On February 1 Barbara Rinehart and Chris Wagner left from Singapore with five United World College (UWC) students and their teacher for a nine day “global giving” trip to Cambodia. The students, Barbara, and Chris collected clothes, toys, vitamins, school supplies, and monetary donations for the children in the orphanages that we were to visit. We started our trip as usual overloaded with the goodwill of others, physical as well as emotional. We had several planning meetings but nothing prepared the students for what they saw and experienced.
Once we had gathered our many bags and wound our way through the crush of people in the airport we were picked up by our driver and friend, Mr Phan. He good naturedly loaded us up into his well used van and we took off. The sites, sounds, smells, and especially the oppressive heat that accosted us as we left the airport was the first indication that we were no longer in Singapore. One’s first impression of the city is the extreme decay- the buildings in disrepair, the garbage littering the streets, the unpaved or poorly paved main roads. It has an air of neglect. One can only imagine how beautiful the city must have been at one time with its French colonial architecture. There are so many moto bikes on the road, bicycles, and a few animal drawn carts. Many of the motos carry 3 or 4 people, families with babies balancing on the handlebars. It makes for a very chaotic traffic scene as does the heat and dust.
Our first stop after the hotel is SFODA orphanage. This orphanage houses 60 children. They have no potable water. They collect rainwater during monsoon season and also use water that is pumped from the Mekong river and allowed to gravity filtrate in a cement cistern. There is only one toilet and no shower or bath. Cooking facilities are outside and are very primative. The washing is done by hand and hung out in the backyard. There is no grass only a cement parking lot and side. The building consists of two levels. The bottom floor has the office, school room, storage, and an eating area. The top level which is attained by climbing a wood ladder is where the boys and girls sleep in 2 rooms with mats on the floor. They attend public school for half a day either walking or riding what few bikes they have to get there. Our UWC students passed out clothes and organized some games for them. The kids loved all the attention. They are always smiling and laughing especially at our pronunciation of Khmer.
While in the city we visited Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, a French run facility that takes 800 children each day from the city dump site, giving them meals, clothes, and sending them to school. We then went to the city dump and watched the children chasing the trucks jumping into them while still moving in order to get first pick. Entire families live on the dump. The French volunteer told us of one girl who had lived on the dump without ever leaving for her entire 20 years. It is incomprehensible-
We visited two more homes. CPCDO, Children and Poor Communities Development Organization, takes children orphaned by AIDS and is small housing about 40 children. The living conditions are similar to SFODA. We were able to bring them sports equipment and food and some school supplies. We also made a return visit to Peaceful Children’s Home I in Sre Ampil and were treated to wonderful dancing and music by the children as well as lunch. This home is run by the Khmer Foundation for Justice, Peace, and Development. We met with HE Son Soubert. We were able to bring them the requested basketballs and net as well as donated toys, clothes, and rice. The UWC boys and the kids had a rousing game after the Khmer boys climbed to the top of the hoop to attach the net. They grow some of their food and rice. Of all the places we visited these children were the most natural (they loved the teens).
The city of Battambang was our next destination. We were invited to assist a day care center by donating supplies and in-servicing the staff (with the director translating) on developmental activities. This center is the first one organized and run by Sobbhana, a Khmer Women’s organization. There are fifty children aged 3 and 4 who attend during the day. Their selection is need based. We loved playing with the children and teaching them songs and games. It was a wonderful experience watching the teens carrying around the three and four year olds. There were some great relationships started despite the language barrier. Barbara and Chris took bicylcles and pedaled into the surrounding country side to deliver donated clothing to the villagers. What an incredible site to see their happy faces. They live with the bare minimum in houses off the ground made of grasses and wood. There is usually only one large room for a family.
Sobbhana has another project on site as well. They are training some of the young girls who have no education to weave silk. They raise the silk worms, dye the silk, spin it and then weave it into cloth. The silk worms are raised in huts and they are indigenous to Cambodia. They produce gold cocoons. The UWC students helped to put up one of the silk worm huts at the home of one of the young girls. Eventually it should provide a good income for them.
We left after three days for Siem Reap. We took two boats on the river to the Tonle Sap lake and across it to Siem Reap. February is the dry season and the river was low so we had to take smaller boats until we got to the lake. There we boarded a larger boat with more passengers. There are many people that live along the river. We passed house boats with not much room to spare. Some of them were roped together forming a long chain. It was a hectic scene upon arrival. We had to cross several makeshift bridges (planks) to get to our destination. We were met by our driver who guided us through the maze of vendors, helping carry our luggage down two narrow ramps and through another boat to dry land. We visited Angkor Hospital for Children where part of our medical mission takes place. This is a Western run hospital that eventually will be operated by the Khmer staff that they are training. We were able to leave them with a monetary donation. The rest of our short visit was spent touring the magnificent ruins of Angkor including sunset and sunrise.
The trip left us with many great memories that we will treasure. It also brought the realities of life in a developing country into the lives of our students. We will remember most the beautiful smiles of the children, and the gratitude and joy of those we helped if only for a brief moment. We bought fruit, rice, sport, and school supplies for all the homes and even made bread with the children of Peaceful Children’s Home I. We were able to give a monetary donation to refurbish a school and buy some furniture. We also donated supplies and a sewing machine to the day care center as well as funding a loom.
Thank you- To UWC for their monetary donation and for the students who enriched the lives of all they met.