Two Sides of Phnom Penh
This post was written by Caroline, a first-time visitor to Cambodian Children’s Fund.
It’s always great to go out with Maureen [head of CCF’s Australia operations]. She knows all the best places and there’s always great conversation and laughter. Last night was a bit different.
We’re in Phnom Penh, which compared to 20 years ago, is full of shiny new towers, KFCs, banks and ‘exciting new retail’ building projects. When we’re traveling, one of the ‘Kodak’ moments is sharing the laughter and smiles of local kids. But in walking into this local yellow-bricked school, we were met with hundreds and hundreds of children playing in a large playground. The giggles, the trampolining and the football were all part of the magic surrounding an Aussie bloke who wanted to help a lost kid.
The school trip starts to get different when you hear the kids’ stories. The five year old dumped on the doorstep, the 12 year old raped, the bunch of rags in a corner was a new baby. And happier stories where parents use the one of the schools and drop-in centres as a safe haven while they go to work. The kids who had terrible diseases, like TB or rashes, that benefit from Scott’s free access to doctors and surgeons.
So far, so good, we’ve heard these charity stories before on TV. But then at sunset, Scott takes us for a walk, down the backstreets.
We normally love this sort of traveling, but these streets are the slums. We wear wellies (only Maureen and I can carry this fashion off) as there’s no road just muddy paths littered with rubbish, sharp stones and huge stinky puddles from the afternoon monsoon rains.
As we squelch through the lanes, some locals come out of their tin shacks to see Scott. They are the old ladies who are part of Scott’s Granny network, the local ‘safe havens’ for their community, who alert Scott to ill, abused or abandoned kids. Mums come out with their sick kids, or to collect the kids from Scott’s schools. Many are in their new tinsheet homes, which Scott’s charity built for just $250 to give families safety from the floods.
As it gets darker, we are led deeper and deeper into the slums. Past the local veggie store (a table in a concrete shed), down a lane where a lit window reveals an old lady on her sewing machine. But then we’re down another dark lane, into a pitch dark shack to meet a local granny living in a room smaller than our hotel bathroom. She lies on her wooden bench, the shack is lit by the revolutionary water-bottle light and her walls are decorated with the bright graphics of an Intel advert. Around her are the shacks of 10 families, all ages and sizes and seemingly without hope. The contrast between the two ‘property markets’ of the city is confronting.
But then we meet Po, a young woman who runs the local restaurant, funded by the charity as part of their in-house bakery and youth leadership program. We’re off there today for lunch.
By now the heat of the tropics, the dense night darkness, and the endless collection of slums is overwhelming, but Scott is called to one more house, and another sick child and worried mum.
By the time we get back to the school (about 8 p.m.) we are exhausted, but for the kids, the evening fun just begins. The school is packed with evening classes – singing pop songs, watching ‘Madagascar’ on TV, learning computers. This is more than hope, these are real skills that are helping the kids grow up safe. Some are proudly showing off their ‘youth leadership certificates’, some are just off to university with the support of new PCs and tablets. This sounds great, but there are about 1800 kids about to graduate, and all will need a PC or tablet.
The school bell goes, and the kids collect their loaf of bread, and continue to jump and climb all over us. And of course, like kids everywhere they know how to use our mobile phones and cameras better than we do! So there’s a procession of cool kid photos in the latest YouTube poses. The teenage girls pout and giggle like they do in London, New York and Sydney, because they are safe and wanted here. The group of five teenage boys who are safe from drink, drugs and violence here. At 13 they are already are young men, walking tall like Scott, and taking on responsibilities to walk some of the kids so they get home safe, for tonight.
Finally, Scott goes to the truck, the kids all know what’s about to happen and the squeals of delight begin. For every child, he knows their name, their story, he takes a photo. Then he frames the photo and presents it to the child. Suddenly, the kid is not a nobody that can be dumped at the roadside. He or she is a living, breathing, vibrant person, a young child who is a somebody in the brave new world of opportunity created by Scott and his team. We’ve seen these framed photos hanging in some of those tin sheds. It’s family.
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