The Cambodian Exodus

Hey friends - You may have seen me posting about the astounding events of the past few days on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Andrew shares more about what he's seen and how Samaritan's Purse is meeting the needs of the Cambodians returning from Thailand. - whitney

In my three years in Cambodia, I've never seen anything like it.

I am working at the Samaritan's Purse distribution point set up at the Thai-Cambodian border in Poipet to provide food and water to the 100,000+ Cambodians returning home. I think about how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and imagine it felt similar to this: a chaotic mess of traffic mixed in with thousands of people flooding the streets, bringing only whatever belongings they can carry in their hands.

Around 400,000 Cambodians work in Thailand, seeking better economic futures than their home can offer them. However, many cannot afford the documents to migrate legally, and a large percentage are present in Thailand illegally, without passports or work permits. One of Samaritan's Purse Cambodia's largest projects is Safe Migration and Trafficking Awareness (SMTA), working to equip and educate Cambodians to migrate for work legally and know if they are in a potential trafficking situation.

On Wednesday, the SMTA staff were alerted than thousands of Cambodians were returning from Thailand via Poipet, the border town where the SMTA project is located. Staff left their yearly retreat early to return to Poipet and assess the situation. They found the border teeming with people as trucks arrived at the border continually, full of returning migrant workers.

SP staff found that many of the workers had no food or water, or money to buy either. They had fled their homes in Thailand when they heard the Thai military junta, currently ruling the country under martial law, had decided to crack down on illegal workers. Rumors of violence fueled their fear, and the trickle of workers crossing the border - normally around 150 per day - snowballed into a current high of 45,000 workers on Saturday, June 14. We have seen just under half are women and children.

The SMTA staff set up tents to shelter the workers from the monsoon rains and began handing out emergency food and water packets, and trafficking awareness brochures. They were joined by other non-government organizations and by SP community volunteers. They also handed out hygiene kits with toothbrushes and wet wipes - a critical need when workers have already been traveling for days with no access to clean water or toilets.

Here in Poipet we are seeing thousands of men, women, and children shipped around like cattle. Many have already traveled a couple of days to get to the border and have even slept overnight on the Thai side, waiting to cross over.

On Saturday, I planned to work at the distribution site from 2-10pm, and ended up working with our staff until 1am. Trucks, vans, and buses kept coming - about 300 per day. The total number of people crossing back into Cambodia is tens of thousands per day, much faster than they can leave the border area.  Here they are waiting, sometimes all day in the hot sun with little or no shelter.

As soon as the trucks stopped, the people were helped off and brought through our distribution line for food and water. Once through the line, the hard part was figuring out where to go next. The Cambodian military has brought fleets of transport trucks to Poipet, taking people back to their home provinces. They are now even using dump trucks to transport people. But Cambodians needing transportation far outnumbers the available resources. 

When I left that night, thousands were left at the border with nowhere to go, hungry and exhausted. Some found a piece of wood pallet to lie down on, others a cardboard box. There are needs for more temporary shelters, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and portable toilets.

But there were many positive things in the response - hundreds of volunteers showed up to help distribute food and water. Many of them were from local Poipet business and churches. It was awesome to see the community come together to help these people out in a difficult situation. The SP staff are all eagerly working long hours with joyful smiles.

I hope the Cambodians are able to find a place to go home to. It is going to be hard for this many people to find work, as that was the reason they left Cambodia in the first place. They will return to villages already burdened with poverty and lack of jobs. I already heard some discussing when they might be able to return to Thailand for work, knowing all too well what awaits them back home. 

Please pray for the Cambodians, that their needs for shelter, food, and safety would be met; that our staff would be able to maintain energy and focus during long days; and that God would use this mass exodus to share Jesus with them and to rebuild Cambodia.

How Toilets & Clean Water United a Community

Hey friends! Today, my husband Andrew is sharing a story from his work with Samaritan's Purse Cambodia. To read other stories by Andrew, click here. You can also visit Samaritan's Purse's website to find out more about their work all over the world. - whitney

What if you sent your first grader to a school without any toilets or clean drinking water? Even more, what if your child didn't even know how to use a toilet? Those two things that American families take for granted are unheard of in some Cambodian schools.

This is the story of one school and how the community stood up to take action and improve the lives and education of their children.

For 5 years, enrollment rates at Rothanak Raem Primary School had steadily dropped. The community was losing faith in the school because the conditions of the school were so poor. The grass and bushes were overgrown, and even Samaritan's Purse (SP), who has been working in Poipet for several years, did not see the school till a recent survey.

The problems at this school resulted from poverty and poor water, hygiene and sanitation in the community. The school did not have any water for children to drink, and the toilets were not functional. We could see the poor sanitary conditions of the school yard, which had been used as a latrine.

Many students had diarrhea, and the average student missed class at least once a month because of illness. In our baseline survey, 17% said they practiced open defecation at the school. For those who don't know, that means pooping in the open!

Water for Kids, an SP Cambodia project, began working with the school in 2013, providing a clean water system and toilets with hand washing sinks. The teachers were trained on educating the students on the importance of drinking clean water, washing hands with soap, and using a toilet.

Water for Kids also provided training on how to raise funds in their community and use the money for maintaining the water and sanitation system provided. After the training, the teachers called a meeting, inviting all the parents and community leaders. They used this opportunity to talk about the need for financial support for the school.

The principal showed the parents the improved environment, and encouraged the parents to send their children to study. He promised in return to be dedicated to both the education and health of the students.

The next year, enrollment shot up 21%, from 372 to 450 students. Teachers told SP staff that increase was directly related to the toilets and clean water. No other school in the area had such nice facilities.

With this increase, a new problem arose: space for the additional students. The teachers became worried about the space available for the students to study.

However, this brought an opportunity for more development of the school grounds. From the community’s financial support, the principal planted trees, made swings for the children, and continues to seek funds for more classrooms.

One of the parents said to the teachers, “Thank you so much for teaching my child how to wash their hands before eating and after using toilet. Now when they are at home they remind their brothers and sisters to wash their hands.”

The vice-principal, Mr. Horn, explained to Water for Kids staff, “The water and sanitation improvements are not only bringing good health to the students, but have started a chain reaction of support from the community because they can see immediate changes. Thank you, from our hearts, Samaritan’s Purse for serving the poor and for those who gave in Jesus’ name to help this school.”

For me, I have always loved serving and teaching children, which is why I love Samaritan's Purse and this project.

Now that I am a father myself, I feel even more passionate about it and hate to see children suffering. My heart breaks when I see the difficulties they have. I want to do all I can to help, even though it is overwhelming that there are so many needs. It often feels like trying to feed the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread.

But we as the body of Christ are called to a task that is bigger than can be accomplished by ourselves in order that the riches of God's glorious grace and love are made known.

So it's a constant reminder of my need to surrender and trust Him to work His miracles in and through me. I love how God always keeps His promises. He is always here for me and all of us no matter where we are - even in the darkest night.

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Reflections on Water Access: A Story From the Field

Today is another post from Andrew! He is writing about his work in Kampong Chhnang, a province about 4 hours from Poipet. - whitney

I want to share a story from one of the projects I have been working on. This comes from the Water Access Project in Kampong Chhnang Province. 

Each month the project staff send me a story highlighting the impact of the project. This one really touched me and reminded me how much I love these projects. And from my first hand observations, I know the situation being described is not just a story, but it is a glimpse into the challenges of everyday life for many here in Cambodia.

As a poor, elderly widow, Mein Hon and her three children struggle to provide for themselves. Her children each earn only $80 a month - her daughters working at a garment factory, and her son as a construction worker. During the day, Men Hon stays at home by herself while her children work long hours just to put food on the table. 

She does not have much to call her own, just a small plot of land in a village named after a river called Ou Totueng. She has no running water in her house. Before she participated in the Water Access Project, she spent an hour carrying water to her house every day. The water she collected was from a muddy, hand-dug well far away from her house - a distance equal to two football fields. 

Four times a day, she carried a heavy 18kg bucket of water - a total distance of nearly 3 kilometers. It was so physically draining for her to simply get enough water to survive that she had no energy left for other work. Often, the weather was over 40 degrees Celsius, and she suffered from heat exhaustion as well. 

Mein Hon, smiling as she turns the wheel on the rope pump, lifting water from the well provided by SP
Fortunately, through the Water Access Project, Samaritan’s Purse was able to help her by providing her and her neighbors a new well near her house. She no longer spends hours carrying water. Instead, she can walk out of her house and get water right away.

She also treats the water with a ceramic water filter to make sure it is safe for drinking. Through the hygiene and sanitation training, she learned more about the importance of treating water and hand washing, ensuring a safe, healthy future for her and her family.

Now that she has more time and energy to work, she is able to save up money from her thriving vegetable garden. One of the goals she has for the money she saves is to buy a toilet for her house - a necessity many in Cambodia are lacking.

It is a blessing to know her and to help this amazing woman. Everytime we see her, she has a big smile on her face, thankful for her renewed hope for the future. Since 2010, the Water Access Project has provided 11,459 people in Cambodia like her with a sustainable source of water.

What do you think? It might seem distant and remote. I can't imagine my mother working that hard each day just to get a few buckets of murky water. Yet it is very common - in fact, nearly half of Cambodians lack access to safe water (read more by clicking here)

Over the last few years, Whitney and I have written about many different topics and issues highlighting some of the worst effects of poverty. When I look back at some of them, and see everything as a whole, it's vivid how interconnected the fibers of our global society have become. 

Take for instance the issue of under-paid factory workers working overtime for next to nothing. Whitney wrote a blog series about this issue, which you can read here. I often don't see the story and the lives behind the little "Made in" tag on the shirts I wear, let alone the staggeringly huge profits companies make with less than a dime going back to the person who made it. 

When I see a "Made in Cambodia" tag on a piece of clothing, I cannot help but think about these families that have little choice in life with the salary they make. They can either be homeless in the city, or live in the wilderness with no water. And to think, these are the families who actually have a job.

But for Mein Hon, having water right outside her house has led to a healthier life and better future for her and her children.

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Motherhood in Cambodia: My Unfair Advantage

I've been a mother for nearly two months now. I've had a lot of good days, and some rough days, and lots somewhere in between. My Cambodian neighbors have shrieked in delight when I've taken Declan for walks and handed him over for auntie time. A mother across the street with a two month old has held up her daughter for comparison with my son, pointing out that, while her daughter has hair everywhere, my son is as bald as a pig.

It's easy for me to think I have a comparable life to the Cambodian mothers I know. But when we talk about our children's births, I realize that's not really true. 

I'm reminded that because of my language, my husband's job, and my income, I had a vastly different experience.

I traveled to Bangkok and received prenatal care from an American-trained Thai physician, fluent in English. Samitivej Hospital, where I delivered, is certified by the Joint Commission - the same agency that certifies hospitals in the United States. My birth was attended by a doula, who provided intense emotional support to my husband and I. My entire three-day hospital stay was about one-fifth the cost of similar care in America - but equal to three years' salary for the average Cambodian. And even those costs are covered by medical insurance through my husband's job - a benefit unheard of by most people here.

When I examine the details of my pregnancy and birth experience, the disparity between it and that of the average Cambodian woman glares back at me.

Women in Cambodia are literally risking their lives every time they bring a new child into the world.

"Women are dying because they lack basic emergency obstetric care and due to the limited availability of trained birth attendants."

Cambodia has one of the highest maternal death rate in Southeast Asia. Approximately 1,700 Cambodian women die every year from preventable causes during pregnancy or childbirth. 

Almost half of women deliver outside of a clinic or hospital. And many of these are not the midwife-attended, happy home births we hear about in America. Almost 30% of Cambodian women have no one helping them during labor who has received professional medical training.

And their babies are at even higher risk.

Every year, an estimated 10,000 infants die during or shortly after birth. And approximately fifty children under the age of five die...every day.

Those are all statistics taken from UNICEF Cambodia. I've also heard many stories from my Cambodian friends about their birth experiences that are heart breaking. One friend's sister had a difficult delivery, and the doctor began hitting her abdomen to make the baby come out, even though the mother screamed at him to stop. Another friend labored in an open ward with a dozen other women, alone because the clinic refused to allow her husband to attend her. 

Every so often, another story appears in the newspaper about a poor woman in labor who was refused entrance to a clinic or hospital because she lacked money to pay for care. One such woman delivered her stillborn baby alone when her husband didn't have $70 to pay for the hospital bed - an amount many Americans spend without blinking on a trip to Target or a nice date night out on the town.

As a new mother, these stories cut into my heart in a way I never felt before becoming a mother.

There are many things I will never experience in life because I won the genetic and geographic lottery. I am a white, native-English-speaking, passport-carrying, wealthy-beyond-comparison-with-the-rest-of-the-world American.

That is a hard truth that is difficult to swallow when I want to feel like I am equal with my friends and neighbors here - knowing that, in some ways, life will never be equal for us.

One of the health clinics where SP works with staff to improve mothers' health

Cambodia does have hope, and things are changing for the better. Samaritan's Purse is taking part in that work. One of SP's projects is the Maternal Child Health project in Kratie province, in southeast Cambodia. We visited Kratie last year (you can read about our trip - day 1 and day 2). Last month, SP ran an awareness campaign to spotlight the work in Kratie, bringing hope to mothers in one of the least developed provinces in the country.

Although the campaign is over, the website, 10 Days for M'Dai is still active. The photos and videos are gorgeous, and you can read stories from Cambodian women about their hopes and fears surrounding childbirth.

It's easy to ignore stories and statistics like these when I'm not seeing the faces that could be behind them every day. I hope these stories motivate you to seek out ways to help others who don't have the same choices you do - whether due to location, finances, or prejudice. 

And who knows? You might decide helping SP is your way of helping women in Cambodia have safe births and healthy babies.

A Harvest of Blessing
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Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia

Today Andrew is writing about his work with Samaritan's Purse and an Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution he helped with in rural Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia. Hopefully some of you packed shoeboxes this Christmas and can learn a little about what happens at the final destination. You can read about my experience at a shoebox giveaway on this post from last year. For more posts on his work with Samaritan's Purse, check out these posts. Enjoy! - whitney

Yesterday I had the privilege of joining with the team of visitors from Oxley College, Australia, to give shoeboxes to children in a rural village church. Although I have been in Cambodia working with Samaritan's Purse {SP} for nearly 3 years now, this is the first time I have been able to to participate in an Operation Christmas Child {OCC} shoebox distribution. I love how SP makes every effort to look for ways to integrate and work with local, nationally led churches - even the least of them. 

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
The church building is so small and the only one for miles so it was 'standing room only' for some. Here the speakers give a short presentation to the villagers about the meaning of Christmas. 

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
The shoeboxes were provided with love by supporting businesses, churches, and families in Australia.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
Only one shoebox is given to each child in their lifetime, with the goal of reaching every child around the globe.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
A small box, filled with small toys, given to small children in a small church in a small village in a small country brings big smiles to kids and adults.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
Waiting for the count of three, children gave a nervous laugh when 2 and 1/2 was slowly said.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
Then suddenly, at the count of three, they open their shoeboxes...and try to figure out what to do with everything they get from slinkies to teddy bears, jump ropes to schools supplies.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia
The show is over pretty quickly, and kids are ready to take their new toys home and share them with their families and friends.

Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child Shoebox Distribution in Cambodia

While it looks like its all fun and games, most of the work we do here is not quite as quick and easy. From building new schools to constructing BioSand Filters for families, from drilling wells to planting mushrooms, several years of hard work has gone into these communities as we work to help Cambodians facing huge challenges, especially in giving their children a healthy future.

If you have never been able to be a part of an OCC shoebox distribution, I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list. Or maybe if you've been a supporter of OCC for many years, consider supporting the other projects we are doing in Cambodia - for the glory of God and the good of the village.