The Sunshine of Cambodia
On Friday the 13th of September, I woke up at 3:30am to get ready to travel to Cambodia with a group of strangers. I was part of a volunteering team that was to work for Awareness Cambodia International, a Perth-run organization that aims to rebuild Cambodia and its people. Awareness Cambodia is a not-for-profit overseas aid organization, that has many different projects dedicated to improving and protecting the devastatingly war torn country. Our maintenance team was to live and work in the Sunshine House orphanage located in Komhponh Speu, a remote Cambodian community.
Although I don’t have a trade, I know how to hold a paintbrush, and so I joined the maintenance team to help renovate Sunshine House. The girls on the volunteer team painted the boys’ dormitory, and the males made the children a basketball court. We painted, we cleaned, we fixed up the barbed wire fences and all the while made sure no children swam in the paint buckets. It was quite the task. I was prepared to work all day, yet the Cambodian heat and humidity did not spare me from its wrath. We were working during their coldest time of year and I was still struggling like the over-privileged white girl that I am. But when you stopped staring at the worn out orphanage walls and looked down at their smiling faces, it didn’t matter how hot it was, I was so happy to be there for the beautiful children.
I was a bit nervous to meet all the children at Sunshine House. I was worried that it would upset me too much, seeing how much they had already suffered in their short lives. Yet being around those wonderful children was incredibly uplifting. They were so filled with happiness and joy. There was no sense of self-pity or sadness; their resilience was inspiring. To be around them made me feel like I was immature compared to their life experience. Already their eyes had seen so much more of how cruel the world could be. I felt as if they had more knowledge of the reality of life, struggle and heartache that I would probably never know in my lifetime, they had already experienced.
The Awareness Cambodia orphanage is called Sunshine House. The orphanage is surrounded by rice paddocks, and is in a completely rural and poor province. The main part of the village was just a few houses; blink and you’ll miss it. Thinking back on it now, there seemed to be more cows and chickens wandering around than humans. The dormitories were made up of steel beds, some with thin grass mats, but most without anything on them. Cubicles with drop toilets and water troughs were their bathrooms. A bucket in each cubicle was used to flush the toilet. The children also used the bucket to pour water on themselves from the troughs, which was their makeshift shower. The rubbish pile was not far from the dormitories, and I would often see the children playing next to it, or joining in as the waste was being burned. Trying to compare their conditions to what mine were like, and what I was surrounded by in my childhood, well, I just couldn’t.
There was one orphan called David, who stole my heart. David is five years old, and has an older brother who suffers from epilepsy. If Sunshine House didn’t take the two boys in, David’s older brother would not have survived his condition without medical care. David is a very gentle, quiet and polite little boy, and his smile could light up any room. After spending so much time with the children, I felt like they were my little family, and I never wanted to leave them. When we were saying our goodbyes to the children, David wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I got on the bus and had successfully avoided crying so far, and then I saw him run towards us. I went to the window and lent out to hold David’s hand one more time. I couldn’t hold the tears back anymore.
While we were away from the orphanage, it was clear what sort of lives those children would have led if not for Awareness Cambodia International. In the cities and at the beaches, children are exploited openly and constantly. While away from the orphanage, it was common to see children selling goods in public, especially in the tourist heavy locations. Instead of being at school or safe at home, they would be roaming the streets and tourist beaches; their childhood stolen from them. The poverty of Cambodia is overwhelming for most of the population, and it is no doubt that the innocence of children is lost among the busy streets.
We made a surprise visit back to Sunshine House before making the journey back to the capital, and then home. The children were all sleeping, but I just wanted to see David one more time. I walked into the boy’s dormitory with another volunteer and woke up David. His face reminded me of when I was a child and woke up on Christmas day. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, seeing how glad he was to see me again. I’ll never forget it.
We are so lucky to have what we have in Australia. When I got home I felt guilty over how much I have. We had experienced their way of life, a very basic way of living. Even the thought that I have a flushing toilet in my home made me feel spoilt. Next to those children at Sunshine House, I could not think of anything in my life to complain about. I am so privileged; I live in a place so filled with opportunity and wealth. What could I ever complain about, knowing what these children have gone through? Nothing. Nothing at all. And I thank them for sharing their courage and love with me.
For more information about Awareness Cambodia International and their programs, visit their website here: awarecam.org.au/