Realities of some people's lives ( and mine) in Phnom Penh.
Another week of mainly work related activities and not many adventures as one would define them. This week two visiting professors from the UW and I visited three development/social work agencies and got a glimpse of their work. I will shortly describe these, as to get an idea what approaches are taken by different organizations to alleviate suffering of the poorest of the poor, may they be women, people with disabilities, or destitute and HIV/AIDS affected individuals and families. Government aid is not present and poor people have to fend for themselves, they live on the streets, if somewhat more lucky in horrible living quarters and are often sick, underfed and visibley hopeless, while many do try to sell or make something!!
The first group gave us hope. It is a group called WORTH, a program of PACT Cambodia. PACT works in 8 countries "building capacity world wide" . The WORTH program is one of their programs here, it is a Women's Empowerment Program, and builds poor women's capacities. The group is trained -through an appreciative inquiry planning process, which reinforces success,- and elects their own officers. The model was taken from PACT Nepal, where it is wildly successful ! Literacy training is offered. (Women's literacy rate is lower than that of men. In the year 2000 women's illiteracy rate was 45% as compared to 25% among men). They also form savings/loan groups, where women save money, create literally a box, from which they loan money to each other. It is all women run, the box has three boxes with different keys and not one woman can open the box by herself. There have to be 4 women, with different keys present! (prevents corruption, like rampant by the big guys here!). Women can not loan more than 3x their savings. Some women move on to the village level politics and learn to advocate for themselves and/or speak out about injustice. They gain a voice! Very inspiring and I am certainly planning to go back and learn more about this. Our social work program is working to place students for their service learning and field placements in this organization. Would be so great!!
Then we visited an organization Watthan Artisans Cambodia (WAC), an organization initially set up by the Maryknoll in 1991 as a Training Center for Landmine and polio disabled people in Phnom Penh. Since 2004 it is now running as an independent worker-run cooperative of Cambodian artisans with disabilities. One of our faculty members, Nika, works here. The goal is to improve livings standards of people with disabilities through training. Training is still the core, but upon finishing the training, fair wages are paid. Now they also train blind people and people with developmental disabilities. Also very inspiring, naturally a drop in the bucket for this population, but it gives hope to those who are involved! They run a great gift shop with silk, scarves, purses and handbags,clothing, and wood carvings and much more. It is heart warming to see the people who get to work there and the products they make. High quality, high intricacy of weavings and wood work, and very affordable. You might see some of them upon my return!!
The next organization we visited was Enfants Developpement, a social work organization that promotes family self-sufficiency, awareness of resources and referral to resources. They work with 'social workers' (often psychology students) and fieldworkers/paraprofessionals. They also call what they do capacity building as a development approach, help families to identify their strengths, help them develop strategies for change, but they do not give resources, that is up to other agencies. Average time with families is 6 months of home visiting, the families are identified through outreach. They also offer classes for families, to work on parent child-relationships, but in practice the parents sent their children according to the educator. We observed such a class, in a very very poor neighborhood, houses and shacks build along side a canal, with open sewers, just dragged, and the children walking and playing around! Again lots of garbage around, skinny dogs and cats, chickens and sure rats! A very enthusiastic young Khmer men worked with a group of about 10 children and 2 mothers. He did "head-shoulders-knees and toes" with them, and they performed happily for us. One girl, dirty and maybe sick, immediate clung to us, holding our legs and sitting close. I think she also was developmentally delayed and looked sad and alone. The leader tried to sing "twinkle, twinkle little star", but forgot the song somewhat and asked Mara, the Australian volunteer (experienced social worker) and field advisor in our program and me, to sing the song, which we did. It was fun. Then we all got separated and left each with a social worker to do home visits. Here is where I got really affected by the living conditions, First visit: one concrete room, probably as big as Anneke's bedroom in our house, it had a bed and some cooking stuff on the floor, I did not see a tap for water or anything. It housed a widow and her three children -21-17 and 13. The 21 year old just had a baby 4 days ago. The mother smiled and looked happy on the bed, the baby was on the floor, on a new little pillow with a pile of rags around her. Darling tiny little baby! The rent was $50 a month. I wonder how they all slept, some in the bed, some on the floor I am sure. All was well with everyone, and we only stayed for five minutes. Then I went with a social worker, on her motobike to another visit, parked the bike, walked through rubble through an alleyway, another smaller alleyway and got to another tiny room, on a little tiny concrete and dirt courtyard where some men were working on a bike. An 18 yr old mother with a nine month old baby was home alone, a gorgeous looking young women, HIV/AIDS infected, but not the baby. The social worker talked with her for a long time and her face lifted up some. Very good interactional skills and eye contact and the conversation seemed to flow with the mother doing most of the talking. I of course could not understand a word, but could therefore observe even better. Very skilled interviewer and she sounded very supportive. The conversation lasted over 20 minutes. We left and the social worker pulled out a genogram and showed me the whole family situation in a picture, mother married a 33 year old men, (also HIV/AIDS) who had already three wives, and now she found out he has a fourth one. Her mother is "crazy in the head" from years of abuse, which made this client run away. Husband does not give much support and food, and the time for the baby to get milk from an organization ran out. She wants a job but has no one to take care of the baby! I asked the social worker whether they would give food, she said no. Sounded very sad to me. I only could see hopelessness in the woman's face, only 18 and no future!! At least she had a listening ear and some genuine support and care from another human being, but hope?
The whole situation reminded me about the friendly visitors in the US around the turn of the last century, or the conditions of poor immigrant women in Chicago, where Jane Addams was confronted with. I have often thought lately that we need a Jane Addams here, someone who would become the champion garbage collector, cleaning up the disease causing culprits on the streets!! (Jane Addams only paid job in her life was when she became the garbage inspector of one of the wards in Chicago, where the garbage was as bad or worse than here in her times!!) Needless to say, that all of us who were exposed to this experience and the homevisits, where less than cheerful when we went and had our supper that night!
I also went to visit the organization called RISC (Returnee Integration Services Cambodia), where Cambodian deportees from the United States, (victims of the anti-immigration sentiments of Homeland Security) are helped with making a new beginning in Cambodia. (There are an estimated 200.000 ethnic Cambodians living in the US). These people, mainly men, were either born in refugee camps, or in Cambodia and left as kids with parents who fled the Khmer Rouge regime. There lives, as I know from my refugee work and doing research in Chicago, was struggling under hard conditions in the US. Many were raised by traumatized parents who often reconstituted families in refugee camps, victims of poor schooling in bad schools, and became trapped in lives of gangs, crimes and drugs. After they do longer or shorter prison times, because of criminal convictions, they are, upon their release, deported. Many of them have families, wives and children in the United States. They do not speak Khmer, have no relationship to this country, and might not know what happened to get their parents to become refugees, and might not have family here. For all practical purposes they are Americans, except that they never changed their green cards into citizenship status. To date about 260 of these men (and a couple of women) were deported, mainly out of Tacoma!
RISC was funded initially by USAID in 2005, but this funding ran out and now this organization is operating on a shoe string, offering immediate support when returnees are released by the immigration services in Cambodia, housing and support to perhaps 10 returnees, of which some are mentally ill. The men have nothing to do all day, and are waiting for their residence papers, wishing they could go somewhere else, but who knows where! There used to be a Khmer teacher, and other programs for integration. No more. The organization runs the risk of closing down in August because of lack of funding. Tracy, the professor from the UW, who started the Social Work program and single handedly raises the money to support that, is also the main support to the staff of this organization and tries to work with them in any way she can, not in the least to raise funds!! Our visit was to discuss case management with the two men who work with the returnees in this way and give support to their work. Great that there is at least something for these men, who are bewildered upon arrival and not in the least depressed. The alternative is unthinkable, but what is, is not even starting to give hope to condemned lives in a strange land, forever!!
The legal issues started in 1996, when new laws targeted hundred of thousands of illegal immigrants involved in the US criminal justice system, when appeals were removed, as well as hearings and reconsiderations, for faster deportations. Any foreign national in jail for a felony, or convicted of one, could be deported quickly. El Salvador knows about this as well, where criminal gangs, often reconstituted from LA, now terrorize the highways in the whole of Central America. They were/are deported by the plane loads back to El Salvador, where the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with them, or reintegration is not happening.
Should this happen in Cambodia? Could Cantwell and Murray be talked to? It is a Washington issue, since most of these returnees are deported out of Tacoma. Any compassion left? After all, the US has blood on its hands, put Lon Nol into office..causing the Khmer Rouge to gain support..and bombing this country as no other!! Any thoughts?? Needless to say, this experience did not put me in a great mood either!
Well, let's turn back to my life. I now, as of today, have a bike, for $35, with a bell, a basket, a lock and a stand. After getting pretty hot midday today, biking back from the bike store (30 minutes), Mara and I took a lunch, and upon returning my front tire was flat. Ok, to a street bike fixer, who got me a new tire and intertube, for $7.00. I got a cover over my basket, because some like to rip off bags from the baskets while you bike!! I feel free to go and come when I please, and will save about $40/week for tuktuks!
And finally, I also can report, that I too have rats in my apartment, as being evidenced by droppings in my bathroom, kitchen and living area when I return at night. O.k. that freaked me out as well, just like my neighbor downstairs who saw one this week in her apartment and came screeming out of her room!! I spent Friday with Ka, to get a bookshelf, and a reading light over my bed, and some more food that I cannot pick because of labels, and she talked me into getting some rat killing stuff. Not sure what it was I bought it. Unpacking the package, it is a folded piece of paper, with horrible, extra-strong darkbrown glue on it. You put some food on it (in my case cooked shrimp) and then it is hoped, the rat will come and get stuck on the glue!! I got "chided" by my friends when I talked to them about having done this, not even my defense that I didn't liked it either, helped. "How, as a vegetarian, Buddhist leaning person could you do this"? I offered the idea that the rats in Phnom Pehn probably are smarter than walking on these sheets of glue; by now they must know what is up! That defense did not help either. When I got home that night, I had to laugh. I found more droppings in my room and right next to the hoped for deadly device!! Phnom Penh rats are indeed smarter than to get tricked! I threw it all out today, and filled some potential rat holes with metal scouring pads. Might help!! My food, even ripe fruit is now out of sight and I just sweep the floor. What can you do?? It could be worse!!
If it does not get worse, I still have a pretty good time! Looking forward to more understandings and practicing accepting the present moment, as it is!!
Be well my friends, and let me hear from you!
Let me leave you with a quote from Helen Keller,
"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,
To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits
in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable"
I hold on to those thoughts!