later. 

Then, onto the bright spots of our days in Cambodia, our purpose for learning this country's story... we visited Place of Rescue. I hesitate to call it an orphanage because that sounds institutional and corporate and dreary and this is none of those things. These are homes for orphans in a community filled with love and laughter, dancing and dreaming.  Marie Ens, a Canadian by birth but Cambodian in citizenship, has built a beautiful safety net for the children of Cambodia who are orphaned and vulnerable, as well as for families living with AIDS. She and her team of nationals provide a place where truly, children and grannies, families with AIDS and young women are knit together as families. Each home at Place of Rescue is a house with 9-11 children that live together with a committed house mother, raised as siblings. As family. Together. They are not fostered or adopted out of the country, they are raised and educated and loved into adulthood with the hope that this is the future of Cambodia. Well rounded, loved, secure, intelligent adults that have a passion for their country, their culture and their futures are coming out of Place of Rescue and it is an incredible story of one woman, listening to a calling on her life and living it out. 

At 79, Marie has a ten year plan. This is her retirement plan - to continue supporting and advocating and raising the children of Cambodia with her team of Cambodians, until she passes away, at which point, she'll be buried in the plot she has picked out on the back of the land that Place of Rescue 1 sits on.  She has 3 Place of Rescue sites as well as a fourth, more crisis intervention oriented, currently under construction. There, she plans to facilitate emergency shelter for children whose parents are unable temporarily to care for them, either because of illness or accident or whatever, with the desire to reunite the family when it's appropriate. Different than the other Place of Rescue homes, these kids will hopefully be supported through tough family situations and placed back together with their families when the situation allows. Cambodia is a kingdom without a government safety net and so many children suffer when mental or physical illness renders their parents unable to care for them.

In addition to these four sites, there are now two sites where Marie and Place of Rescue foundation have built secure dorms for students who have graduated grade 11 and are in grade 12 or university, from Place of Rescue. Here, students can live in safety and community, in their own dorms, for as long as they are enrolled in university or college classes.  For me, meeting these students was that moment where I realized I was not going to leave Cambodia unscathed or unchanged. As much as I could see the needs and the beauty and the love that the children at Place of Rescue had, it wasn't until I sat in a room full of college students as one by one, they told their stories. Stories of rescue. Childhoods that began with abandonment, loss, grief and poverty and were rescued by someone bringing them to Place of Rescue. Each story was unique yet reminiscent of each other, stories of childhood without hope of education or employment,  stories of parents passing away and children being passed among relatives, none of whom could or would care for the children. And the story of rescues. Children of inmates, murdered mothers, runaway fathers - sold to soup shops to pay gambling debts, left in town to fend for themselves - now studying to be accountants, nurses, teachers and English translators. The hopeless future of these children has become the hopeful future of their country.

L. Children dance with discarded bottles and plastic in the street, their playground.
Top R./Bottom R. Small children smile for our camera as we visit the site for Place of Rescue 4,
next to the small home they live in.

Top Right: Marie, whom they call Makyeak (Gramma) with two of her many precious kids,
whom she knows by name and each of their stories.
L. and bottom: Children at Place of Rescue are able to attend school and get an education,
 something that was out of reach for so many of them before coming home to Place of Rescue.

Towards the end of our time in Cambodia, the stories of the children at Place of Rescue really impacted me. Here, Kunthea (top left), Dara (top right) and Sopheak (bottom right) are pictured. Their individual lives are made whole by Marie's willingness to follow the calling she felt God had placed on her life. As she said to me one day, getting off the bus, "Can you imagine if I had not followed that calling? I would have missed all this!" 

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