I just returned from my very first trip to Southeast Asia. Luckily, I prepared a few things for the plane ride: extra clothes, my toothbrush, and my own little emergency shower kit (basically, lots of baby wipes). I say luckily because it took me roughly 36 hours of travel time. The terrible LAX shootings contributed to an additional 12 hours: layover in LA, a cancelled flight, a missed connection, and a lovely 12 hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. When everything was said and done, I left my house at 7am on Friday morning and finally arrived in Phnom Penh in the middle of the night around 12:30am early Monday morning. It was quite the adventure. However, my adventure was just beginning as I started my Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
This was my fourth Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip but my first trip as a Global Village co-leader. My other co-leader, Kelly, made leading quite simple. She was a rock-star! She made t-shirts, prepared welcome bags, and was an equal partner in helping create our skit night performance of, “America” an interpretive dance to the Neil Diamond classic, “America”. Oh yes we did!
We spent our days working to build safe, decent, and affordable housing for a handful of Cambodian families, and we spent our evenings laughing and getting to know people from around the world while we explored various areas and cuisines of Phnom Penh. I ate a fried grasshopper.
My favorite part of a Habitat build is meeting the family and the children who we are building for. And this particular build, may have been my favorite family story so far. This is why…
In 2009, a dump site named, Steung Meanchey, was closed, which was the main income provider for hundreds of people living on or near the dumpsite. Families would collect the trash and sell what they could to earn a living. I was told by Habitat that thirty-five percent of the population in Cambodia currently lives below the poverty line, surviving on less than US$1.25 per day. On average, our families would earn $1.00 – $5.00 each day collecting and selling the garbage.
“In 2008 there was a food crisis, and then the economic crisis of 2009, severely affected the population, especially children, and led to a rural exodus. This caused many families to have to relocate to urban areas which had severe consequences for poverty line families – they became scavengers living in rental shacks at high risk of eviction, many were infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, enduring these and a great many other perils – predominantly in the capital city of Phnom Penh.
Rural families arriving in Phnom Penh often do not have adequate skills to find employment and secure access to an income; parents have very little capacity to provide even basic education to their children or to find decent housing leading to unhygienic and unsanitary living situations which affects health.
Housing and education critically intersect in the lives of low-income people.
Without the skills to secure a job, all family members – including children – end up having to find ways to secure food, preventing children from going to school, weakening their overall health and that of the whole family. Moreover, a constant threat of eviction in low-income neighborhoods affects both livelihoods and children’s education. With the closure of Steung Meanchey dumpsite in Phnom Penh in 2009, families that depended on scavenging at the dumpsite were forced to move elsewhere – to even worse living conditions – and were uprooted from their income source, leading to increased absenteeism from school and the family being plunged further into poverty.
“Living in a secure house provides protection, especially for women and children. It keeps families safe from monsoon rain floods, and provides better access to water and sanitation facilities. Furthermore, a decent house allows families to use their homes for microenterprise activities, expanding income-generation opportunities – enabling children to go to school and giving them decent space to study.” – Habitat For Humanity
Our team had the opportunity to visit the dumpsite. It was filled with emotion that truly gave meaning to all of the work we were doing each day. As we entered the dump site, there was clearly a smell of trash that hit the back of your throat. Almost immediately, several children emerged and started smiling for us to take their photos. With each photo came a new child, wanting to look at our screens to see themselves. It was a humbling hour of walking and touring while we had the chance to play with the kids. “I am so lucky!” is all I could think the entire time I was at the site. Any of us could have been born into that situation. This is not to say that the families are less than me because they live in these conditions, however, there are basic living standards, like safety and having access to clean water, that make living in a situation like the above, very challenging.
In the middle of the tour, we came across “our family”. I instantly recognized the mother and her son. “This is our family!” I kept telling our team. This was the family that was going to be living in the house we were building. Seeing the family and seeing where they were currently living is really where everything sunk in. I couldn’t help but get choked up. We met Jeom (pronounced Jim) and two of her 5 sons, and to describe what we saw, and to know what we were helping build, was truly one of the most inspiring moments of my life. This experience put all of our efforts into perspective. We were really going to have an impact on this family’s life and the future of their children. I will take this memory with me for the rest of my life.
Our days in Cambodia continued and so did our building. Although the constant rain slowed us down on the second to last day, we nearly finished laying the foundation and bricks for each room of our apartment: common area, bedroom, and bathroom, all in one week. The first floor of the first 12 units was almost complete.
The final day was a warm post rainy humid day! I took my already existing farmer’s tan to the next level. Sexy! And then, it happened. We came to the end of our time building in Cambodia. Each house had a closing ceremony with their team members and families. It was a beautiful moment and the entire experience all came together. It was a Cambodian tradition to say a prayer to the family and then they would say a prayer in return followed by throwing a handful of flowers over our head to bless us for all of the work we had done. The family was very emotional because they were so grateful. They couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to help. Why would a group of people take their vacation time to help someone they don’t even know?
My time in Cambodia was truly an amazing adventure, and I am leaving this experience with a new perspective on life. Traveling, experiencing a new culture, seeing a non-tourist side of a new country, connecting with great people from all over the world, and developing a bond with a family by helping them secure a better future has left me feeling more connected and balanced. I am leaving this experience reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s quote: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”