RICE | 3 weeks in Cambodia | Tessa Boudrie
I am on the way back home to Hong Kong after 3 weeks in Cambodia, daughter in tow. Journeys with the 4-year-old used to be regular practice, but with the move to Hong Kong and the far-flung destinations, there have been a few occasions when I’ve had to travel alone. Disgruntled little princess thinks it’s completely unfair.
We spent most of this journey in Siem Reap where RICE had previously supported two projects. The first, Kalyian Mith, works to provide a series of essential services to street living and street working children and youth, including outreach work, a drop-in center, non-formal education, health care, recreational activities, life skills education as well as support to children in prison.
The second, the Angkor Hospital for Children, has been around for 12 years now. It has grown from a small pediatric hospital to a huge operation seeing an average of 450 new children every day.
Support for the hospital came in several tranches. First we backed a landmark training program for Cambodian surgeons, who are now able to do free open heart surgeries on children.
We then invested in standardising the hospital’s books, which is a crucial step towards reporting to donors. This was done through supporting the salaries of the accounting team through donations. Through this, they were able to develop a more efficient donations tracking system which also was also able to earmark funding to specific projects.
The rest of the time was spent developing a social work department in the hospital, which had previously been non-existent. My roots lay in social work, and this is a great opportunity for me to reconnect with my past for a bit.
Whenever I am in Cambodia, I always make an effort to visit the center of Goutte D’eau in Phnom Penh. Goutte D’eau runs a center for children with disabilities, both physical and mental. They have moved to this center earlier this year and it is simply gorgeous.
At Goutte D’eau, a huge garden and simple white building houses 20 children, and although the main focus of the organization is to keep children with their families, these 20 are either no longer in touch with their families or have no one who can take care of them.
Caring for a child with a disability is not easy when you have neither the financial resources nor the knowledge. Goutte D’eau is focusing more now on working with families before the ties are cut to ensure families stay together.
I’ve explained to my daughter that we were visiting a center with lots of children to play with and that although some of the children have been less fortunate and may look a little different; they are nonetheless just as beautiful and precious as she.
We walk into the gate and my daughter holds my hand. We’re welcomed by doctor Rith, whom by now I’ve known for many years.
I’ve never seen a person more committed, gentle and patient as Dr Rith. Both staff and children clearly love him. He immediately speaks to my daughter directly and asks if she would like a tour. Our way gets blocked by a cheerful little girl in a wheelchair. She neither has arms or legs. My daughter notices and asks me if I think she would still be able to go on the swings (which she of course spotted the moment we opened the gate, as little people do). I tell her to ask. Instead of asking, she pushes the wheelchair all the way up to the swings and then points. The little girl gets very excited, so my daughter tries to pick her up from her chair to get her onto the swings. With a little help of one of the staff member, the two of them manage to swing next to each other, screaming and laughing.
Meanwhile I catch up with Dr Rith on the center’s progress. We have supported this organization for a while now and continue to do so. Specific care like in this center is expensive, and most children are here for the long term. As a result, it becomes a challenge covering expenses year-to-year. But I’ve been able to steer other donors towards this project too, and for the moment they are doing alright.
Dr Rith then directs me to one of the students, whom I have previously met. The student was afflicted with Marfan Syndrome, a condition which affects bone structure and sight. Due to his physical condition, he was trafficked to Bangkok as a child and set to task begging on the streets. Children with disabilities gain greater sympathy and therefore bring in more money to the syndicates than healthy children.
The student is now safe in the center and has taken to painting. Unfortunately his condition doesn’t allow him to study art like regular students, but a private donor has sponsored his art education in house. The boy, who’s actually no longer a boy, but 19 years old by now, takes me into his “atelier”, a tiny room with paint and brushes everywhere. I’m amazed when I see the quality of the paintings. They are stunning, and all of them have a story.
He’s more than happy to explain what they are about. I ask him if he ever manages to sell his paintings, and luckily he does. I’m glad he is 19, so there is no child labour issue. I buy several paintings on the spot. Dr Rith tells me that they have recently opened a bank account for him and that by painting he will be able to carve out a future for himself.
My daughter has by now moved on to running around with a little girl who is missing one eye. But our time is up, we’re close to missing our plane, so we really need to say goodbye. I promise we will make a visit again soon. Big hugs between the kids follow, and off we go. Till the next time!