As a result of war, land mines, poverty, and prevalent diseases such as AIDS, Cambodia’s orphan population continues to escalate. These Cambodian orphans are forced to beg or forage through rubbish for food and are often the victims of serial predators and violent assaults. Life for these defenceless children seems hopeless but luckily there are orphanages which provide love, shelter, food and education and allow these children hope and the chance of a new life. Orphans are found in many of the poor and underprivileged Third World countries but Cambodia has a significantly high proportion of orphans and abandoned children. This disproportionate number of orphaned children is a result of around thirty years of war, foreign occupation, civil war and the infamous Khmer Rouge Regime which had some dramatic and deadly effects on the people of Cambodia. In addition to the brutal events during those dark days one of the current ongoing problems is the continuing effect of land-mines on victims and the healing and rehabilitation of Cambodians who have suffered through land-mine incidents. Cambodia is a country with one of the highest occurrences of death by land-mines. In addition, deadly diseases such as AIDS, coupled with the scarcity of health care resources, compounds these problems into leading causes of death which all contribute greatly to the increasing orphan population in Cambodia.
Sleeping rough, begging, scavenging the rubbish in the streets or local rubbish dumps is common place for these orphaned children with all the other associated dangers of crime, drugs and violent assault. The tourist business is booming in and around Siem Reap due to the attractions of famous ancient temples such as Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom which brings much needed revenue to this poor country. In stark contrast to this influx of rich foreigners is the sad sight of these poor, dirty and under nourished small children selling postcards at the temple sites, begging by the roadside or scavenging the rubbish bags in the streets to find some meagre morsels to eat.
Orphanage Safe Havens
There are a number of orphanages in Cambodia set up to provide a sanctuary for these unfortunate children, providing accommodation, food, education and more importantly love and attention. One such orphanage is the Sunrise Children’s Village which was founded back in 1993 by Australian, Geraldine Cox. Geraldine visited Cambodia with a friend and was so moved that she was motivated to do something. Since that time the Sunrise Children’s Village has grown and now hosts locations in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Children come to the orphanage in a number of different ways: parents or other family members have been killed or injured by land-mines, died of hunger or disease and often targeted for murder because of their political affiliations.
When the children become homeless, local villagers may make an effort to care for them, but unfortunately, this usually results in the orphans being used as slave-labour in return for food and a place to sleep until their situation is identified by orphanage staff. Before taking in an orphan Sunrise has to comply to Cambodian Government regulations, which require investigations of abuse or neglect and agreement by the village that they wish Sunrise to care for the child. Papers are then lodged with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and Sunrise is then permitted to take the children from the village and become their “guardians” until they are 18 years old. In each case this requires the orphanage staff go to the villages to assess the situation on the ground to ensure that the need is a realistic one. It is sad but there are situations where children, claimed to be orphans, are not; the children’s parents trying to make use of the facilities of the orphanage and the chance for free food and education for their child. Orphanages such as Sunrise provide the children with love, protection, accommodation, food, medical and dental care, clothing and importantly education to ensure that appropriate skills can be learned and hopefully used when they leave the orphanage to start a better life. Classes at Sunrise include English, Khmer, sewing, carpentry music, dance, fine arts and computer skills.
Given that the orphanage’s existence is totally dependent on donations initiatives have been started to assist the orphanage become self sufficient in a number of ways. One project started in 1999 was the design and creation of the Sunrise Farm, following land being given by the Government. Inside the 10 hectares of the farm are vegetable gardens, fish ponds, an orchard and a variety of farm animals including chickens and ducks. The plan with the development of this farm is the ability to introduce renewable energy resources, use organic production
Some of the older children participate in a community aid project where they assist poor families with their daily chores, including planting and weeding the fields, cleaning the houses of the elderly or helping the monks at the local pagodas. The purpose of this programme is to help local communities but more importantly teach the children to understand poor families and realise that in life they must give as well as take.
What does the future hold for Cambodia’s orphans? Apart from the continuing need for the kind donations of many people who, like Geraldine Cox, have been touched by the plight of these orphans, there is a hope that perhaps with the increasing tourist business in Cambodia some of this much needed revenue can be directed to the needs of such establishments such as Sunrise Children’s Village. Cambodia has suffered many terrible years of war, foreign occupation and violent dictatorship and it’s amazing that through all of this shines the people’s beauty, good nature, tenacity and incredible desire to learn. Given their horrific past, they certainly deserve this. The children, more importantly, deserve some basic necessities and the chance of education to give them some hope of doing something positive to give back to the country. Perhaps the tourists in their their 5-star hotels, visiting the grand temple complexes in air-conditioned tour buses, should spend a moment visiting establishments like Sunrise Children’s Village and appreciate what fundamentals these children really need and what they themselves take for granted.
Stuart Taylor is a photographer, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and specialises in photo-journalistic documentaries combining photos with synchronised audio for dynamic, high-impact slideshow presentations. Some of his work can be viewed at www.highlanderimages.com. Information and news about Sunrise Children’s Village can be found at www.sunrisechildrensvillage.org.
Passionate Photographer …. Lost in Asia
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