My friend, Brian Maher and his family have lived in Cambodia since the early 1990's. Brian helped to start the Youth Commission (now EFC-KEY) under the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia. The EFC-KEY is involved in strategic leadership development of Christian youth, preparing them for holistic ministry in the Cambodian Christian church. This is a testimony from one of the students learning what it means to love the "poor in spirit."
Reflections from Andong --
by Hourn Kim Suong
March 8th, 2008
Two years ago I heard on VOA (Voice of America) about the forced eviction [by the Cambodian government] of the squatters in ‘Sambok Chap’ on the riverside area of Phnom Penh, and about then their dejection and loneliness after their resettlement in Andong, 20 kilometers from their former homes. This made me upset and but I was far away in Banteay Meanchey province. I made an effort to listen to radio reports about ‘Sambok Chap but after a while I lost interest. Later when I became a [student in the Leadership Development Program by the Youth Commission], we went to Andong Resettlement Village for an exposure trip to interview the villagers about their lives and hardships in their new resettlement location. God gave me a second chance to consider what He had placed on my heart for these people two years ago.
Upon seeing their living conditions, I felt sad and empathetic. Their houses were all made of thatch and placed so close together they looked like bananas in a bunch. It reminded me of how when it rains mushrooms appear very quickly, just overnight. Buildings in the city grow up quickly as well, but are made of solid building materials. Sambok Chap squatter’s houses are more like soft and fragile mushrooms because they are little temporary shacks like the ones that a farmer lives in to guard the rice fields during harvest time. The smells of the muddy open sewers running down the paths between the rows of houses from this village are hard to stand for more than a short while.
I asked myself, “Is this a place where people should live? How long can they put up with living in these conditions? How do they live in these conditions? What hope do they have at all? What about their health in the future? Who cares about these people?”
When we entered the village, and then the house of the family we interviewed, there was a five month old baby girl who was sleeping in a hammock. After that, a 30 year old man came in and he greeted us in the traditional Cambodian way. He asked us to sit down a bamboo bed and make ourselves comfortable. He told us his name was Bontheun and he owned the house. He told us his wife was very sick and he did not have the finances to help treat his wife’s ailment, but his brother in law helped take his wife to a far away province for treatment. He was left alone with his 5 month old baby daughter. It has been three months since she left, and since then has heard nothing from her. He waits every day for his wife and is diligent to take care of the baby, buts hopes his wife will return soon. Other people have offered to take his baby girl to raise for him as they have seen his predicament. His biggest problem is not being able to leave to go work and earn an income because he is busy watching his baby daughter. Ever since they were evicted from the riverfront, they have been miserable without have water for bathing and sanitation. Bonthuen has been able to catch some fish nearby to sell in order provide him and his daughter with some food. No one from the government has expressed even the slightest interest in them.
Then we went to visit another family’s house. We met another 30 year old man named Sophoin. Even though he greeted us with a big smile, we knew he was suffering on the inside. He told us he could not do manual labor because he recently broke some of his ribs, and he was a construction worker. When he lived in ‘Sambok Chap’ village on the Phnom Penh riverfront area, he was the one who provided for his family of nine. Now this burden has fallen onto his wife and his oldest daughter of 17, to be the bread winners. “My wife sells clams in Phnom Penh, and my daughter works in a garment factory.” Back in Sambok Chap, at least he could make a living, and in Andong during the rainy season the whole place floods and is always muddy. During the flooding his wife was having a baby and he told us that their roof leaked and they were miserably wet until some Christians came along and built them a new thatch house which has helped their health situation. “If the Christians didn’t help us, we don’t where our health and sanitation problems would have led us.”
We talked with Sophoin until a 50 year old woman came in and began to talk with him. She was a widow neighbor by the name Kun Seng who sat down next to Sophoin, and she told us she her living situation was destitute when she was first evicted and plopped down in the rice paddies now called Andong. It is very difficult to sell her cakes in this area as opposed to in the city where she used to work before being evicted. She takes a motorcycle taxi back and forth to the city but the traveling expense eats up all her profits. She also said that she has received a lot of help from Christians; a new thatch hut, food, mosquito nets, and blankets, etc. If Christians did not help, she would be so much worse off. “The government threw us away like a bag of garbage into this dump and it is affecting our health and livelihood. If there were bathrooms, a good well, and opportunities to learn skills, it would really make our lives much easier.
The difficulties I have faced throughout my life in mind seemed like big ones, but compared to the people living in Andong, my problems are miniscule. When I experience problems, I am discouraged, but I can only imagine how these discouraged and depressed these people are. This experience of interviewing these two families causes me to think about them a lot because I have always had enough to eat, and a decent enough place to stay, etc. I also think about those in power, are they able to help these people and how? And why aren’t they helping? Are these people who are in power my neighbors?
When I entered this village of the ‘poor in spirit’ I was sort of embarrassed and hesitant because I did not have even a little gift to give them. I felt bad when I saw their condition and how they needed help. I did not look down on them, and I also felt that they were not seeking power but to just improve their living conditions. They were out of hope, and not having much food to eat. I saw the children outside the resettlement area appealing for food from the pre-existing villagers but they did not help them, but instead looked down on them. The pre-existing villagers abutting the Andong resettlement village built high brick walls, put up concertina wire, and erected big signs that said, “Do Not Enter, Danger.” The existing village rejects them and does not want to help them at all because they bear the stigma of being poor. These people just need someone to help meet their basic needs of food and health, teach them some life skills, and help them income generation projects.
I did not think of them negatively, for what would I do if I were in their place? One question I asked myself; “Is God working here or not?” Psalms 146: 7-9 says; “God will meet out justice for those who are oppressed. God will give food to those who hunger. God will release those who are captive. God will open the eyes of the blind. God will lift up the humble, and raise them up tall. God loves the righteous. God protects and lifts up the aliens, orphans, and widows, and God will destroy the way of the wicked.”
What I have seen with my own eyes concerning the villagers according to this verse is that they are able to receive true hope that comes from God. I have learned about God’s compassion and mercy toward the poor and oppressed of Andong. Even though a number of them do not yet know who Jesus is, God is using the good deeds of his servants working in the village who help them when they have no hope. When society rejects them, the Christians serving here care. That shows that God accepts them and this gives them hope. They can see the character of our God which is displayed clearly among them through the good works of his servants here. I have heard them say, “Christians are the ones who have helped us, they have built houses for us, given us food, they have come to visit us; all this showed me that God is working among them through the various means of his servants there. Even though they lack a lot of things, they have received a special encouragement from God. One person told me with a smile that things have changed for the better since he first arrived. He now has a new thatch house, encouragement, and people to come visit him from the group of servants of God in the village.
When I left the village, I knew that Jesus’ presence was there, and that he was fulfilling his mission there. Jesus is with those ‘poor in spirit’ people. I want to take a part in helping the villagers of Andong. Will I pray for them? Can find some help for them from others for both their physical and spiritual needs, especially for helping them find ways for the children to study and go to school? Can I find help for the children that they can be lifted from the emotional burden of what their parent’s dysfunctional living situation has put upon them?
. . . The element of compassion . . . gives my service to God more potential and more effectiveness. Feeling empathy for them makes me want to be more involved in their lives. This is one way for them to see the love of God through action and mission. Though I have no physical resources to give, I can help through the capacity that God has given me by telling others abut the needs of this poor group of villagers in Andong.
I know that God truly has a plan for the former people of ‘Sambok Chap’ who are now living in Andong. This plan starts with me, then my brothers and sisters in the faith, as we partner together to fulfill the mission has been started in Andong. We especially need to make a concentrated effort to gather together and pray regularly for Andong Village through an enduring heart of love.