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!
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!
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