*beep beep beep* My alarm starts sounding off at 6:15 am on Tuesday, January 22. My dog, Bullet, stretches beside me and then hops off the bed to sit next to his food bowl and wait for breakfast. On our morning walk, I reflect on my previous visit to the province with the M’lup Russey Organisation (MRO) team. I know today will be different from the last visit. Before we visited with children in Foster Care. Today we will be visiting children who have been reintegrated with their families.
MRO’s Family Reunification program reunifies children and young people who have left an orphanage to return to their birth parents or biological relatives. It is a collaboration between the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY), the District and Provincial Social Affairs offices, Commune Council for Women and Children (CCWC), local authorities and NGO partners to ensure the placement sustainability, safety and schooling of the reunified children and young people. MRO undertakes the professional supervision, joins case conferences and works according to agreed policies and protocols on behalf of the children and their families.
I arrived at the office and am happy to see the familiar faces of Samnang, a MRO Social Worker and Kosal, the MRO Driver will be joining us on today’s trip. Two new faces are also climbing into the MRO truck. During our one and a half hour drive to the province, I learn one of the faces belongs to Savorn, MRO’s Emergency Foster Care Assistant. She has been working at MRO for a year now. The other new face is Vatathanak, MRO’s Intern. She is in her third year of studying Social Work at Royal University Phnom Penh (RUPP) and has been interning with MRO for three months. I make a joke that even though she is younger than me, she has worked at MRO longer than me and thus must be very knowledgeable. This makes the whole car giggle.
When we arrive at the village, Samnang hops out of the truck and stops to visit with the Village Chief. We continue along a few more houses and then climb out of the truck and up the wooden steps of our first family’s home. It’s a traditional Khmer home on stilts.
This home is the smallest house I’ve ever been in during my year in Cambodia. It’s smaller than my bedroom in Phnom Penh. About three meters wide and five meters across. It’s neat and clean with clear areas of purpose. A small gas stove sits in the far corner, with simple metal pots and plastic dishes. Behind the entrance is a clothing rack. A sleeping mat takes up the majority of the house’s floor space and in the far right corner is a TV set. The floors are made of strips of bamboo that flex their strength when you walk across the home. The siding and roof are constructed of recycled corrugated tin. Savorn, Vatathanak and myself find a place to sit on the floor away from the sleeping mat, but also away from the grease stained floor near the kitchen area. The mother yells something out the front door and then finds a spot on the sleeping mat.
Soon a young woman climbs up the stairs. She is cross-eyed and has elfish features – a small pouty mouth and a sharp nose. She holds a turquoise, plastic cross on a leather strap around her neck. She finds a spot on the sleeping mat next to her mother, while Samnang arrives with an older gentleman, who is introduced as the Village Chief and two other woman – the girl’s aunt and another MRO Foster Mother. There is hardly any room for us all the fit in this tiny, little home.
Samnang starts off the conversations. Quickly, the Mother becomes upset. Talking about how her husband doesn’t care about taking care of their daughter. I sit and watch the young girl, sitting by her mother’s side while this conversation is happening. “Shouldn’t she be outside playing with her friends?” I wonder to myself, “No child should be hearing this sort of thing.”
The Mother continues to yell, pointing in a corner as if to address a person not in the room. By this point, I’m lost in the conversation. I’ve only been learning this language for a year and the rapid pace the Mother is speaking with makes it impossible for me to follow. She throws a towel across the room in anger. I sit in the far corner, close my eyes and start to pray. “Jesus, I have no idea what is going on right now, but I know you do. I ask that you bring peace into this home. Heal this mother, heal this little girl, bring her father back to her. Please Jesus. Fill this place with Your peace.”
“Chop / stop,” the calm voice from the Village Chief rings out. The Mother continues speaking. The Village Chief says something over the Mother then gets up and walks out of the house. Samnang turns to me and explains that the Mother is upset because a neighbor’s child threw a rock at her daughter’s head cutting it open. The Mother took the daughter the Village Chief and he did nothing about it. I asked to see the cut. This incident happened about two weeks ago, the bruise was still visible but the cut had healed. The Mother had treated the wound with Tiger Balm. This seems like the universal method of treating anything here in Cambodia. Injured? Put some Tiger Balm on it.
Things seem to calm down after the Village Chief leaves. Samnang asks a few more questions, then we say our goodbyes. We walk down the dirt path a little while. I start realizing that this area must be known for recycling as many families have mountains of cardboard or recycled fish food sacks packed to the brim with plastic bottles. We stop at another villager’s house and visit with a few more local woman.
They ask questions about reintegration with their children. I soon learn this is also sometimes called “Family Planning,” which coming from America has a different meaning. One asks if her child, who is also in Foster Care, can come visit her for Khmer New Year. Another asks about the process of getting a cow, pig and some chickens. We say our farewells to this group and climb back into the truck.
We stop at a nearby rest area for lunch. There small bamboo shacks, with straw walls and a roof for shade are each neatly numbered. Kosal and Samnang climb into the hammocks provided and we discuss what to order for lunch. After ordering, we continue the conversation about the woman and her daughter. Samnang explains that the girl has a small head and thus can’t remember things well. She has a mental disability. He thinks the girl has ZIKA. I try to set my face in a respectful manner. Since from all the reports I’ve heard from the US Embassy and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) there have been no reported cases of ZIKA in Cambodia and I find it hard to believe that a young woman could have lived this long without being noticed. He reiterates his small head theory. I agree the girl has a small-ish head to go with her small frame. I pull out my phone and pull up photos of babies with the microcephaly. I show the photos to Samnang and the rest of the team. We all agree, this girl doesn’t have ZIKA.
Our food arrives. I recognize the rice, tom yum soup, loc lac (a traditional Khmer beef dish), but there is something new. On a platter of morning glory is some sort of protein, I can’t identify. I ask Samnang, “Is this fish?” He responds, “It’s a fish, but it doesn’t have fins. Like a snake in the water.” I take a bite. “Oh! Eel?” I pull out my phone and pull up an image of an eel. “Yes! Eel. We call it ‘an-tong’.” It tastes almost identical to the ‘unagi’ I’m used to eating at sushi restaurants back in the United States. While we eat, our conversations turn to lighter things. Vatathanak shares more about her studies at RUPP. The local cat comes to beg for scraps of our meal and spends some time playing with my backpack straps. I talk about my dog, Bullet (or “Boy” as I introduce him to my Khmer friends). What he eats, where he sleeps, and how I brought him from America.
We finish our meal and head out to visit our second and final family of the day. Down the street, we stop at a local shop. On the frontside of a traditional Khmer home called a “pteh la-veng”, is a storefront selling almost anything you could need – soap, gasoline, fresh drinking water, candy, dried noodles, cold drinks, etc. There we are greeted by a young man, with sweet eyes, and his Aunt. Samnang explains, that the boy has been reunited with his Aunt since 2013. That his older brothers and mother live and work in a factory in Thailand. We walk through the shop and enter the main living area of the pteh la-veng; the room’s walls are covered with huge wedding photographs that are blow up to be over a meter in height and awards that the family has earned. (Receiving awards is a big honor in Cambodia and thus are proudly displayed along with wedding photographs and photos of relatives that have passed away.)
The Aunt explains that she wants the boy to study life skills because she can’t afford to send him to school. We call a local partner, Commune Council for Women and Children (CCWC), to get more information about studying support. Soon a CCWC Leader and a female Sub-Village Chief arrive at the home and join the meeting. The Aunt also explains that the child needs to go to the dentist. I think back about the boy we visited last week who also needs to go to the dentist. “Maybe they can go together and it won’t be so scary,” I think to myself. The Aunt fills out a request form for a bike for the boy so he can ride to school.
While the conversation continues on in Khmer, I reflect on the two major observations about these two families. One being the women’s faces seem to reflect the family’s money and status. While provincial life is definitely harder than that of the city, the two woman – the Aunt and the Mother – have strikingly different faces. One has a healthy, full set of teeth, while the other is missing a few teeth. One wears makeup, while I doubt the other can afford any. One woman has a full face with few wrinkles and high cheekbones, while other had a sullen face that was hard set.
The second observation was how both women, when sharing stories that were upsetting or angry, face away from the group and point at an imaginary person and continue to explain their hurt. As if that person was in the flesh and present to hear the disappointment. I plan on continue to watch for this behavior amongst other Khmer groups to see if it’s a cultural thing I was unaware of until today.
We wrap up our visit by filling out tracking forms. Each time we leave a family, we fill out a form with our name, position, organization, phone number and either a signature or a thumbprint of all who had visited. This way families can know what leaders / NGOs have come to visit them and how often organizations are checking in on them. We load up into the truck and begin the ride out of the countryside and back into the city of Phnom Penh.
During the car ride, we talk about how the day went and what the outcomes of the day will be. Samnang asks me to give an oral report about the day in English. I explain the first part of the day and say, “and then we stopped for lunch and I ate an-tong for the first time.” The car starts laughing. “That doesn’t need to be in the report,” Samnang says. “Of course it does! It was ‘chngan / delicious,” I respond, then continued with what happened in the afternoon.
I then went on to conclude about how both of the homes felt so different and how my prayers changed for each family. The first home I felt like Jesus needed to bring His peace to rest there. While the second home, I feel like Jesus needed to bring His blessings and encouragement to the Aunt who was raising her sister’s son. The car agreed and we committed to praying for the families.
Would you consider joining us in prayer? For the MRO staff who works daily to support healthy families here in Cambodia, the Foster Parents, the biological parents and all the children – either in Foster Care or reunited with their families?