Cambodia: Part Four
Yesterday I wrote about visiting two rural villages on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, and why many children there are unable to attend school. The immense poverty in this region also often prevents children from receiving the medical care they need as well, and today I would like to introduce you to a few of the children and teens I met who need our assistance.
The first is an absolutely beautiful girl to whom we’ve given the Western name of Christine (because of the issues with trafficking in this region. we will never use any of the children’s real names). Two years ago, Christine was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which you probably already know is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs. What you might not know is that at one point, the United Nations announced that TB would be eliminated by 2025 because doctors had become so skilled in treating it. However, in the late 1980s, TB infections began to rise once again, until TB was declared a global emergency. Conventional TB is so easily treatable and has a 90% cure rate if done correctly. But without proper treatment, 2/3 of people who contract tuberculosis will die — a staggering one million people each year.
Christine’s family did everything they could to help her, even selling their land and possessions in order to get her the treatment she needed two years ago. Sadly, she has never regained her health. Her family has no funds left for her to see a doctor again, and so she has become more and more weak. On the day that I sat with Christine, she was so thin that I could see every bone in her body. (I actually could not bring myself to photograph her, as she is so very ill, so the photo here is one of Leng’s, taken earlier). She was breathing with oxygen, which her family tries desperately to provide her with, although it costs $10 every three days, well beyond their means. Leng helps them out by purchasing oxygen whenever he can. He told me that she had to drop out of school because of her illness, and it was painful to look into her eyes because there was just so much sadness over what she has lost.
Of course the first thought going through my mind was that we had to figure out what exactly is going on with her health, with the hope that we aren’t already too late. I read about medical care in Cambodia before I traveled, and I knew that the only city in which you can get access to higher quality care is the capital of Phnom Penh – more than a seven hour drive from where we were sitting. (A sad trivia fact about the Khmer Rouge tragedy is that only 45 medical doctors in Cambodia survived the bloodshed, and 20 of those then left the country.)
Through the work I do, there are times that I get to experience the greatest joys, such as seeing a child’s heart healed or knowing an orphaned child has been chosen by a permanent family. There are times of great sorrow as well, when a child we have been trying to help passes away or when we see children living in very hard places. But there are also times that I feel just completely unworthy to be part of the very emotional moments our work often entails, and I had one of those moments when Leng told Christine and her family that we would pay all the costs for her to get to the capital in order to go to the best hospital possible. Christine began to silently cry, and then her family, and then Leng. We sat on little stools in the dirt in complete silence as I watched hope slowly come back into their hearts.
I can’t fully describe what I was feeling inside, but it seemed too private and emotional a moment for me as a complete stranger to even be a part of. There was a feeling of shame in my heart knowing that most likely just a few hundred dollars was what had stopped this incredibly gentle and beautiful girl from having a full evaluation and the correct treatment done. Next week, Christine will be going to Phnom Penh, and I would certainly appreciate every possible prayer going with her as it will be a very long journey for someone so ill. How I hope we are not too late. (If you would like to help with Christine’s medical treatment, please visit her sponsorship page.)
The next day I was introduced to Sara, a really sweet teen in Leng’s mentorship program who had been born without one of her eyes. I learned that the stigma surrounding such a special need is the same in Cambodia as in China. We’ve helped so many children over the years be fitted with glass eyes, and the difference it makes in how society views them is enormous. I asked Leng if we could help Sara receive a prosthetic eye, and he said perhaps she could go with Christine up to a hospital in Phnom Penh. I’m sure you can guess how quickly we said, “Yes!”
After learning that this was a medical need our supporters would be willing to help with, Leng then told me about a girl named Rachel in another village who also could benefit from seeing a doctor. Several years ago, an insect flew into Rachel’s eye, and sadly without proper medical care, the infection she developed withered her eye and made her lose sight. She will be traveling with the group as well. We are thrilled that our supporters helped us raise the funds for Sara’s evaluation in just one day! Rachel is still in need of funding, however, and if anyone would like to help her get the medical care she deserves, you can visit her profile on our sponsorship page.
Later that afternoon, Leng told me he wanted to take me to the city dump, and I attempted a lame joke by saying something like, “Wow….you really know all the great places to take a lady,” which was my poor attempt to hide my fears about what I knew we would see. Leng had shared with me before I left the U.S. that children work there, often for 14 or more hours a day, but I was soon to learn that they actually live on site as well. It was one of the most horrible places I have ever been, and I’ve been to some truly sad ones.
We took motorcycles to get to the dump, and as we drew closer the smell of decay began to fill the air. By the time we pulled up to the actual site, the fumes from the sewage and decomposing waste were so intense that you don’t even want to breathe. But of course you have to.
We walked down the dirt path into the dump in our sandals, and as the wet mud covered our feet, I realized we were picking up garbage as it stuck to our shoes: rotting food, medical waste bags, hypodermic needles. Trying to scrape the items off our shoes only caused more things to stick. As I bent down to pull off a wooden skewer that had gone under my sandal strap, I discovered the dump was alive and moving with a blanket of maggots and worms, so I quickly stood back up. The smells and the sights were an assault on one’s senses, but most sickening to me was the constant noise, as masses of black flies swarmed and hummed – so loudly that it seemed like a fake set of a horror film – but then it washed over me again that everything around me was real.
And then, as we turned the corner down another aisle of garbage…CHILDREN. Beautiful, amazing children, walking towards us to see their friend Leng.
We had stopped on the way to buy them some food, which the children were really happy about, but the older ones only paused for a moment to accept it before immediately returning to their work. This is their daily life: working through the entire night at times when the temperatures are hot. Leng told me they will often work from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m., searching through the mountains of garbage for recyclables they can gather and sell, and searching for food scraps to fill their empty stomachs.
No one should have to live this way, and of course no child should have this life. Leng explained, however, that since the children don’t go to school, there can’t be a better life for them, as poverty is all they have known and all they will ever know.
There has to be a solution, but it isn’t as simple as saying, “Let’s just get them someplace safe.”
Many of the children have parents who live at the dump site and rely on their kids to work beside them, combing through garbage to earn less than $1 a day. It seemed to be an unfair division of family labor, however, as I noticed that the men were just sitting in the makeshift shelters during our visit, while the women and children were standing in the waste piles digging for anything they could possibly sell.
A solution must exist. We just have to figure out what it is, because I will never forget their faces or the horrendous reality that they are living this very moment. I know there is no way I can fully describe what it was like to be there and to meet these incredible kids in person, but I hope you will lift up your prayers with me that a tangible solution can be found to help them escape this violation of childhood. Leng has found a private school which can take the children in the dump for schooling, and we are working on making that a reality now. Stay tuned for more details soon.
Tomorrow I want to end this blog series on a much more hopeful note, but today I hope you will hug your own children with thanksgiving for the blessings you have…while acknowledging that all of us can play a part in making this world a better place, by not turning away when we see true need.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer