We’re back! I could write on an on about the myriad observations we made about Cambodian culture and the differences between their way of life and ours. From the dark wooden shacks that line the streets to the traffic lights & divider lines that are merely suggestions amid the dusty roads surrounding Phnom Penh. From seeing the history of genocide at S21 & the Khmer Rouge killing fields, to the majestic beauty of Angkor Wat. From the constant offers for “tuk tuks” (moto-taxis) to the haggling at the markets and aggressive soliciting. From the inflated exchange rates, to the tap water that nobody drinks, to the poverty that overwhelms the majority of its populace, Cambodia is a sight to be seen that in itself would be enough to drastically shake an American’s heart. But that’s not what this post is about–because just in the outskirts of Phnom Penh was something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
Early in our trip, we visited New Life Church for Sunday services and sat next to some of the older kids who would eventually melt our hearts in the coming week. The service was led by Rev. Vek Huong, the man responsible for starting multiple New Life orphanages, New Life Church, a thriving radio ministry, and many other compassion-related outreaches throughout Cambodia under the organization he & his wife Samoeun started called New Life Missions. The church building was very ample & modern–in fact, it was huge in comparison to many American churches I’ve seen–and we were given headphones for live English translation of Pastor Vek’s message. It was about remembering our priorities during the hustle-and-bustle of Christmas time–who would have thought it would be this universal? The highlight for me was hearing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sung in Khmer. Same melody, same holiday, same God. And then it was time for our first day with the kids.
As we approached the orphanage, I had no idea what to expect. Even with the experience of a few seasoned second-time visitors on our team (Mike, Elloa, Kristie, & Dominick) and the advice of our resident “Khmerican” Alex from Atlanta (who now lives in Cambodia full-time working with the orphanage), it was hard to picture what the kids’ reactions would be to a bunch of pasty white adults from 8,000 miles away coming to contribute who knows what. But it became clear within seconds of stepping out of our van that we were welcome here. VERY welcome. The kids flocked around us like we were long-lost relatives, clutching our hands, hugging our waists, picking up our heavy backpacks and carrying them inside for us. It was at once one of the strangest things I’d seen and one of the most beautiful things I’d seen. It was heart-warming and confusing all at the same time. What was the hidden agenda? What did these kids really want?
Then it hit me. They’re not hugging me because I’ve done anything to deserve it, nor because I have anything to offer. They’re not holding my hand because someone told them to. They’re not winning my affection to manipulate me into buying them an Xbox. As I looked them in the eyes I could tell that all of this clutching, hand holding, hugging, leaning on us–it’s all because they want nothing more than to be loved. This is a place where a hug is more valuable to a child than anything money can buy. Physical affection crosses all language barriers and is the easiest way to communicate “I love you”. When we walked out of that van, all of the conditions for love that we’d become accustomed to in the States instantly flew out the window. There are no prerequisites for love here. Just open arms and open hands. Love isn’t a word that I use loosely, but after just a few short days, I can honestly say that I LOVE these kids.
We spent the week doing sports, making crafts, sharing Bible stories, playing board games–we even had a movie night, a fast food night, and put on a nativity play for dozens of neighborhood children as the orphanage kids passed out free cupcakes & Christmas gift bags to them.
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we were able to bring all kinds of toys, medicines, shoes, shirts, and other practical supplies to donate to the orphanage as well. All the while, we found ourselves bombarded by a never ending parade of gifts from the kids. In spite of their various backgrounds & needs, the kids at Pastor Vek’s orphanage are some of the most grateful and generous children I’ve ever met.
Every opportunity to create a little craft trinket or to pluck a flower from the yard turned into a chance for the kids to show their love for our team.
My backpack is now FULL of custom made bead necklaces & sand bracelets, flower leis, drawings, ornaments, and other random gifts from the kids, all of which mean the world to me because of what they symbolize. Of all the contributions I came here hoping to make to these kids, I least expected to end up on the receiving end of THEIR generosity. I have never felt more loved. Perhaps most moving were the handful of spontaneous, handwritten letters we were given by many of our closest kids which our translators Phillip & Sam were so gracious to translate for us. I will cherish those letters for a very long time.
The hardest part of the week, of course, was saying goodbye. At the end of each day, we got into a routine of saying “See you tomorrow!”, which many of the kids were able to repeat back in English knowing exactly what it meant. We would be back the next day. And the next. And the next. We had nearly a whole week with the kids where we were there all day, every day. For a short time, it became a new routine for all of us. But during the last couple of days we could sense an emotional shift in some of the older kids, particularly the girls. They knew it was coming. None of them were quite sure when, but they knew that soon we’d be leaving, just like last year’s team did, and the previous year’s team, and so on. They braced themselves, sometimes crying, sometimes appearing detached, because they knew it was coming to an end. Mustering up all the joy that we could and struggling to keep from crying, we said goodbye to each other on Friday. It felt so strange on Friday that we couldn’t say “See you tomorrow!” anymore. What replaced it was the second most hopeful possibility, “See you next year, I hope?”. After this year’s moving experience, it’s certainly not out of the question for Miranda and I. As I wrote earlier, I can say unequivocally–as strange as it sounds–that I truly LOVE these kids even after having known them for only a week. I miss them greatly and I hope to see them again one day.
As we’d been told might happen, certain kids latched on to each of us immediately and formed close bonds early on that lasted throughout the week. Below are some of the kids that Miranda and I connected with the most and, consequently, had the hardest time saying goodbye to:
Meet Srey Mom. She was attached to Miranda’s hip from Day 1 and never let go. Of all the bonds we made, Miranda and Srey Mom’s was probably the closest. Srey Mom’s parents are divorced and her father and mother abandoned her after they separated. She was exposed to some traumatic circumstances before her aunt brought her to the orphanage so that she could be properly cared for. Miranda and Srey Mom hit it off immediately and were inseparable throughout our trip. They did each other’s hair, held hands, and didn’t leave each other’s side once. Watching them say bye to one another, especially given what Srey Mom has been through in her life, was one of the hardest parts of the trip for me.
Meet Davan. His parents are deceased and he and his brother both live at the orphanage. My nickname for him is Davan Copperfield. I showed the kids a few basic magic tricks (of course), but Davan took a particularly curious interest in learning the secrets to the tricks so that he could do them himself. Quickly he was calling me “teacher” and himself “student” with the tiny bit of English he picked up. I taught him a total of 6 tricks, all by motioning as best I could because of our language barrier. He picked them up beautifully and has quickly developed a reputation as a magician with his buddies. He is REALLY GOOD at sleight of hand and he practices his technique like crazy. I can’t wait to send him more tricks.
Meet Srey Nang. She had a not-so-secret crush on me throughout our visit, giving me homemade bouquets of flowers & homemade leis, giggling whenever I came around, and asking the translator to help her write “I Love Joe” on ALL of the various crafts that she made throughout our entire time there. 🙂 Her and her older sister Srey Nath were brought to the orphanage after their father died and their mother was unable to find work to support their family. Srey Nath is a brilliant young lady who is picking up English very fast and spends much of her time cleaning up & taking care of the younger ones at the orphanage.
Meet Srey Chea. This pretty little girl was attached to my hip throughout our time there. Though we didn’t exchange so much as a word most of the time, we made crafts together, smiled and made goofy faces at each other, and she never let go of my hand once. Srey Chea and her sister were brought here after their father died and their mother was unable to make enough income to support them. She is a bubble of positive energy and her smile never ceased to warm our hearts.
Meet Paly. This little dude has the most infectious smile I’ve ever seen in my life. He and I became buddies pretty quick, playing ball together, sitting next to each other whenever possible, and sharing lots of laughs. Both of his parents are deceased, and Pastor Vek’s orphanage gives him a chance at a much better life than he would have otherwise. Also, this poor little guy just had a massive ear surgery a couple months back, which makes his bright smile even more inspiring.
The list goes on and on for the 30 or so kids that we met at the orphanage, and each of them unexpectedly bonded with somebody on our team. We plan to stay in touch and keep encouraging them as the months roll on through letters and sponsorship. For all the people who supported Miranda and I on our journey to Cambodia with Global X, thank you. To Mike & Elloa for being incredible team leaders, thank you. To our amazing team of 9 from Atlanta who made every minute a blast, thank you! To Alex for helping us understand all the intricacies of Cambodian culture from an American perspective, thank you! To Pastor Vek, Madame Samoeun, Vannak, Phillip, Sam, and everyone else involved at New Life Missions, thank you for the amazing work that you are doing in Phnom Penh and beyond. You are transforming Cambodia from the inside out, and our team is privileged to have been involved in a small way in the BIG work that you are doing in Cambodia. God is so much broader than we could ever comprehend, and the second chance that these kids have at New Life orphanage is evidence of his handiwork in Phnom Penh:
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. “
New Life Missions is doing just that. I can’t wait to see what these kids grow up to do and to become!
If you feel compelled to sponsor any of these kids, or to just find out what the needs are, please visit the Fallen Sparrow Foundation at: http://www.fallensparrow.org/