Patty Cake – A Cambodia Story – #6

patty cakeBy mid-week, that first week in Cambodia, the team had learned a lot. That oppressive heat and humidity – God’s personal makeup remover – led us to a family-owned shop nearby the safe house, and to the best ice coffees in the world! They swore they used purified water, and we were willing to take the chance.

After a particularly sticky afternoon, entertaining 150+ kids on the third floor of the safe house, my sense of charity was waning! Although several floor fans valiantly circulated the smelly, thick air around the room, I was beginning to think I might melt away, just like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. The only thing remaining would be two filthy flip flops on top of what used to be me. By the stoic looks on our team’s faces, I figured they were feeling about the same.

And then it dawned on me! Brilliant! Next thing you knew, I was on the first floor, sheepishly asking the Pastor for a word. Would it be all right if we split the kids; boys outside and girls upstairs, for just a couple of hours? “Sure!” he said, brown eyes twinkling. “Other teams do that all the time.” A lady-like pause – deep cleansing breath…  Oh well, learn as you go, right?

A few minutes later, through a cloud of dust and a “Hi Ho Silver!”, 75 boys were racing down the stairs and out to the back yard, kicking a dozen soccer balls back and forth and, well, being boys. Pastor’s wife ignored us all, as she stoked the outdoor wood fire, beginning lunch preparations for the lot of us. Upstairs, the girls had settled into a craft, all sitting on the floor in a most blissful peace, concentrating on their coloring projects! Praise God!

I opted to join the boys, perhaps to ensure that a soccer ball would not land in the cooking pot! Lunch is a very precious meal to anyone who works in the safe house!

About twenty minutes into my new-found brilliance, I noticed two boys fighting back in a corner of the yard, obscured by dozens of other boys. The taller boy was punching the other, who tried to defend himself but was making no headway. I approached the boys wondering what I should do. Not being able to speak Khmer and not wanting to embarrass the boys, I simply stood between them. Towering over the taller boy, I gave him my best “mom look” and then, took his two hands in mine and held them up in front of him, palms facing out. I could tell by the confused look on his face, he was unsure what I was doing. I smiled slightly, and then started playing patty cake with him. I went faster and faster, until I could see his face relaxing and a little smile making its way into his eyes.

He was having trouble following my lead, so I started counting out loud as I patted his left hand, and then his right: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5, and then three pats with both hands for a special flair! 1 – 2 – 3! We were now surrounded by boys, all watching intently, bright eyes smiling. I could see their hands mimicking mine as they slapped the air. I turned to the little one, who by now was laughing and pushing his way in front of his “attacker”, wanting his turn. I played patty cake with him and we both laughed out loud. (By the way, Khmer children don’t “pat”; they “smack” – ask anyone on the team about that!) By now, I had a line of 15 or 20 boys waiting their turn. I played patty cake with each one – the palms of my hands bright red and stinging!

Why were they so excited at this simple game? I had given the first boy a container for his aggression. A safe place. A way to make contact, while at the same time, unleashing a lot of pent up energy. No surprise, he wasn’t the only one with some pent up aggression.

Patty cake. Huh…

Who knew?


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Pick-Up Sticks – a Cambodia Story #5

Be mindful of the needs of others. Yes, Dad, I remember. I can still hear you saying that at the end of every prayer. Be mindful of the needs of others. Yes. Yes…. I’m so mindful that I think I’m going to crack!

bONESThe killing fields were bad enough, but now, the legacy left behind. The survivors of genocide. The children of the survivors. When and where are they supposed to reclaim their voice?

I just met 125 kids who have had a gag order placed on them. There are thousands more just like them. They lost their voices to an evil force that is simply unfathomable. We must not let their inability to speak up, to defend themselves, fog our ability to see the truth.

Let us be their voice. Let’s scream at the top of our lungs, for they surely cannot. Let’s find a way to help, one child at a time.

Domestic violence, abuse, rape, torture, enslavement – that is not who they are. It is what happened to them. They need our help. Get involved! What are you afraid of?

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I Saw God Everywhere – A Story of Cambodia #4

photo (13)On the first day of our trip, one of our team leaders lead us in a devotion. We listened to a song by Stephen Curtis Chapman. It is called “Dive“. This verse says it all:

But we will never know
The awesome power of the grace of God
Until we let ourselves get swept away into this holy flood.
So if you’ll take my hand
We’ll close our eyes and count to three
And take the leap of faith, come on, let’s go!

I have never felt His presence as keenly as I did in Cambodia. From Pastor’s words on orientation day to our tearful goodbyes, His spirit could be felt working through us, through the counselors and through the children. How strange to be in one of the darkest corners of the world, witnessing grim circumstances the likes of which I have never experienced, and yet, feeling armed and safe by an invisible shield of faith.

There is some amazing work being done at the safe house and at the restoration center for the rescued girls. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our team became a link in an unbroken chain of service, of love, and of hope.

photo (15)Last year, one of the members of our team served in Siem Reap for an organization called the Trade and helped teach rescued girls to work in and operate beauty salons developed by AIM (Agape International Ministries). The purpose of these salons is to cater to girls who work in brothels.  It’s in that environment that they can hear that there are other options that provide a much better life.

We visited one of the salons and had an emotionally-charged reunion with the girls. The shop is beautiful and the girls are doing well.

Yes, this trip has changed me.

I am stronger.

I am less afraid.

I see how much we can do when we work together.

And I thank God!

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Garbage Day – A Story of Cambodia – #3

photo (12)We make our way to a neighborhood restaurant, stepping carefully through the muddy streets.

A small girl, holding a basket of handmade bracelets under one arm, leans against a pole and watches our street-side table intently.

She stares at me, brown eyes piercing my soul, hoping to catch my attention. I avert my eyes. She approaches one of the other team members and asks if they would like a bracelet. A negative response kick starts a scolding: “Oh come on lady, you buy one, OK? No money? Ask your friend. She has money. You buy cheap. Buy one for your friend, OK?” We are  a stubborn group. We’ve been told not to buy from the girls. Someone has to break the chain. But there’s a snag in the plan. If she goes home without any money, she may be beaten. Worse yet, she may be trafficked.

She continues with her “marketing”. “You Christians, yes? Me too. I know Jesus. I love Jesus. You buy bracelet?” We are all sickened by this dilemma. This girl’s childhood was thrown out with yesterday’s garbage. We know this girl. We’ve already learned that she was trafficked. We understand her crafty ways. She has no other choice. One of us places a little bow in her hair and she hugs her benefactor. Another team member succumbs to the plight of this little one and buys a couple bracelets. Others waiting in the shadows spot this victory and before we know it, we’re surrounded by a legless man on a push cart, a young boy selling sun glasses, a mother holding her sleeping child. (The mothers drug their children so that they look ill and then carry them through the streets, begging from tourists.) Desperation is the special on this menu.

We pile into the van and make our way to the safe house. I lean my head against the window, heavy with the need to fix this and the knowledge that I, alone, can’t.

A Moto flies by, swerving in and out and around tuk-tuks, bicycles, cars and trucks, all following some unwritten heirarchy. A father steers the Moto, his wife sitting behind him. They both wear face masks to protect against the polluted air. A small child is sandwiched between the two. She is not wearing a mask. The mother holds her child with one arm, the other arm raised high in the air, holding an IV wrapped in an old towel. The other end of the IV protrudes from the child’s wrist. She stares at the strange faces in our van, her eyes dull, as they pass us by. This site was repeated several times during our stay in Svay Pak. Garbage.


We continue to weave in and out of traffic making our way to the safe house. Pedofiles can be spotted all along the way. They stand out like sore thumbs and one wishes she had a blow dart.

It is common to pass a street-front restaurant serving pedofiles. Five tables. Five men, each sitting alone at a table. All fair skinned. All looking…well, sick. These are not tourists, and there is no other reason for them to be here. They don’t visit with each other. They sit silently, smoking a cigarette; talking on a cell phone. Garbage.

Today, at the safe house, one of our children is dressed to kill. She looks to be five or six. Full make up. She will most likely be sold tonight. We try not to stare. We try not to cry. We try not to scream. She is safe for the moment. hope

It’s garbage day. But there is no garbage man here.



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I Fell In Love in Cambodia

photo (11)I fell in love in Cambodia. I fell hard and fast, and I can’t get him out of my mind! Actually, I fell in love with about 150 of them, but this little one high-fived himself into my heart, and it stuck.

Working in a “Safe House” in Svay Pak – first day. We sat on the edge of a small stage – a team from America; here to serve impoverished children who are sent to the house during the day. They receive food, games, a safe place to be, and most importantly, love. Our hearts beat a little faster at the sound of 100+ kids bounding up the three flights of stairs, whooping and hollering as they entered the room. Several fans blew the hot, sweaty air around the room, and that air thickened as all those little bodies filled it with their energy.

A pile of flip-flops joined ours at the entrance, marking the beginning of a magical, God-filled day. I have never felt His presence anywhere as much as I felt it on those days.

The children, all ages, ran to us. They wrapped their arms around our legs. Some wanted to sit next to us and grab our hands. Others were very shy and stood back, and watched. We greeted them in the “Cambodia way” by folding our hands (as if in prayer) and touching our foreheads, while saying “Socks-Sue-By” (phonetically, for “Hi, How are you?!”) They instantly responded with a similar response and then continued to search for their new, temporary soul mate. They know. They’ve done this week after week, because teams from all over the world come to this place every few weeks or so to offer their help to the most incredible team that live here permanently and have dedicated their lives to this work. The children know that they are safe here, and that these people, who look so different from them, are good people and are here to love them, even if it’s for a very short time. And they are hungry for that love.

The catch: we, on the other hand, don’t quite get it yet. We’ve never done this before. So we fall in love with each and every one of them and then, we have to figure out how to say goodbye — but this is just the first day. We have a lot to learn.

And there he is. He decides that I’m the one for him. I’m guessing he’s about four or five. I’m not sure. Cambodian children – most of them – are stunted in growth due to poor nutrition. They are all very small for their age. He runs up to me and puts his hand out to “high-five” me. The kids have learned this “Americanized greeting”.  I let him slap the palm of my hand and then I return the greeting with the more formal Cambodian way. He returns that, and looks into my eyes. His eyes are big, brown and filled with a sparkle of excitement or anticipation, or both. His little mouth is a bit disfigured — looks like a cleft palette and a rough repair job. A few little teeth appear in the most endearing smile I’ve ever seen and my heart breaks. His T-shirt and shorts are filthy and he smells of sweat and dirt. I am tempted to pat his head but that is a no-no in this culture so I quickly (mid-reach) offer up another high-five!

He cannot speak English and I can’t speak Khmer except for a few words of greeting, so I continue to speak to him in English and emphasize the tone of my voice and body language to let him know that I am so happy to meet him. He seems to understand and just keeps smiling at me.

As the day goes on, I seek him out in the crowd and a dozen times or more, our eyes meet across the room and we both smile and wave. He laughs at my dancing and singing. Oh boy, I’m sunk.

On the third or fourth day, I searched the room and could not find him. He was not there and my heart sank and I worried. You see, he lives at one of the brick factories. The brick factories are typically owned by wealthy individuals who do not necessarily live there, or even in Cambodia, for that matter. They offer employment to the poorest of the poor. Each day, our team went to a different brick factory and delivered 20-lb. sacks of rice to each of the families who work there. Most of them live in lean-to homes made of scraps of wood, sheet metal and anything else they can find, on the fringe of the “quarry”. Their homes are very small; perhaps one room — and there are no toilets — well, let’s face it, there is little if anything there but minimal shelter from the red clay dust that permeates the air. They burn their garbage to light the fires of the brick ovens (which burn for weeks at a time) and toxic black smoke mixes with the dust to create a toxic nightmare.

And there he was – on the fourth day. I found him sitting with his family on the tarp that had been spread on the ground for the families to sit on, under an awning to shade them from the hot sun, as they received our greeting, our prayers, and most importantly, the rice. He smiled and waved and I waved back (at the same time, hopping from one foot to the other to shake biting ants off my feet!) and it took everything in me to not run up to him, wrap him up in my arms and run away! When the rice was distributed, some of us followed the families to their homes and got a glimpse of their every-day lives. I watched as my new little friend disappeared into a door-less opening in the side of a tiny lean-to. I climbed back into the van with the rest of the team and fought back tears. I prayed for him. I don’t know his name, but God does.

On the last day of our time in Svay Pak, my little guy came up to me to hug me and say goodbye. We made butterflies that day and he handed his to me, gesturing that I should keep it. (Yes, his looks like a bat. They have lots of bats there!) I will treasure it always. I mumbled “God bless you!”, simultaneously pleading with God to listen to my prayer, wiping sweat and tears from my face. He ran to another newly found soulmate to say his goodbyes.

Another sweet angel approached me, armed with a high-five…

That’s story #1. I’ve got 149 more. How much time do you have?

P.S. For the children’s safety, we were not allowed to take photographs at the site.

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Unbroken Chain

paper chainWe knew we would be blessed by them. That’s what everyone told us when we departed fourteen days ago. The big question was, how would we be a blessing to them? How could a team of eleven Americans bless 150 children in Cambodia in such a short amount of time? What could we possibly offer these sweet beings, not knowing their language, not fully understanding their culture, nor their circumstances. We learned quickly how this would work and it is a lesson that none of us will forget.

On the first day in Svay Pak, the pastor sat us all down. He spoke easily in Khmer as well as English, moving from one language to the other, as he spoke to the American team and to the counselors who work day-to-day with the kids, ensuring that we would go into this work “all on the same page.”

His eyes sparkling with wise tears, he said “These children have nothing. They have no hope. They have no love. They have nothing. All we ask is that you love on these kids. Love on them. Play with them. Give them hope.”

And it was then that I realized how we would bless these children. We offered them fresh faces to look at. Fresh songs to sing. New games to play. But more importantly, we offered them an unbroken chain. For each team that comes to work here, week after week, we add one more link to a chain of love, of hope, of a safe place, of humans they can trust. And perhaps, just maybe, they will spread that word among their own and their generation may grow up with just a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of loving kindness and a reason to make their world a better place.

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Pink Fog

PINK FOGA magical walk through the pink fog this morning, led me to another realization of how truly fortunate I am, and to pause and wonder about those we will serve in Cambodia.

As we climbed up the 800-something steps of the Dipsea, a father and two small children stepped past us, as they made the downhill trek to their school bus stop. The kids, well-dressed, carrying over-sized backpacks filled with books and lunch, talked about their plans for the day. The dad followed, watching their every step, mumbling an affirmation along the way – “Keep up the good work guys; you’re making great time today!”

I greeted them as they passed and said, “Hey, do you walk UP the steps everyday, after school?” One of the children said “Sometimes.” The dad chimed in, “Only when this mean old dad is home and I make them!” I said, “That is fantastic! You’re going to be so fit!” And the dad smiled and said, “Yes! That is what I keep telling them!”

We watched as they disappeared down the long flight of stairs and then continued on our way.

It dawned on me that this is simply something you would never see in Cambodia. In 2009, fewer than 20 percent of Cambodian families who lived outside of the cities had access to a toilet or clean water. At least one-third of the people lived on less than $1 a day. By 2010, 80 percent of Cambodia’s people remained desperately poor and barely educated. The situation has not changed much today.

As much as I’ve prepared, I realize that I have so much to learn. How can I be of service? What in the world can I do to help the children we will be serving? Their needs are so great!

In Joel Brinkley’s book, Cambodia’s Curse, he says: “Nine Cambodians out of ten may not hope, or care. But change is coming. Even for a nation lost in the past, the modern world encroaches, far more slowly than in most any other place, but inexorably still.”

Well perhaps our team will bring hope. As Brinkley says, “…for Cambodians, that’s more than anyone has offered in a very long time.”

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