On the other side of the Tonle Sap river, across the Japanese Friendship Bridge and 2 kilometers up a dirt road there are wooden houses on stilts, cows in the streets, laundry flying in the breeze, and 54 children without parents. Either victims of parents with HIV, or simply left in hospitals and streets by parents who can’t afford them, 54 children currently wake up and spend their day in the corrugated metal walls of SFODA family orphanage right on the banks of the muddy river.
After having taught English in this orphanage for two weeks, it is hard not to come away with conflicting feelings and conclusions. Obviously, there are all the heart-wrenching aspects of the children growing up in a third world orphanage: Meals are simple, with lots of rice and questionable pieces of meat. Not realistically able to afford, or have the time to change 20 sets of diapers each day, the younger children simply don’t wear pants and do their business where they may. Those who can barely walk are taught to simply go pee in a certain corner. This is also the corner where the food is prepared, as it is the lone outdoor drainage area that also houses the water cisterns and squat style toilets. The bunks are simple wooden slabs that are devoid of any sheets or blankets, and smaller children are slept 3 to 4 to a bunk. In this heat, however, the lack of a blanket isn’t that large of a loss—frankly, it’s too hot for blankets. Those who are old enough attend public school a short walk down the road, while the younger ones mill about the compound courtyard, keeping boredom and a nagging cold constantly at bay. For the children, each day is seemingly the same, as they rise to the same, unchanging conditions they fell asleep to, with the same toys to play with, down this same dirt road they are too young to stray from. There are no trips to the beach with friends or weekend getaways when you are a Cambodian orphan. If ever there was a Groundhog Day, it is here. Add to this the obvious fact that they are children who will never know parents, coupled with the daily insecurity of knowing a foster parent lurks with every new dawn. Maybe today could be the day they take one of the babies away, or your best friend, or maybe even you.
While tear-jerking at first to witness smiling youth having to spend their childhood under such conditions, the controversial reality is that these kids actually live incredibly happy, secure lives, and are arguably better off as orphans as they would be as “regular” third world children. Through the generosity of foreign donors and grants, these children are provided three meals daily, attentive hygiene and medical care, enlistment in public schools, volunteer English speaking tutors (myself) provided free of charge, and an extended family of 30 other kids their age with whom they can play soccer, or volleyball, or marbles, in a safe area that is sheltered from many of the brutal realities of the outside world. While it may seem cold of me to suggest that these orphans have a charmed life, the fact of the matter is that they live a lot better than many children who still have parents. A recent global study by Save the Children reported that the overwhelming majority of orphans in developing nations have at least one living parent, who voluntarily give their child up because they know it will have a better life than being raised in one of extreme poverty. While perhaps controversial, the entire situation is a bittersweet reality.
In terms of teaching the children English, the majority of the students possessed a lust for learning that was refreshing and inspiring. While there were of course a few who decided to sleep and doodle in the back, just like schools in the Western world, the majority of students genuinely want to practice their English, as they know what a life-giving skill it can be in this part of the world (See “A Golden Tongue”). Unable to speak Khmer myself, however, it was an incredible challenge trying to discern if the children were actually learning, or simply repeating everything off of the board. Children who at first seemed to possess a firm grasp of the English language would falter considerably when the exact phrase they had rehearsed over and over was altered in the slightest. Memorization definitively trumped fundamentals basically.
Finally, after many afternoon games of soccer, endless worksheets on fruits and vegetables, marathon sessions of duck duck goose, and more piggyback rides and lifting than I have done in a long time, it was time to offer a difficult goodbye. It’s definitely hard to go back to a life of backpacking around and traveling when you know that little 3 year-old Map (pictured) is back to rolling a soccer ball alone against a wall down a dirt road by the river. While I feel that volunteering in orphanages is a fantastic experience and an aid for humanity, I can’t deny the feeling I have that the act of volunteering in some small way contributes to the aforementioned insecurity. From experience the children know that eventually we all leave, and many of them are too young to recognize that it is not by any fault of their own. So while I whole heartedly support the cause being set forth by orphanages and English programs around the world, it is hard not to leave with a mixed bag of emotions, and impossible to return to the way of thinking that exists in the world we once were from.