Monday, October 29, 2007

Helping Run and his friends

Run came to see us again today. He hasn’t come round for months, ever since he started going to school again. Before that, for about a year, he used to turn up at the gates every day at noon. Seeing him waiting outside our gate this afternoon, with his scruffy hair and uncertain grin, reminded me of the very first day he came to the house.

We had been living in Cambodia for nearly two months. I had seen him pulling his cart of recyclable rubbish around our streets many times before, of course, but I had been paying heed to people’s advice: “If you let them in once, they’ll come back with all their friends the next day.”

But for some reason, when Jemima and I arrived home on my bike that boiling hot lunchtime to find Run standing at our gate, I invited him in. It had always seemed a despicable thing to turn away a hungry, exhausted young boy from my comfortable home when I knew I could feed him, wash him and show him simple kindness with little effort on my part.

For me one of the hardest things about being a mother in Cambodia has been the daily reminder of the disparity between our own daughters’ quality of life and that of so many Cambodian children. There are 20,000 street children in Phnom Penh - .unloved, sick, malnourished and easy prey to sex-tourism and trafficking. At the supermarket they flock around us, begging or selling newspapers, waiting for us to come out with apples. Thank goodness they can’t read – the till screens, showing the total sum of our week’s worth of groceries, (usually double the minimum monthly wage), face the window and are easily visible from the outside. Coming back from a meal out in the evening, knowing our own children are loved and cared for, tucked up safely in a soft bed, with a full stomach, we see young girls and boys bedding down for the night in the park, or a corner of hard pavement. On one particularly busy main road I often see the same three brothers, always completely naked. The oldest one carries the baby and holds the middle one by the hand as they wander in and out of the six lanes of traffic – mainly motorbikes and SUVs. Their image is indelibly stamped in my heart, yet I pass them by. Helpless, except I am not. Hopeless perhaps.

We are not supposed to give these children money or food because it simply perpetuates the begging industry. So I am grateful when someone like Run comes into our lives and gives us the chance to connect on some level with this unfortunate community. I often wonder if he simply serves as one more easy way for me to salve my conscience, as I grapple with my incongruous expatriate existence. After all, as I ushered him inside the front yard that day, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was finally being true to myself. I was being human again. How sad that it had taken me that long.

He stayed all afternoon that day. I gave him and Jemima a bowl of soup and some bread which they ate together on the bench swing. It was sweet to watch them sit together in such comfortable silence, from time to time exchanging a shy smile and a giggle. After lunch I gave him a bar of soap and encouraged him and Jemima to wash and play under the hose. I tried to make it seem like a game but he must have known that my motives were driven mainly by the nauseating stench of rotten rubbish that lingered even after he had left the place. I knew that if I were going to let him sleep on the cushions outside or play with Jemima’s toys, I would have to make the shower a ritual on arrival whenever he came to the house. I suppose after a morning’s work in the sun it would be welcome refreshment anyway.

Of course it was only when I noticed he didn’t take his shorts off that it occurred to me that he was probably much older than I had originally supposed. He looked about six so I followed the general rule and guessed at 12. He was 13. From the next visit on I gave him soap and a towel and showed him to the outside bathroom at the back, for a traditional bucket bath. He has also tried a hot shower and a cool bath in our spare bathroom, though I’m not sure what he made of them.

Of course this was in the good old days when Jemima napped for a deliriously peaceful three hours most afternoons, time I would take to write my book. So I let Run play outside while I worked and watched him from my window. People warn you that street kids will abuse your trust. All I could think of was how easily it could have been to abuse his. I tried to tell him, in my pigeon Khmer, not to trust strangers just because they were white. But if they offered him food, I knew he probably would.

He looked so vulnerable and lost inside James’s huge t-shirt and shorts tied with string, while he stood and stared at the washing machine, churning away at the back of the house, his clothes inside. At least twice I had to retrieve them dripping with soap from the washing line and explain that the wash had not yet finished. He was obviously relieved when they finally dried in the sun, looking and smelling much as they had before. I soon became more organised and had a spare set of clothes from the market waiting for him so that I could wash his without causing him discomfort or embarrassment, or keeping him so long from his work. Though he seemed more than happy to while away the hours dozing and swinging and riding my bike, I was worried that he would get into trouble with his ‘master’ for going home with an empty cart.

From then on Run came to our house everyday, always alone, contrary to the doomed predictions that he would come back with fifty more urchins in tow. He was cleverer than that and understood that while one small boy eating, sleeping and playing in my yard was no problem, a whole crowd would be less convenient.

I didn’t always invite him in. Sometimes I just gave him some water and some food and told him that I needed to work. He never complained. He just accepted what I gave him with a smile and a thank you. But I think what we all enjoyed most about his visits, was that he had the chance just to be a child for a while. He was so sweet with Jemima, playing with her generously when she was in that (western) toddler phase of wanting everything for herself. He’d push her around on her bike for an hour if she asked.

I wasn’t naïve. I am well aware that Phnom Penh’s street kids are dangerous prey to physical and sexual abuse. And I am well aware that many abused boys go on to abuse. I kept a close eye on them as they played, but he was only ever gentle and kind.

Over the following months I learnt a little about Run‘s life. He used to live in the city, but his was one of the families who had been forcibly evicted from their homes a year before. It was a huge scandal at the time. Hundreds of families driven out of their city and ‘resettled’ in an area entirely unfit for habitation. Not only were they now a long and unaffordable moto-taxi ride away from their schools and places of work, but there was no clean water or electricity. Now it’s old news. I doubt the last brick had had the chance to set in the expensive new housing complex occupied mainly by Asian and western foreigners, before everyone had forgotten that this was once Run’s home. Evictions are common, after all, in a country where entirely unregulated development of luxury accommodation and exclusive tourist resorts is unfolding right before our eyes. Phnom Penh’s skyline looks different after just a couple of weeks spent out of town.

Since the evictions Run has not lived with his mother and siblings. He was sent to stay in the city centre, with a man who, in return for his food and board, puts him to work on the streets where he earns less than a dollar each day collecting tins, card and plastic bottles for recycling. I asked if the man was kind to him. He nodded and I just had to hope it was true.

During that year Run always looked tired and dirty and hungry when he arrived at the house. He was often in some sort of pain, though nothing he ever showed me was more serious than infected splinters or recurring eye infections. He would smile easily, but he was quiet and subdued. So you can imagine my joy when he turned up one day, after a couple of weeks of absence, looking and smelling clean, and with a definite glint of happiness in his eye.

“I’m studying!” he told me. “I came top in my class!”

It was the first thing he had ever said to me unprompted, other than he was hungry, sick or needed money. We celebrated by taking a tuk-tuk to the bike shop to get him (and his friend – I was easily persuaded) a second hand bike for school. That was the last we saw of him until today. He still looks well, but he didn’t stay long. He had better things to do.


Run still collects rubbish in the mornings, but at noon every day he goes to Mith Samlanh, a famous Cambodian street kids programme founded by the American NGO Friends International, eats a hot meal and studies all afternoon. He has been lucky and at last I feel hopeful for his future. All over Phnom Penh there are young men and women in steady employment waiting on tables, working in salons, making clothes. Many of them will tell you they were rescued from a life on the streets and trained by Mith Samlanh.

But Mith Samlanh is in trouble for the same reasons that Run was evicted from his home - the increasing value of land in Phnom Penh. In 2006, the owner of the building that it has operated from since 2000 decided to sell the property. Faced with the difficult decision of moving all its services for street children, Mith Samlanh decided, with the help of some longer term financing, to purchase the centre itself, so that it could continue to provide services to street children in the heart of Phnom Penh, right where they live and work. This was a massive investment and they have been able to cover the interest payments with proceeds from their own businesses such as Friends the Restaurant and sales in their shops. However, they are facing a real hurdle to meet their first major repayment of $500,000 by December 5th.

You can support them by:
• Purchasing a painted brick on their wall for $50. They’ll write your name on it and even send you a photo!
• Donating a square meter for $1000
• Donating a classroom or training area.
• Making a donation of any amount.
• Organising your own fundraising event!

Please visit to find out more or to make a donation.


Sophie E said...

Hey Georgie - at the end of a day of dealing with stupid, rich people, your email's timing was perfect! £25 is winging its way to them, I hope they reach their target.

Susie Evans said...

Can I just add my support for this excellent cause. My boyfriend Simon and I visited the restaurant run by the organisation twice when we were in PP visiting James and Georgie. It is staffed by children that they have helped. They were such lovely kids - and the food was great!

It would be hard to exaggerate the poverty and suffering that so many children in PP are subjected to. Please help if you can - I certainly will.


Mangy said...

Please, please everyone support this ... just need to look at our own children to remind us of how much this cause needs supporting...

Oh and if you are worried about money...just remember how strong the pound is and pay in dollars!!! Then you could probably buy an extra brick???


Anonymous said...

Run's story made me cry. So pleased that he is getting some help now. I will gladly buy a brick, thanks for giving me the opportunity to help.

Maddy said...

What with Christmas just round the corner, have used this great cause as the answer to my ponderings on what to get the family back in the UK....they have a brick...and they are all mightily pleased to have one....

Laury said...

Thanks for this, have bought a brick - a friend has an adopted Cambodian son so I did it for him. Laury

Mandi said...


i just want to say i was crying and laughing while reading your blog entry. It must be so difficult to keep a distance from the street kids and i was especially when you mentioned the 3 little naked brothers. how wonderful that you've let run into your lives and what fab news that he's in school!

Anonymous said...

Hi Georgie
Also wanted to take this chance to say how much I enjoyed your blog. I work in international development, though am UK based at the moment, and found it really insightful.

Also wanted to add that some other friends who live in Cambodia also emailed us about this project - so that's 2 recommendations.