Thursday, December 6, 2007

In memory of Sok Chan

This post is about a beautiful and inspirational mother and her four children, who she has left behind. When my lap top is returned to me I shall add a picture of Sok Chan. I have decided to write this story in three sections, as I have experienced it and as it makes sense to me. It is very long and not brilliantly written but the story is worthy of your attention. You should probably get a cup of tea before you start reading.

Meeting Sok Chan
When I met Sok Chan in April this year she was already talking about finding a new mother for her children. I was seven months pregnant with my second child.

We were sitting in a room behind the hospital, where she had been living for over two months. Vanar (m), 15, Makara (f), 14, Srey Pov (f), 9 and Rotah (m), 4, lived there too, fetching food and nursing their mother. They knew she was dying of breast cancer and did not want to leave her side.

There was no furniture in the room except for two hard, wooden beds without mats. The doors and windows had no screens to protect the family from the sun, rain or mosquitoes. Sok Chan was recovering from malaria and feared that her children might also get sick.
The medical attention the family received at the hospital was minimal, with sporadic visits from the doctor and inadequate medication. Sok Chan was in constant pain.

I was there as a volunteer journalist and fundraiser with Hagar, an NGO which helps women and children who have suffered trauma and crisis, e.g. domestic violence, rape, trafficking for work or sex, and disability, to name a few. In this case, they had been helping Sok Chan, whose husband had died several years earlier, since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She moved into Hagar’s women’s shelter with her children, but when the time came for her to go to hospital, Sok Chan chose to go back to her home town where she could be closer to her sister. Despite the abysmal conditions and inferior quality of care offered at this hospital, Hagar could only respect her wishes.

They were providing the family with food, fruit juice, hammocks, mosquito nets and weekly medication for her pain. A caregiver was employed to help look after the family and they received regular visits from both the women’s shelter and a counsellor from the children’s programme.

This particular visit was to break good news to Sok Chan. Her children would not have to go to a centre after she died, but would have the chance to live a normal life. Hagar had found a family who were happy and ready to welcome and love her children as their own.
When I asked her what her message would be to this family she told me:

“I want my children’s new family to raise them well, teach them respect and good manners, and especially encourage them to study hard. I want them to have a big heart, love my children, and treat them with gentle, loving kindness.”

Recognising that the best thing for a child is to have family, Hagar has recently launched their foster care programme. They look for foster families that value education and that already have a regular income, to ensure that they do not rely on the extra income provided by Hagar for anything other than fulfilling the needs of the new children. And they look for sponsors for each family, who, as well as covering the $100 per child per month, they hope will encourage them in life, love them and keep them in their thoughts and/or prayers.

They also offer emotional support and counselling for the children. They do this through art therapy, and regular chats with counsellors. Sok Chan’s children had each been given a memory book, in which they are encouraged to write and draw pictures. These are to help them remember whatever details they choose to record about their mother and the life they shared together during the years before she became ill.

I was able to see for myself that the children find great comfort in these memory books and in family photographs. When the oldest daughter, Makara, broke down into tears over the imminent death of her mother, she looked immediately for her photo album, without any prompting. She quickly became cheerful again as she showed Hagar counsellors the photographs of her mother and father dressed up for their wedding day.

My role that afternoon was to get the stories and photographs and write some fundraising materials to help Hagar find ‘Family Home Partners’, or sponsors for the foster care programme. Having spent the morning in court with three sisters, tiny fragile girls, who had been sexually abused by their step father (the mother’s third husband had then tried to sell one of the girls in exchange for a debt), I was pretty depressed when I arrived at Sok Chan’s hospital. But although her situation was desperate, Sok Chan and Hagar restored my faith in humanity and the power of good.

As a mother, and pregnant again, I felt overwhelmed with grief and admiration for Sok Chan. I could not begin to imagine what it must feel like to know you will soon say goodbye to your children, let alone think clearly about who will look after them for you. The dignity and composure with which Sok Chan talked about the future of her children after her death, despite her desperate physical and emotional pain, was humbling and awe-inspiring. The few hours we spent together are ones I will never forget.

I went home to write up the stories for Hagar but knew, before I got there, that we and our family would sponsor one of these families. Sok Chan’s was the one most urgently in need, as Hagar was still exploring other options with the young girls I met in court. Now, with family and friends, we are the ‘family home partner’ of Sok Chan’s new foster family.

While I was in England having Bella, Sok Chan had the chance to meet the new mother of her children. It was a painful emotional experience but I know that she was happy to hear that their house was next door to a school where the children would study.

Sok Chan died shortly after that meeting. I choose to believe that she was at least peaceful in the knowledge that her children would be cared for and never abandoned. I hope she remembered what I heard the counsellor saying to her children when they were by her side, the day we visited her at the hospital:

“We will always look after you and protect you. You will never be separated from your brothers and sisters. You will be loved and cherished by Hagar and your new family”

Hagar is still looking for sponsors for other families like the children in this story. $100 a month covers all the costs (food, health, school, counsellors, etc) for one child. Hagar places siblings together and in extended family whenever possible or appropriate. Contact me here or on if you would like to become a ‘family home partner’. Hagar is a Christian organisation. Their work is that of professional care givers, educators, trainers, counsellors etc, helping all women and children in need. They work with Christian foster families only, at the moment, because they believe this is enables them to best protect the children. Working with local church pastors enables them close contact and regular monitoring of the families. Foster placements often break down without support and intervention.

Sok Chan’s funeral
I went to Sok Chan’s funeral with one-month-old Bella, just after we got back from England. It took place at Hagar’s women’s shelter and was a morning of incredible beauty, pain and shared suffering. It was a Christian ceremony as Sok Chan requested, but felt unique and homegrown. I had the impression it was a very organic process, driven by the needs of Sok Chan and her children, but also by the women at the shelter, her family.

The women stood up and sang songs and told stories about Sok Chan’s life. All these women have their own story of suffering, two of them were badly scarred and crippled by acid burns. (In Cambodia there are acid victims everywhere. It is a common treatment of women by angry or jealous husbands. The shelters have women with acid burns waiting at their doors everyday. I recently heard about a one week old baby who was rescued from the arms of her dead mother, both victims of an acid attack. Her mother died from the burns. Only the child’s face and the side of her body that was close to her mother is unscarred. Perhaps she was breastfeeding at the time. Nothing is sacred anymore.)

I was moved to see women express their pain and loss so openly. The shelter was obviously somewhere where they felt safe and loved. Such open expression of emotion, other than laughter, is something that most Cambodians are not at all comfortable with.

The children from the centre also sang. Sok Chan’s own children were sitting near me. The two youngest, Srey Pov and Rotar, were playing and talking throughout much of it. Makara wanted Bella on her lap for most of the ceremony. She was listening to everything, obviously taking it all in, and when she got upset she seemed to find comfort and distraction in cuddling my little darling. I must tell Bella about that one day when she is older.

Vanar, the oldest boy was sitting with the men. It worried me a bit because the women rally round the others and you get the feeling they will get the chance to express their grief and be comforted. But the men sit apart and are reserved. I wonder if Vanar will have the chance to cry and be comforted. Although I am sure Hagar are well aware of this and will address it through counselling, I wonder how it will be in the new family.

The new foster mother was visibly distraught. You know when you can see someone just wants to wail and cry out loud but is desperately keeping it in? And her poor husband was sitting several rows behind her looking utterly helpless, as though he wanted to comfort her but couldn’t. I wanted to put my arms around her but I don’t think she wanted me to. She hadn’t met me before after all and I don’t think she wanted anything that would make her break down with people around.

I wished my Khmer were better that day. I felt totally unable to express any words of comfort or encouragement to her or the kids. Luckily children just accept your actions and the few words you do have and seem to understand my Khmer so much better than adults do. But as a mother and with a tiny new baby of my own I desperately wanted to be able to tell the new mother exactly how wonderful I thought she was and thank her for looking after these children. Her very presence at the funeral gave everyone some hope because at least these children had a future and another family to love them.

Once again through Sok Chan I was experiencing humanity at its greatest. On a country so full of suffering here was a group of dedicated staff and counsellors and the women themselves expressing love, solidarity and loving kindness. There is nothing as inspirational as a group of women who have a shared suffering and a determination to fight for their cause and to change things.

Visiting the children in their new home
Last Thursday we set off to Takeo province, about an hour out of Phnom Penh. I borrowed a friend’s car (the same dear friend whose computer I am on now!) and driver and took both girls and Srey Mach, so she could help translate. I speak enough Khmer to talk about school, to play and muck about with children. But when it comes to talking about deeper feelings I am out of my depth. It turned out that Srey Mach was invaluable because the mother, Leang, did not understand a word I said. This is common I have noticed when talking to people from the countryside whose own accents are different.

The family live in a traditional, wooden Khmer house in a village, ten minutes off the main road. It was peaceful and the front yard was big enough for the children to play and run around. Leang makes clothes for local customers. When we arrived the children gave us a huge warm welcome and Makara stayed by my side until we left. She showed me her English books and held Bella all morning. All the children look about four years younger than they actually are, so that nine-year-old Srey Pov looked more Jemima’s age than Rotar, who is four but looked about two.

The morning was happy but frustrating. Jemima became very shy and stuck to me until the last half hour when she finally played a bit with Srey Pov and the other girls from the village who came to see the ‘barangs’. I had envisaged them playing together all morning, but they obviously need some time to get used to each other and the language barrier. Had we done this a year earlier it would not have been an issue but at three, Jemima is more self-aware and therefore more self-conscious than she used to be.

Mostly I just felt powerless. I wanted to be able to talk and listen to Makara, who clung so closely to my side and has always shown me such affection, but we had to rely on Srey Mach’s translation, which obviously inhibited Makara. We had a lovely time laughing and playing and it is surprisingly easy to communicate with children without language, but I wanted to get closer to her. Perhaps next time we will go for a walk together and I will learn some more relevant vocab before we do!

What worried me was that when I asked the mother how the children were she just laughed and said that they were fine and too young to really understand that their mother had died. Obviously this is not the case. The counsellor told me that the older boy shows real signs of trauma and the girls dream about their mother at night. She comes to them and plays with them and they feel so happy. When they wake they are once again overcome with loss and sadness.

By Cambodian standards these children are lucky. They have a new family and weekly counselling so they will not have to bury their pain and suffer the consequences later. They will finish their education and have many more opportunities than most children here. But no mother could help but put her own children in their shoes. The thought of Jemima and Bella grieving for their mother and father and having to start a new life in a strange family in a strange village is my worse nightmare. I think of Sok Chan’s children at night before I go to sleep and wonder how I can make some difference to their lives. All I can think of is to continue to support them financially, visit them regularly, bring them small treats and take them on outings. James and I have pledged to do this one Sunday every month.

Goodness me sorry this is so long! Though I doubt anyone has got as far as this anyway… I’ll sign off now and will tell you more about their progress after my next visit.


maddy said...

..your idea of getting a cup of tea before reading this post was all well and good - the lump in my throat was far too large to swallow a mouthful - a box of tissues would have been far more useful.
What a humbling, desperately sad yet hopeful story.
I must now try and get on with my day. x

Kat said...


I came to visit after seeing your blog in Winchester NCT newsletter. What a woderful story of loss and hope. I can only wish that there were foster families for all orphaned children.

Kat x

Tara said...

I felt like I needed a bottle of Vodka rather than a cup of tea after reading this post... well done G for putting your money and yourself where your pen (laptop) is. T x

M said...

I just read this and I really think it ought to go in the Guardian. Indeed, parts of your blog would make an occasional feature in the Family section: it is so much more interesting than some of the things they publish and also more heartening and puts the scare-type middle class UK family issues and problems they feature in the shade. Is it possible for you to send Sok Chan to them and see what they say. I think it would get a big response

Georgie said...

Thank you.

I have done this already after getting a recommendation from Annalisa Barbieri, columnist in the Family Guardian. Am waiting to hear from them so crossed fingers...