Hidden just below the peaceful, ancient splendor of Cambodia's Angkor Wat lies a recent violent history. The tragedy of the Vietnam War began to boil over into Cambodia in the late 1960s. Two weeks before the fall of Saigon, the capital of Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) ushering in a hell eclipsed in the 20th century only by the Holocaust. In less than four years the country of seven million lost nearly two million to war, starvation, disease and murder. All professionals were either forced to flee or be killed. The country was left with no doctors or teachers. The Vietnamese invasion in late 1979 stopped the slaughter but led to 12 years of occupation and near total isolation.
We sprang into life in 1997 as United Cambodian Charity. Lim Cheang, a Cambodian refugee, and I met at World Relief in San Diego resettling SE Asian refugees, especially Cambodians. When the refugees stopped coming we pursued various pursuits but still helped Cambodians on a volunteer basis. When the country was safe enough to visit, we took trips in 1996-97 looking for business. We felt that what poor people need most is a good job working for a good employer. We found no business but we discovered a country, which had been totally devastated. We were shocked and dismayed but knew we had to do something. But where to start?
Cambodia was a shambles, filled with hungry, impoverished, ill and illiterate people. Many folks, including amputees, simply slept on the streets. We fed rice, helped the Phnom Penh city orphanage and hired some very poor people to keep their neighborhood clean. The night clerk at my hotel had invited me to his house to meet his mom but kept apologizing for the filth and poverty in the neighborhood. By the time I finished my visit we had decided to find the very poorest folks in the neighborhood and give them part-time jobs keeping the street and alleys clean. This made them proud to work for an American and kept the area nearly spotless.
What we found in that little Vietnamese dominated neighborhood was that many Cambodians worked cleaning garlic. The whole family would work and make a total of about $15 a month. How they survived we don't know but due to the families' poverty and the need for the kids to work the children weren't in school. Attending public school costs about $8 per month per child. Deeply anguished by this we decided to open a little free school in my friend's house. We found a teacher who had stopped teaching because the government only paid $17-20 per month, paid her $50 for a morning's work, and off we went.
Tep Maly Preparatory School in Phnom Penh was named after one of its teachers, who was killed in a tragic accident in front of her home. In its 12 years of existence it has seen 30-50 very poor children enroll every year. We prepare kids to enter the public school system at the 4th grade level. Each child gets a large bag of rice every month, which helps the family and motivates them to keep the children in school. We teach only two subjects, language and math. The ones that go on to 4th grade are given at least $8 per month to pay the teachers. Our kids are always at the top of their class when it comes to grades and behavior. Many children do not go on to the public school, as they are needed to work. But they are all literate and capable of doing simple math.
We like to expose our kids in Phnom Penh to experiences outside their little neighborhood. They've never been outside their little world so we take them to the local water park and zoo. On some occasions we take them down to the Gulf of Thailand to go swimming. Some of them get bus-sick and we have to clean up their little messes. But they all ooh and ahh when they see their first mountain and then erupt in loud screams and applause when they first see the sea. After two hours of hard play they change clothes, eat their lunches and board the bus…and sleep all the way home. Notice how many girls are in the group. They're all safe and literate.
I hinted above that the girls are safe and literate. A chance meeting in Long Beach, CA led to a meeting in Cambodia with Yim Po, founder and director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights. In 1994, Mr. Yim, his wife and mother noticed that many under-age girls were being taken into and held in sex slavery. His group began to rescue the precious young ladies. After seeing one of the most notorious brothels in the world and being offered a 10 yr old, "who could do everything", I was shocked into action. I rescued two girls but one of their pimps put a hit out on me if I didn't pay him $300 immediately. I paid and did not rescue any more. But what else could we do to help? Girls as young as six were being put through this hell. The one in black in the photo was seven years old when rescued.
Rescuing under-age sex-slaves is a noble thing to do. Who wouldn't want to free these precious young ladies from their hellish existence? The first time I went to that notorious brothel district I swear I would have put a bullet between the pimp's eyes if I would have had a gun. And I'm a Christian man, who has never owned or shot a gun nor will I in the future. On the way home we went through another brothel area and saw a girl standing inside a doorway by herself. No more than 12 years old, she wouldn't let us rescue her because she was scared to death of her pimp. I told Mr. Po that I couldn't go back to San Diego knowing she was there. The next day the police rescued her, or so I was told. I was ready to commit all our time, efforts and resources to attacking this heinous problem. But over the next year we went another direction. I found that there was another side to rescuing the girls and that created (and still creates) an enormous internal tension in my soul.
At a regional conference to discuss the sex-trafficking of young girls, a British woman proclaimed loudly and emotionally to anyone who would listen that rescuing girls was actually making the problem worse as it created a market and guaranteed that more girls would be enslaved. I had never thought about that before. But as my American friend Craig and I talked about it we decided that the best solution was to secure and educate the girls in the poorest villages we could find. Others raise spectacular amounts of money focusing on rescue and that is fine. But we wanted to get to the root. And Craig found the first of many remote villages. We made an agreement with the village chief and elders to pay teachers' salaries and school supplies. They had to build the school, get the children to attend and keep the girls safe. We are at 14 villages and counting.
This is our national director, Dara Long, and this is why CCHHM is in Cambodia. Here Dara is handing out school materials to some of our precious students. Dara has held his position from the beginning and is a fine Christian man, who also has had theological training. He lovingly cares for and shepherds our 2300 students. We would not be in Cambodia without him. And these beautiful young ladies are safe, literate and hearing the good news of Jesus Christ for the first time. We have just received a commitment from a church in California to support and train two Christian men, who already live in two of the villages.
When we first started our street cleaning/school project in Phnom Penh, we also saw a need for a doctor in the neighborhood. Healthcare was almost nil and very unreliable. The Khmer Rouge had killed every doctor in the country and the newly re-opened university was years from graduating its first med student. Dara and his mom remembered someone they had met in the Thai refugee camps before they were put on a train back to Cambodia. His name was Phal (Paul). He had been a government soldier in the early 70s before being kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge. In a battle with the Viet Cong Phal's left arm was blown off by a grenade. No doctors, medical supplies, nothing. Miraculously, he survived and fled to Thailand. He was safe and hoped he could come to the U.S. But not for long.
While Phal was studying medicine in the Thai refugee camp, he also became a born-again Christian, which greatly increased his desire to go home. When the U.N. put 300,000 Cambodian refugees home on the train Phal returned home. He worked a while for the U.N. in Phnom Penh, saved his money, turned down lucrative offers to stay and returned to his hometown of Kampot with a vision and desire to build a clinic and a church. He built a traditional home and the church met there. But the clinic was in a small shack, which also housed pigs and chickens! I took a huge leap of faith and found a sponsor for the clinic, which moved to the bottom of the house, which was enclosed with funds from the sale of a cow or two. Phal continued to train about 15 good folk using U.N. materials. The poorest of the poor began to come, some without any money and some with a chicken offered in payment. But what about all the sick folks in the distant villages, who were too sick or too poor to come in?
A generous sponsor purchased a nice ambulance from Seoul, South Korea, which has allowed the staff to visit 64 poor distant villages twice a year each. While there is a government hospital nearby, it is too expensive and sometimes corrupt to serve the poorest of the poor. Our clinic is the alternative and it serves thousands every year. Unfortunately, Phal didn't live to see the new clinic. He died of hepatitis in Sept. 2007 and is with the Lord he cherished. He did, however, get to preach in his new church, which was built by a group of wonderful American Christians. And the work at the clinic and the church goes on and both are flourishing.
Earlier I told you about two prostitutes I rescued. Samantha is the oldest daughter of one of them. I had the privilege of naming her and she is doing very well. I shudder to think of her mom's future if I hadn't rescued her. We encourage you to join us in our endeavors. Every cent of your donation goes to the person or project and you can specify where it goes. A poor student's education is $8 per month. A single mom's income can be subsidized for $25. There are many Samanthas in Cambodia who need your help. We look forward to helping you to build your own legacy in that wonderful but needy country.