It has been three weeks since I first stepped into the dirty, sweaty streets of Phnom Penh. I have a much better grip now on how things work here and a deeper understanding of the country, its people, and its culture. I am also now fully immersed in the volunteering venture that I came for.
The organisation I am working for was started by a very well-known Hollywood figure who had an enviable life as a jet-setting executive in the film business. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative as he came from a working class background, achieved the epitome of the American dream only to turn his back on it to work in the slums of Phnom Penh and save children from a bitter life of scavenging in the rubbish dumps.
Witnessing what he and his team of dedicated local staff have built, funded by sponsors all over the world, is nothing short of miraculous. Over 1,000 babies, children and teenagers have been incredibly lucky to become part of this organisation that has literally saved their lives by offering shelter, food, education, healthcare and love.
I am still processing the context in which these young lives come from. Sometimes, when I stop to play briefly with some of the little ones on my way to the classroom where my group of teenagers await, I feel such sadness at seeing the little girl whose face was permanently damaged when her father threw acid on her, or the children with missing fingers from scavenging. Their little bodies are stunted from malnutrition and they appear to be half their age.
In one class of rambunctious teenage girls, we talked about significant moments in their lives and each made a timeline. On my own, I plotted things like ‘I started school,’ ‘I got my first pet,’ ‘I had my first kiss.’ These girls, however, wrote things like, ‘My father died,’ ‘My Mother died,’ ‘I started working’ (at five years old), ‘I had to stop school to take care of my brother,’ ‘I was saved from the rubbish dump.’ It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, there is a sense of hope because they WERE saved and they ARE thriving.
But then, this just highlights the randomness of life – they were incredibly unlucky to be born into such circumstances, but then fortune smiled upon them when one man decided he’d had enough of narcissistic actresses and first-class travel around the world. I am still in both awe and shock and sometimes, as my driver (yes, I get to say that now) cruises along the bumpy “roads” of the slums and I gaze out of the SUV window feeling like I am watching a movie, some kind of Cambodian Slumdog Millionaire.
Another quirk in this whole ordeal is that these kids have seen and experienced so much hardship, their young lives scarred by abuse, neglect, pain, trauma and suffering beyond anything most people who grew up in a developed country would have first hand experience of. Yet, they come to live in this organisation which provides a bubble of safety for them and they their lives become the opposite extreme. Oh, they still work hard, but instead of collecting trash to sell for food, they are studying, learning, engaging, with schedules that rival even the busiest middle-class western child. They are also helping in the community with food programs to feed others, establishing relationships with village elders, teaching the younger children, and pursuing a range of extracurricular activities like Karate. They don’t know what McDonald’s is (in part because there are none here), some of the girls may still play with dolls at 17, but all these kids are going places, and I’m sure will live brilliant lives, despite living in a society with a corrupt and apathetic government.
What I am seeing is that all of the founder’s business acumen, his ferocious negotiation and marketing skills, coupled with his generous A-list contacts with big bucks and the support of the community provide the basis for a thriving NGO. Phenomenal leadership skills (from both western and local staff and supporters) have allowed the organisation to expand, and in turn, preen the future leaders of tomorrow.