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.