2 - 2005 Spring - Suffer the Little Children
By Kari Costanza – Photographs by Jon Warren
“Children are the bamboo shoots who replace the bamboo stalks,” says an ancient Cambodian proverb. In Phnom Penh,World Vision is helping ensure that Cambodia’s street children grow strong roots.
“A scavenger is better than a glue sniffer,” retorts Khoeun. A World Vision outreach team within earshot rushes to Khoeun’s rescue, saving the tiny 12-year-old from a beating.
“ ‘Khoeun is so brave,’ I thought,” says Somaly Chan, 19, one of the first World Vision outreach workers on the scene. “I was afraid, but I had to help. We told the boys to leave her alone, and we brought her to the center.”
Today Khoeun is liberated from the dangers of street life. She lives with 60 former street children in World Vision’s Bamboo Shoot Children’s Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. “My life is bright, and now I have freedom,” she smiles, placing her hands over her heart.
Street children like Khoeun are brought to the center by police, kind strangers, or World Vision outreach teams who take to the streets twice a week to find them. Since 1993, 1,725 children have passed through the center’s heavy iron gates seeking safety, nutritious food, and a place to sleep and learn skills. Most stay a year.
During that time, World Vision staff work to reunite the children with their families, providing food, clothes, job opportunities for their parents—whatever it takes to bring stability to the family. Most of these reunions are successful. In cases where families are too poor to take their children back, World Vision finds foster families willing to provide a loving home.
Reaching Out to the Children
There may be as many as 10,000 children on the streets of Phnom Penh. UNICEF estimates that worldwide, 100 million children live on the street, and that number is growing. These children are vulnerable to disease, hunger, child prostitution, and death.
To survive, tactics turn desperate. “They run into traffic when the lights are red and beg money from tourists in cars,” says Sith Kong, 44, who directs the children’s center. “The older ones sell their blood to buy drugs,” he says. Glassy-eyed boys sniff glue instead of begging for food. “When they sniff glue they forget their worries,” says an outreach worker. “They forget their hunger. They forget their pain.”
Sith runs a very different kind of children’s center from the one in which he grew up. Like millions, he suffered under the Khmer Rouge’s communist takeover of Cambodia. Between 1975 and 1979 he was forced to work in a children’s labor camp. Only 15 at the time, Sith was separated from his parents in a country that had changed overnight into a national concentration camp. He learned to cry silently when he missed his parents. He worked, growing cotton, even when he was sick. “If I did not go, the team leader would accuse me of being lazy, and he might kill me,” he says. As many as 2 million Cambodians were killed during this period—by execution, torture, disease, or starvation.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, dismantled families, culture, and the economy. A former school in Phnom Penh served as a slaughterhouse for Cambodia’s educated professionals. Outside the city, a tower memorializes the massacre, its skull-packed platforms reaching skyward. Around the tower, remnants of clothing poke up from shallow graves as if imploring visitors to remember the dead buried there.
Today Cambodia is among the world’s poorest 20 countries. The majority of its 13 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Half of its children have never been immunized against debilitating diseases like polio and tuberculosis. Profound poverty forces families into life on the streets.
A Different World for Rath
Rath will probably never go to World Vision’s center. He chooses to stay on the street to support his widowed mother, Mi Sokhom. Rath is all that stands between her little family and starvation. “I don’t have a house,” says Mi Sokhom, tears filling her eyes. “I just have my bare hands.” She limps down the street, her left foot badly swollen, to where she, Rath, and his brother, Barang, 8, sleep—a makeshift shelter of a tarp dangling from a corrugated fence. They store their few clothes in a plastic bag.
“My brother is polite and generous,” says Khoeun. “If he has anything, he gives it away. Once he bought a chalkboard to teach us,” she says. “He taught me literature and math. I was never at the top of my class, so Rath tutored me. I got to the rank of sixth.” Khoeun knows her brother’s dream—to become a doctor one day and work with the poor. But for now, his job is collecting garbage and begging for food.
Across town, Khoeun is helping to prepare lunch for everyone at the center, including a handful of children who have just arrived. Already the new children are bathed and wearing clothes picked from racks of freshly washed dresses, shirts, and trousers.
The cook crouches in the kitchen, crushing flower petals into spice with a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle set a beat, setting in motion a culinary ballet. It starts to smells like lunch.
Baskets full of vegetables, chicken, eggs, and pork were purchased this morning. The cook takes a child to market to teach her what to buy, how to bargain, and how much to pay. These children have spent months or years begging at markets for food from passers-by who hurl insults. Now they’re respected customers. In the kitchen, Khoeun, between chopping and stirring, absentmindedly reaches to caress the scarred face of a little girl badly burned in a house fire that left her orphaned.
Dozens of bowls are ready to be filled with hot soup. At the houseparent’s signal, the children walk quickly to the tables. The smallest ones sit on plastic stools around four benches pushed together to make a table their size. The bigger ones find places at long picnic tables. Khoeun and her best friend, San Doung, 13, begin to serve, the littlest child first. The houseparent makes a special bowl of noodles for the burned girl, just vegetables and noodles, nothing too hot. A child stands to bless the food. Then, momentary quiet as the children dig into their meal.
The last meal the new children ate on the street was rice—with bits of rat mixed in.
Khoeun's Best Friend
San is the last to begin eating after the lunchtime prayer. She has hopped up to make sure one of the new children has a spoon. Five months ago, the outreach team told San about the enter—and how she could learn to sew and dance. “The thought of dancing appealed to me,” she says. "It became my dream to become a professional dancer.”
San’s family used to live in the countryside, but poverty forced them into the city to scavenge for cardboard. “I used to be afraid of the cars when I went to pick up cardboard,” she says, describing life on the streets. She shows the deep scar on her ankle where a dog attacked her.
“I cannot afford good food,” says San’s mother, Mon Orch, 37, her face browned by the sun, her teeth the color of coffee. “We’re starving, so we have to buy food like rat.”
When it rains, they huddle on a tarp-covered platform with another family. “It’s very crowded,” says Mon Orch. “It’s hard to sleep.” During these times San’s mother stops worrying about her son’s constant diarrhea and her own itching skin and dreams of having a house again.
Mon Orch and her husband are both uneducated orphans of the Pol Pot regime. “My parents died from disease. They were starving,” she says. The couple belongs to a lost generation of Cambodians who sacrifice the present to create a future for their children.
“I’m so glad Bamboo Shoot Children’s Center has allowed San to get an education. I want my children to be good people,” Mon Orch says. She laughs with joy at the thought of San dancing. “I never saw San dance before,” she says. When told of San’s dream—to become a professional dancer and earn enough money to buy the family a house, Mon Orch’s voice cracks with emotion. “People urge me to take San out of the center to collect garbage, but I want to her to stay and do everything they teach her.” Mon Orch knows that parents can visit their children anytime at the center, but her life is so busy, collecting cardboard and foraging for food.
“Tell San to take care of herself, to study hard, to wash before meals and before bedtime,” says Mon Orch. “And tell her I love her.”
Safe and Loved
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