Journey to Cambodia 2017: Sokhem Village
The second day of our time in Cambodia was spent along the border region, and it certainly was an exciting journey to get there. This is the second year in a row I’ve traveled during monsoon season, and the moment you turn off the paved roads to get to the rural villages, your tuk tuk ride becomes more exciting than any amusement park attraction. Once the motorcart inevitably gets completely stuck, you take off your shoes to walk barefoot the rest of the way. Mud, glorious mud!
Decades after the brutal genocide by the Khmer Rouge, the rural communities in this western region of Cambodia continue to face significant social and economic issues. Extreme poverty and trafficking are sadly common among these isolated villages.
I’m so happy that LWB is now working with the vulnerable children in the Sokhem community. Most of the kids we’re helping have multiple family members who cross into Thailand in desperate search of work, leaving the children behind to be cared for by elderly and often sick family members — or even left completely on their own. What I’ve realized in meeting these beautiful children is that it’s one thing to simply read that fact as if it’s part of a grant application summary. But it’s entirely different to have a small child come up and quietly say things like, “I feel lonely and scared on my own,” or “It’s only me in my family.”
The heartrending reality is that the children of Sokhem Village are at high risk of exploitation. They’ve been unable to access education due to the cost of school fees and because it’s simply not safe to walk the long distance to the government school (over 10 km) due to the prevalence of traffickers and labor brokers in the region.
We’ve also documented that a sobering 75% of the children in Sokhem Village suffer chronic malnutrition, so serious stunting and health issues are common. I would go to put my hand on a child’s shoulder and just want to cry inside when despite their smiles, all I would feel was skin and bones.
When we first did our school enrollment for the village, our director noted on several intake forms that child after child had innocently told him, “My siblings and I have no food to eat.”
That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
Thanks to your incredible support, however, this village now has renewed hope for its children. LWB opened our first Cambodian Believe in Me school here, and the results in just six months are incredible.
According to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, in the province where this village is located, just over 60% of children initially enroll at the primary level, but only 14% of girls ever finish high school. Sokhem Village’s enrollment numbers, however, were even more grim. Of the 118 children living in this village, only 8% were enrolled in government school when LWB first became involved. 8%. Since our Believe in Me school has opened, however, over half of the unschooled children in the village have now joined our education program, with 60 children coming to school now each day!
When we first began getting photos from the school though, we quickly noticed that there were many young girls hanging around the school yard with babies and toddlers on their hips. We discovered that girls from the age of six and up were taking on the primary caregiver roles for their younger siblings since their parents were gone. Girls like little Finley below, who was not only toting around her baby brother the entire time we were there but who is also sporting a plaster cast after a major fall.
We realized several months ago that in order to make an impact on these children as well, we needed to meet their needs in a unique and innovative way. That’s when we came up with the plan to build a “Sibling School” in Sokhem Village for babies and toddlers.
Opening later this month, the Sokhem Sibling School will provide not only early childhood learning in a protected environment, but also critical infant/toddler nutrition to prevent the chronic malnutrition we see among the older kids. This daycare will allow the older girls to finally go to school full time.
It will also give much-needed job opportunities to several moms in the village, who can be employed as nannies at the school versus making the increasingly dangerous journey into Thailand each day. Under a new law passed in June by the Thai government, any undocumented worker found in their country will face up to five years in prison. With every job we create through our new charity initiatives in this village, we’re helping to prevent the chance that parents and children could be separated from each other for years at a time.
We had such an incredible day in the village, and I have to thank all the wonderful teens who helped us get the 10+ duffel bags of school supplies out of the tuk tuk and safely into the schoolhouse despite the pouring rain.
Once everything was inside, we set up a mini store for the children to “shop” for a few fun items like balls and bows and matchbox cars (note to self: dolls go first no matter what age girl is choosing, and anything that looks like a soccer ball is quickly grabbed by the boys).
We also got to meet the dedicated women in the village who are making our hot lunch program for the children possible. I was silently screaming with joy inside to see some of the children who had such blonde hair before (a sign of severe protein malnourishment) now starting to get a strip of black on top! (It was not lost on me as a hair-dyed blonde that this was truly the first time I could ever remember celebrating the appearance of dark roots.)
I just stood there watching the children eat and eat and eat some more, giving thanks to everyone who helps make this program possible.
Ten-year-old Ruby, who’s only the size of a small five-year-old, is just one of the beautiful girls being served by the nutrition project. Her mom tragically passed away earlier this year, leaving seven small children behind. Ruby told us she eats as much as she can during our hot lunch, as she doesn’t ever know whether she will get dinner or breakfast the next day.
I hope as you read this blog you can realize that when you give to our programs in Cambodia, you are helping to make such an enormous difference in these children’s lives. It was incredible to see in person how it has now unfolded, with the entire community coming together.
As we reluctantly left late that night, I was struck with the thought that these programs are providing clear access to education and improved nutrition, essential building blocks for a more successful future.
But what I realized even more deeply is that in many ways, the spirit of optimism and hope for that future is even more crucial to these kids’ lives. To have children now say they feel happy and SAFE, by having a school right inside their village, is something that really can’t be quantified on paper.
I think several of the kids summed it best when they simply told me as they waved goodbye,“We LOVE our new school.”
On Monday, I’d like you to continue with me on this journey to two difficult locations: the slums and the local garbage dump, where I once again met incredible children so deserving of your help.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer