By GABRIELLE BROPHY
I have just returned from Cambodia, a country of gentle and sincere people spread across a beautiful landscape. But behind the beauty, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with one third of the population living on less than $2 per day.
Fifteen years after the death of Pol Pot, Cambodia is still recovering from the horrific Khmer regime and genocide.
During my time there, I visited a street outreach project that has been set up to help children working as rag pickers. It isn’t run by teachers or social workers. Instead, the program is run by former street kids, and now volunteers, Devi*, 13, and Veht*, 14. The boys set up tarps and lanterns on the footpaths so street kids across Phnom Penh can learn about issues such as nutrition, hygiene, domestic violence, and ways to protect themselves from exploitation. They are also able to play and have the chance to be a child, even if only for an hour at a time. It was inspiring to see the children completely engaged by Veht’s use of a cartooned flipbook and posters.
While Veht eagerly taught the children, Devi set up a first aid kit and went about checking if any of them had wounds or open sores that needed cleaning and covering to prevent infection. The cuts are the occupational hazard of a working life spent picking up bottles or scrap from under piles of rubbish, and testify to the difficulties faced by Cambodia’s street children.
I watched in awe as Devi diligently attended to their open cuts and grazes by dim lantern light. He was a child forced into adulthood by poverty, now working to soften the blow for others. It is a powerful image that will stay with me, a glimpse of the hope that lives in the human spirit – even in a child who has lived a tougher life than any child should have to, and now gives back because he has been given a chance.