Stella and Gerald Fox, parish contacts from St Etheldreda (Ely) have recently returned from visiting Cambodia, where they visited the CAFOD project they support through our Connect2 scheme. Here is Stella’s report from Cambodia:
Our parish, St Etheldreda in Ely, is part of a diocesan project that has twinned us with Prek Taol, a floating community on the Tonle Sap lake, in Cambodia. So when we heard that the Connect2 scheme meant we could do more in that country, we chose to extend our commitment to supporting people in this country.
Your parish may want to start out with CAFOD’s Connect2 scheme and so get know a community that CAFOD helps and learn more about one of the four countries in the scheme (Cambodia, Brazil, El Salvador and Ethiopia). As we are a small parish, we didn’t want to diversify by following different projects in different countries – we wanted to deepen our interest in one country.
Our Connect2 scheme enables us to support the Salvation Centre Cambodia (SCC) to build a relationship with the community at Samrong Mean Chey. What we can give them on our own may not be much, but what we give, together with contributions from other parishes and from other agencies – like Caritas Australia – can help them to work wonders.
We may not be a big contributor but we’re an important one. The financial side of it is just one part of the relationship – its the fact that we care about the people. Its the connection that is important and we show them that they’re not on their own. When life is hard, knowing someone cares for you makes life valuable; liveable.
Through Connect2 we are enabling people in Samrong Mean Chey to rebuild their lives. The Salvation Centre Cambodia is “there to support people whose lives are changed by HIV.” It is a trustworthy Buddhist organisation working closely with Catholics – Buddhists and Catholics working untiringly together for the good of all.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) the whole team came to meet us. We were showered with petals as we participated in a traditional Buddhist blessing, they introduced themselves and told us what they were doing. They were keen to hear about us and showed great interest in why we were there. They responded with big Cambodian smiles. We felt that we were with friends.
From Phnom Penh, Rotha, the new, enthusiastic director took us to Samrong Mean Chey. Arriving there, we met the children who were waiting to sing a special greeting song for us. Later we had great fun singing with the younger children.
The children were busy in the learning centre and they were cleaner. Their hair was shiny.
Things have changed since our visit in 2012. Last time we saw a sad, desolate place.
This time the children were busy in the learning centre and they were cleaner. Their hair was shiny. Even the local ducks were looking healthier.
The homes are still built above an open sewer, but the people are looking healthy, and smiling. Everyone seemed to be getting on with life very much the same as you would expect in any other village around the world.
The team at the Salvation Centre have worked really hard, building up the community, helping people make their own lives better, enabling them to care and take responsibility for each other. They teach them how to keep themselves clean and that’s obviously working.
At the learning centre 119 children now have a chance to learn and we joined them as they learnt English, singing songs and rhymes with them: “The wheels on the bus go round and round…”. Education gives them a chance to make a better future for themselves.
The Salvation Centre now has another centre on the outskirts of Seam Reap. Here we saw a lively community of children who are growing their own crops on land that was once derelict.
The children are educated, taught new life skills and given a chance for a positive future.
We were shown round by a HIV survivor. He now has access to the antiretroviral drugs he needs to keep Aids in check. On the bus, he started to share his political ambition – fighting for rights and for justice. He said, “I shouldn’t be saying this, it’s not correct that I speak openly, but I am going to”. Speaking to us in this way was a risk, he may be reported to the authorities, but he was implying great trust in us.
Community leaders are emerging, they now have the confidence and courage to fight for their rights. One young man lost his job because he was uncomfortable that people are earning less than the minimum wage. He is now campaigning for just wages in the factory. It was a risk for him to do this, to speak out for the community, but he knows they stand behind him; that he won’t lack what he needs. Together with the team at the Salvation Centre, they are working out how best to fight for land rights, so they won’t again be evicted as the city expands.
Our visit has given us a totally different vision of life. The Cambodians we met have a different way of living, and different priorities. People live very simple lives and they make the most of their very poor living conditions.
Many children haven’t got a family – because so many of them have lost their parents and grandparents through illness. That’s where the Salvation Centre and the Church come in. They find a family who will love and care for them as their own. They are not alone.
They want other people to know that they are there and that they are not forgotten.
They take care of each other. They want us to tell other people about them because they want to feel part of the world. They want other people to know that they are there and that they are not forgotten.
We’ve become important to them and so they treat us as part of their extended family. We keep in touch through Facebook and we in turn share their news and photos with the parish. We have a constant display of photos at the back of church that we keep updated, enabling all to share more fully in this connection.
Rotha’s enthusiasm rubs off on everyone, he is so full of life. Together they are making great progress. Now we want to share his hope for the future.
Throughout our journey around Cambodia, visiting two Salvation Centre projects and several Church communities, we were welcomed with love and joy. It is a great privilege to be able to share a little of their lives.
We’re ambassadors for our Cambodian friends. It is not easy for them to speak our for their rights, but we can. At home in Ely, many people are working hard throughout the year to raise funds and speak about our friends in Cambodia. This is how we are showing our love and care for our extended family.
In some small way we have been able to share the abundant love God has for all his family. We are enriched by the relationship and connection we have.
A version of this article is to be published in CAFOD Reporting by the Catholic Times.