From Saturday to Wednesday, our team was in a northern city called Siem Reap. Siem Reap is best known for the Angkor temples, which were built between the 9th and 15th centuries. Because these ruins attract millions of visitors every year, the city feels much more touristy than Phnom Penh.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Because of Phnom Penh’s size, population and prominence, the fight against sex trafficking there is fairly developed. However, the effort in Siem Reap is much younger. While NGOs have had years to raise awareness and develop relationships with police and government officials in the capital, organizations in Siem Reap are still in their beginning stages.

On Monday, we had the privilege of working with one such aftercare organization that has only been in Siem Reap for about 15 months. While the girls in the aftercare center we worked with in Phnom Penh were in the later stages of restoration, this shelter in Siem Reap houses girls who come straight from either a prostitution or rape situation. Because they are in a very vulnerable place both emotionally and physically, the girls only leave the shelter to testify in court, and only the staff know the location of the shelter.

Because their primary goal is to fully protect the girls, they turn away all visitors. However, by the grace of God and connections with this organization, we were the first visitors to ever be allowed into this shelter.

The oldest girl was 18 while the youngest was only 4-years-old. That is one of my favorite things about these art journals; they can serve as coloring books for the little ones and journals for the older ones, but they are tools for restoration for any age. We had so much fun teaching them and watching their creativity, laughing and playing with them as they made us feel so welcome. They sent us off with smiles, hugs and necklaces that they had made.

Though we were not allowed to take pictures or hear their stories, we will all remember these beauties who have been brought out of darkness into light, who are being given beauty for ashes and the oil of gladness for their mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit, that they may be called oaks of righteousness!


Summary of the day: huge intake of both information and food.

Friday morning, we met two wonderful ladies at a cafe to learn about the work that they do here in Phnom Pehn.

Kathleen and her husband came from Minnesota to Cambodia in 1993 as missionaries but were assigned to run an orphanage without any training. After being part of this orphanage for a few years, they saw that orphanages were really doing more harm than good to the kids. Decisions were made based on the organization’s needs and finances, often aiming to perform for their donors.

Though kids in orphanages are getting education, food and shelter, they are often abused and neglected. When they are old enough to leave, they don’t have any life skills, understanding of the culture, or connections. They are on their own.

For all of these reasons, Kathleen and her husband started an organization in Phnom Pehn called Children in Families. They take children who would be put into orphanages and find families that are willing to take them into their homes and give them long-term foster care. The concept behind their organization is that it is better for kids to live in poverty within their own extended families, communities, or another willing family than to be institutionalized. They found that only a small percentage of children living in orphanages really have no other option.

Though westerners told Kathleen and her husband that Cambodian families would not be interested, they soon had more families willing to take in children than they could handle. They now have 136 kids in their program, many of whom are handicapped children that orphanages turned away.

In 2003, Sarah Chhin started working with UNICEF and other partners to develop new regulations on minimum standards for residential care. In 2006, these regulations became law. The problem: as much as the government wants to see these changes and standards carried out in orphanages, many have ignored the law.

That is when Sarah started the SKY project. The goal of SKY is to stand with the government in getting NGOs to follow policy. SKY works with orphanages and their directors to teach them how to do reintegration with their kids, starting from the time they enter the orphanage and carrying through to follow-ups after they leave.

A few years ago, project SKY did some research on the aspirations, fears and self-perceptions of young adults who grew up in orphanages. Though they interviewed over 500 young adults, there were clear trends in the results. They feared homelessness, poverty, being alone with no love or friends, not understanding society, and being tricked and coerced into crime (drugs, gangs, prostitution, etc.).

These fears are reinforced by the reality that most young people do end up going through all of these things at some point after leaving the orphanage that they grew up in.

Sarah and Kathleen are forerunners for alternative care in a country that currently has 256 registered orphanages. 106 of these institutions are run by Christian, American NGOs. Kids living in the orphanages have reported the same levels of abuse between Christian and non-Christian institutions.

According to Sarah and Kathleen, the only way to shut up big orphanages is to dry up the source of kids. There are a few major roadblocks, however, most of which come from our half of the world, and all of which involve money.

1. Donors – many good-hearted, well-meaning foreigners pour a lot of money into these orphanages, not realizing that they are causing negative long term impacts on the lives of the children there. The money helps the directors and caregivers make a living; it does not improve the overall lives of the children.

2. Orphanage tourism – there are actually orphanages that have opened in Phnom Pehn to make money off of orphanage tourism. They advertise their institution, welcoming foreigners to come play with the children or even stay there for a few days, expecting a donation.

Kathleen asked us, “Would you allow people to come into your house, pick up your kids and take pictures of them for a week and then leave? I wouldn’t.” Some children have even complained of feeling like they are in a zoo. However, they have learned that if they hug and smile at the foreigners, they will get presents.

3. Missions teams – teams come to orphanages, play with the kids, do some form of service, and leave. This sets up a cycle of attachment and rejection for the children living there.

“To me, it seems ridiculous to give up all that money and vacation time to come paint walls, play with kids and lay tiles. They don’t even know how to lay tiles,” said Kathleen. She said they would rather hire Cambodian construction workers so they could feed their families.

They both acknowledged that most foreigners mean well, but challenged us to examine our hearts and motives, as well as the character of God, before volunteering to work with vulnerable children.

And that is just a small portion of our conversation with them. We would all love to discuss this topic more!

On the food side…

We went to a beautiful bakery called Bloom, which was started by an Australian couple to provide employment and job training for women rescued from trafficking. Their cakes are exquisite – from a 4-year-old’s dream cake to an incredible replica of a Jimmy Choo shoe, these ladies know how to make a cake look incredible. And their cupcakes…

The best in the world!

So delicious!

After Bloom, we went to the Royal University of Phnom Pehn to meet with one of the forerunners of the social work program there. This program, which started in September 2008, is the first college social work program in Cambodia. The first cohort will graduate in 2012, the same year as Laura, Jennifer and Jenna. It was so exciting to hear about the development of this new program in response to the massive need for social workers in Cambodia.

The Social Work group with Dalin

We finished off the day with dinner from MIKE’S BURGER HOUSE!

Mike's prize burger

After hearing Bethany rave about Mike’s burgers all week, we couldn’t pass it up. Mike was really excited to see Bethany, as she is one of the co-founders of MIKE’S BURGER HOUSE (ask her about it).

Mike lived in California for over ten years after the Khmer Rouge and fell in love with burgers. When he came back to Cambodia, he and his wife searched everywhere but couldn’t find a satisfactory burger. So, Mike opened his own burger joint and has been lovingly creating the ‘best burger in the world’ for years now.

Mike’s 2-bite guarantee: if you are not in love with the burger after two bites, you don’t pay for it.

Amy, Tiffany and Jenna agreed with Mike. Best burger ever!

Amy, Tiffany and Jenna agreed with Mike. Best burger ever!

We plan to go back to Mike’s next week to pick up the business card he promised us — with our picture on the back!

Mike's new business card

From 10 to 4:30 on Thursday, we went to an aftercare shelter for girls in their late teens.

After we signed confidentiality documents and learned about the work of the staff there, the girls got home. I think we were all a little apprehensive about our first interactions, worried that we might not know how to act, that we wouldn’t be helpful.

We all sat in a circle on the floor, us interspersed with them, while Jenna and Sovannara led us through the creation of the cover. We had paper, leaves, crayons, pastels, water colors scattered around the floor, and the girls quickly caught on, each making a beautifully unique piece of art.

Before we knew it, it was time for lunch! We have eaten A LOT while we have been here, and this meal was no different. Rice and noodles and bread and fried chicken and curry and fruit filled our plates, all cooked by the beautiful house moms and staff who work there.

After lunch, we joined the girls in their typical afternoon activity — a giant game of monkey in the middle in the living room. We played, laughed and pegged the ball at each other for a long time before getting back to work.

Though some of the girls had to leave for work, we spent the rest of the afternoon working one-on-one with the girls, teaching them how to make the covers and bindings of their journals and then sitting and drawing with them.

One of the girls that Kim worked with, who we later learned was hesitant to come join us, wrote in her book that she was happy and that we were her new sisters.

We had so much fun drawing pictures of each other, writing in English and Khmer, just being with them. The day flew by, and we were sad to leave.

Throughout the afternoon, as I sat and worked with the girls, I kept trying to think about the things that they had been through, the horror of abuse in their past. But as much as I tried to look at them this way, all that I saw was a group of adorable, happy, innocent, friendly, giggling girls making crafts. I saw them tease their counselors and house moms, laugh with each other, and welcome us into their home. That is who they are. They are just girls, not defined by their past slavery, but made in the image of God. They are the ones that Isaiah 62 talks about – those who will no longer be called ‘Forsaken,’ but will be called ‘My Delight is in Her.’ And so are we. He delights in us.

Wednesday morning, we went to an old high school-turned-museum called Tuol Sleng, or S-21. When the Khmer Rouge communist regime had power over Cambodia from 1975-1979, they used S-21 as an imprisonment and interrogation center. Over 17,000 people passed through and were often executed in this facility.

The Khmer Rouge government converted the classrooms into prison cells and rooms for torture. After the Khmer Rouge fell, the building was left basically as it was found to serve as a reminder of the atrocity that took place there.

The officers who ran the Khmer Rouge carefully documented every prisoner that they had by taking individual pictures. At the museum, we saw hundreds of faces of men, women and children who had passed through or died there. We saw hundreds of brick and wooden cells barely big enough to lay down in. We saw beds and shackles and and torture instruments. We read about some of the leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea, who are just now being tried for their crimes. For that hour, we stepped into the horror of this genocide in which millions of Cambodians suffered and died.

This horrible time that happened just a little over 30 years ago. This terror that we never learned about in school. This massacre that robbed this beautiful country of so much of its culture, education, advancement and wealth; in which doctors, lawyers, professors and government leaders were targeted. In which one-fifth of the population was wiped out in less than half a decade.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge

Toul Sleng was a heavy experience but also helpful in understanding Cambodia. After leaving the museum, we didn’t have much to say about it. We saw and read and learned and felt and mourned, but that is all we could do.

For the rest of the day, we got to experience the life of Cambodia! There are people everywhere – whole families packed on one moto, food vendors walking up and down the street, teenagers and grandmas doing aerobic dance at the park, people selling whatever they sell, just people everywhere. The roads are crazy, the smells are crazy, the noises are crazy. Nothing is neat or organized or predictable, but it is all full of life!

Last night, we had another big experience.


Tiffany got a little freaked out when she realized that it was soft (not crispy), but she eventually joined Amy, Kim, Jenna and Bethany in bravely eating the thing.


Yum yum!

Laura was exceptionally brave, dubbing the tarantula her favorite food of the night. By the time the last person (me) finally took one tiny bite, she had scarfed down at least eight legs.

Jennifer kept the leftover body on her plate throughout the whole meal, after eating a leg or two.

Brave Bethany

Sovanarra, proving herself Khmer, was the only one to eat the body of the spider.

Jenna force feeding me

Touching it was challenging for me. Putting it in my mouth, quite difficult. But, finally, I ate a tarantula leg. For the first and last time.

We had an incredible day doing art journals with a group of girls today…more on that tomorrow!

“Men are like gold, women are like white cloth.”

An IJM  intern shared this Khmer proverb with us to sum up the issue of gender perception in Cambodia. As dirty and messed up as men get, they are as resilient and easy to clean as gold. Women, on the other hand, are like white cloths which once stained, are ruined. In many communities, once a girl loses her virginity (usually as a result of rape), she might as well join a brothel.

Gender inequality is just one of the reasons that sex trafficking and prostitution is so prevalent in Cambodia. Also on the list of factors are extreme poverty, social pervasiveness, police corruption or incompetency, migration across borders and the need to provide for families.

FACT OF THE DAY – Because legal professionals were killed in the Khmer Rouge, there are now only about 600 lawyers in Cambodia, a country of 14 million people. Of these, there are only 7 known Christian lawyers. Most judges do not have law degrees, and their training is often different from that of lawyers. This produces a lot of confusion within the court system.

Learning about social work in Cambodia from an IJM staff member

We learned all of this at our first meeting of the trip…at the IJM Cambodia headquarters! This meeting was a big deal for a couple of us, who would LOVE to work for IJM some day. A communications intern from America gave us a presentation on the work of IJM in Cambodia, then a Cambodian social worker shared with us about aftercare for victims. It was so exciting and encouraging to hear about the successes of the IJM office here, which opened in 2004 after a hugely successful intervention in the nearby village of Svay Pak in 2003.

After meeting with IJM, we took our second tuk tuk ride to a cafe / shop called ‘Daughters of Cambodia.’ Daughters is a business that empowers women who have been rescued out of sex-exploitation by giving them job training in crafting, cooking, waitress-ing and entrepreneurship. It was beautiful to see the joy and community of the girls there as they waited tables and worked on their crafts.

After a few errands and some team connect time, we are more than ready for bed at 7:30! It has been a very full day of travel, traffic, people-watching, learning, eating, laughing, tuktuks, crazy drivers and the sights, sounds, smells, people of Cambodia.

LESSON OF THE DAY – Although the cultural norms, history and poverty of this country do allow a lot of evil, there are many good, compassionate, hard-working natives here who want to see healing for Cambodia far more than we ever could. One of the models of this is our own Sovannara, who has given her life to bring healing and restoration to victims of sex-trafficking. It is such an honor to be here with her!

Three plane rides and lots of hours later, we have arrived in Phnom Penh and are checking into our first hotel! We all made it with all of our baggage (Praise the Lord)! Our main agenda for the day: stay awake until nighttime. Cambodia is exactly 12 hours ahead of Texas, so it is a big adjustment.

Thanks for your prayers!

Waiting for our first plane from DFW to LA

Made it to the hotel! Sipping limeade to cool down!


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If you have any questions, please email Natalie_Garnett@Baylor.edu.