Thoughts from our 2019 Cambodia Mission
by Chau N.
Yes, for the very first time, our medical mission team III is to work in 3 different locations: Svay Pak, Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Luong in Cambodia.
Our partners are Agape International Missions (AIM), ILazaro, The Sisters of Providence of Portieux.
1) One of my favorite Phạm Duy songs is Chiều Về Trên Sông. So one of the more memorable moments from this trip was the Mekong river tour to check out the floating village in Kampong Chhnang after our 1st day of work.
The song is surreally beautiful and passionate. This reality is brutally beautiful and tempestuous. “Lúc đi hớn hở, lúc về hớt hải.” We were caught in a torrential downpour on our boat ride back. When the boat docked, all of us dashed for our vans. That was quite a sight–we must look like a colony of wet panic Mekong beavers in bright orange life jackets! No one was complaining, but no one was smiling neither. Well, except for the kids and our van drivers.
After a 2+ hour bumpy van ride, we were back at the sweet but haunted hotel. With great effort, the wet, cold & cranky me managed to get out of the van. Then i realized my 20 lb backpack was missing. As i frantically rushed back to the van, i saw Vivi Ta –who is about 2/3 my height & 1/2 my weight–getting out of the van with my backpack on her back, all smiling at me as if saying “stop fussing, i have your back(pack).” And suddenly, i wasn’t so cold and cranky anymore.
So in the end my friends, it is your senseless small/big acts of care/kindness/generosity that save the days and bind this team together.
Thank you Vivi , thank you to whoever organized that memorable Mekong boat ride, and thank you nghệ sỹ Phạm Duy for that deceptively calm song.
2) A few of you have asked me for more info about Svay Pak /K11/the formerly & notoriously known as the red light district north of Phnom Penh, about a 20′ drive.
After 15 some years of much work, Svay Pak is a much safer strip now but work has yet to be done as the AIM SWAT team still rescues 1-2 children/week.
Svay Pak residents are mostly ethnic Vietnamese, and are definitely better off than the folks from Kampong Chhnang & Kampong Luong.
AIM has its medical/dental mission team comes to the Svay Pak clinic as frequently as every (few) months but having a Vietnamese speaking medical team taking care of mostly Vietnamese speaking patients was a justified first and hopefully not the last.
The clinic is located inside an in-your-face red building on your right as you enter the strip. It is spacious, nice & clean and even has 1 ac private exam room. A nurse practitioner provides most basic health services there.
I heard on the first day, the fearless doc Thai Van informed the clinic director that the team is capable of seeing at least 200 patients/day if not more. The SP people were not quite convinced but by mid-morning, they were hustling about to get more patients! nice going.
I did not get to work at the SP clinic but managed to visit the strip on my free day.
(BTW, a big thank you to 2 other ever fearless & resourceful women, chị Jocelyn and Diepy, for getting the cranky and directionally challenged me to SP. In your own manic style, you make everything seems easy, possible and hilarious.)
As we walked up and down the quiet main strip, we see family shops, children playing in the street, women workers taking siesta in garment factory,..there is this awkward normalcy about it all.
So naturally we have questions. Thank you to Richard Botkin for referring our questions to AIM contact person Melissa Stock for some answers:
1) The clinic–tall red building which was supposed to be a major dark venue was taken over and converted into a clinic by AIM?
It was built to be a hotel for pedophiles. The owner realized the work AIM was doing just down the street and thought his ‘business’ would be affected so he left! Downstairs is a clinic, the AIM school was housed in there for years, the church works out of there and the prevention program for local children happens there 5 days a week.
2) In addition to the clinic, AIM also has a shelter, garment factory, daycare center, international school in this neighborhood?
Three employment centers (garment factories), school, church, emergency family care center, men’s outreach kickboxing gym, English academy and elementary school.
3) Regarding the international school, is it a private school or a school for the disadvantaged children?
Only for disadvantaged children. We interview applicants and take the poorest of the poor and the most at risk children.
Agape International Missions has been doing an excellent job cleaning up this part of town, and setting it up as well as maintaining a very impressive almost self-reliant community.
AIM has a strict picture taking policy so i did not take any. But based upon what I saw during a very brief visit, i’m so impressed and grateful. I hope they will keep going at it for the town and its people’s sake, and we will keep supporting them in whichever capacity we are comfortable with.
Then we moved on. If you walk further in toward the end of the strip, you will see a huge, and i mean huge, nice looking AIM international elementary school building complex on your right hand side.
From this school front, i looked across the strip, and saw this small catholic church, St. Mary Magdalene–what a modest but solid presence with such a direct name in the midst of it all? What is in a name/description right?
So of course, we had to check out the church and i was able to take some pictures for those who are interested.
It serves a mixed congregation but mainly ethnic Vietnamese. It also has a free small kindergarten classroom next door to prepare the young ones for further immersion education into the Khmer way of life.
i was just chuckling to myself, how competitive all the faiths are in any corner of the world. But hey, if their ultimate goal is to take good care of the people they serve, then bring all the healthy competitions on!
One of our Cambodian van drivers told us on our last day that they have to drive another medical mission team next week. The team is also from the US but the team members are real Americans this time! Huh? Someone in the back of the van was already grumbling, so what are we? Faked Americans? As for most of us, we managed to respond with just a wth shrug.
After all, what is in a name/description anyway? We were just happy that another mission team is on its way.
3) On 7/10, our team went to work in Kampong Luong’s floating village. It was quite a challenge not only because this site is remote, not easily accessible to visitors, but it is truly a barren & rough setting. The team is to spend the night in the floating St. Peter church’s main hall (to our relief, we did not have to spend the night at St. Peter church’s hall in the end.) Those who got drafted wore it as a badge of honor, but most were also anxious mainly because we did not know what to expect.
After a 4 hr van ride from Phnom Penh and about 20 minute boat ride through the southwest Tonle Sap lake, we arrived at the KL fishermen’s floating village/làng chài KL . This off-the-beaten path floating village is home to about 7,000+ inhabitants living on house boats /nhà bè–houses on floating barges.
To get to St. Peter church, our team got a brief tour through the floating village in a longtail boat. The boat captain was probably maneuvering us through the village main highway/waterway as it has a Khmer side and a stateless Vietnamese side. There were other merchant boats, smaller dinghies and aluminum baby bowl boats, sharing the waterway with our boat but luckily, there was little boat jam.
You can tell that most of the Khmer house boats are nicer looking than the Vietnamese ones. Some of the houses look like beautiful floating murals; most look livable; some even have satellite dish or solar panels on the roof; some look barely livable. Most manage to have some greens such as plant or flower pots, or even a floating vegetable patch in sight.
The village is almost self-sustaining with its own floating police station, markets, gas stations, stores, restaurants, coffee shops, karaoke bar, ice factory, pagoda, church, school…
i presumptuously assume since they are all fishermen/women, they are all St. Peter’s children! So it is most apropos that our lake partner/host church was St. Peter church! Upon arrival at the church, we were greeted by the tolling of the gong bell and the excited voices of the children. Oh Lordy, there were so many of them, waiting in the floating play deck next to the church. i hope the gift team brought enough toys for these excited little ones!
The boat docked, everyone disembarked on the classroom side. There was not any fixed boarding ramp, except for maybe a flimsy plank! Little children were hopping from boat to boat up to the classroom dock with abandon. The nervous me was just eyeing the bobbing plank with quiet trepidation. Suddenly i saw a hand reaching out to me, so i looked up to see whose hand that was. It belongs to this dark & handsome young man with a chin goatee and Elvis hair! He was extending his hand out to me and smiling sheepishly as if saying “Welcome, come on up. I’ll give you a hand.” Of course i was grateful, grabbed his hand and stepped off the bow–all the while thinking “this is so embarrassing but it is much safer than yours bumblingly falling into the water!”
After thanking the gracious young man, we darted off in different directions tending to our tasks. His team of young men helped carrying the supplies and moving the rice bags about, making room for the medical team’s clinic in the floating classroom behind the church. Through our limited conversation at the end of the day, i learned his name starts with the letter “m”, Cambodian, in his early to mid 20’s, does not speak much if any Vietnamese, lives there and helps with taking care of the church and whatever else is needed. But we shall return to “m” later. Let’s talk about the KL fishermen village.
If you asked us what is KL fisherman village like, most of us, even the hardened volunteers and cynics, would likely respond with disbelief and be at a loss for words. Through our own filtered & biased eyes: this would be our initial assessment–this floating village is destitute- ville! Most of the folks, about 3 generations of them, who live on this lake are stateless Vietnamese, which means they are illegal residents in both Cambodia and Vietnam. No one recognizes/accepts them. As undocumented residents, they can’t legally work, own anything or receive any public assistance anywhere. Most of the population are poor & illiterate. What bothers many of us is that most of these folks do not speak Khmer. Some more well off villagers own shops but most of the men/boys fish, the women/girls tend to the nets, clean the fishes and make fish cakes—all day, year round, generation round. The polluted lake water is a source of life but also maybe illnesses to its residents & inhabitants. And there is that unforgettable pungent smell of heat fermented dead fishes + proud struggle.
These people, all three generations of them, would have struggled/managed and survived against all odds on their own just fine if only they were allowed to continue to live in their house boats on the lake. as long as there is a roof over their head and they can fish, life goes on for these children of St. Peter. Health care is whatever. Education is whatever. This is their past, present and future. For better or for worse, they will cry & laugh or float & drift according to the tides of fate–their own private Tonle Sap.
However, for environmental/economic/political reasons, these stateless Vietnamese people are at risk of being evicted or soon to be evicted from the lake. Then it is crisis time. There is no decent land settlement for them; they are being relocated to untamed habitat: no water, electricity, livable shelters…, forget about health clinic or school. Some might manage to live on land (after their inner ears have adapted to a land motion setting) but if they are not allowed to work anywhere, nor own anything, then what? To add insult to this crisis, they might be relocated again. Since they are not able to receive any public benefits, they can only rely on non-governmental assistance/charity to deal with this crisis.
Here is the thing: if your floating village is near the touristic Siem Riep or not too far from Phnom Penh , then it would be more popular, easier accessible and receive more exposure and/or assistance. If your village is in the boondocks, 4+ hour drive from Phnom Penh, then it surely suffers from lack of notoriety. Not too many people would have heard/known about your plight. This is why i have tremendous respect for the brave & dedicated volunteers who have consistently ventured out to this remote site to support the Kampong Luong floating villagers–the Vietnamese catholic sisters of Providence of Portieux order/dòng Chúa Quan Phòng based in Phnom Penh & Cần Thơ, and the ILazaro charity group based in the U.S. Their mom-and-pop style of operation is very Vietnamese (will leave the definition up to your vivid imagination) but effective in its own urgent way. They are definitely the salt of the earth (or of the lake to be relevant) where and when you need them the most, so they deserve all the support they could muster.
So there we were at Kampong Luong, taking it all in: the goods, the bads, the brutals and the smell. A few wtf moments (borrowing Wesley Nguyen’s dead on sentiment) went through my mind on this trip, but the Kampong Luong experience was the most memorable and poignant for all the right and wrong reasons.
i’m sure the team volunteers felt and still feel the same shock & frustration for the floating villagers. Knowing this team though, once the emotions have settled, then it would be time to translate shock & frustration & random thoughts into some effective actions. Most of us don’t even know where to start, but like doc Van Khanh (Vegas) once pleaded: “People, do no harm. do something!” So this team solemnly swears it is up to something, again.
From the latest update, i heard chi jocelyn tran had contacted/connected some garment factories in phnom penh with the sisters of providence for donation of clothes. Maybe chi Jocelyn can contact some shoe factories, too chi? The good wheel/will keeps on turnin’…
Since the Cambodia challenge is uncharted territory to most of us, we can only begin by collecting & verifying info/programs from various sources, then plan from there. Since 7/19, some team volunteers have been back a few times to collect more data/info about the situation of the stateless Vietnamese in Cambodia.
It will take time, but luckily we also have the partners–AIM, The Sisters of Providence of Portieux, ILazaro -to help out so that we don’t have to go at it alone. Let’s hope that we learn to work with each other as well as we possibly could.
Yes, there is much work to be researched and considered. This is my summary:
1) First impression matters. Until today, i still remember how calloused and warm “m”’s helping hand felt–calloused from all the hard work and warm with good intentions. We will just have to work with each other, don’t we? i like to think of this hand grab as a hand shake to seal the promise that the team would be back, and the floating villagers would work with us to get through this situation the best we could. That is a promise:
“We will work with each other. We will work side by side. And we’ll guard each ( wo )man’s dignity. And save each ( wo )man’s pride.” (We Are One in The Spirit- Jason Upton)
2) Having made that bold promise, we have to rely on the senseless acts of kindness and generosity of people to see it through. Luckily, the people & supporters of this team have all the essential elements to hold the team together and move forward with any mission.
There have been too many special memorable moments to share, will have to save that topic for a rainy day. Let’s just say this is such a diverse group of talented people that their styles are totally colorful & clashing, such that if it were not for our shared good wills, strong friendship & the Elephant Bar’s happy hours, we might have finished each other off before finishing the mission :-))
If all else fail though, at least we won’t be abandoned/alone for we can always invoke Denise and Yen’s pledge: “Seriously, if you ever call, i will come running.” Can’t ask for more camaraderie than this!
So to conclude, thank you all and all thank you–the youngs & the olds–your quietly/blatantly senseless acts of kindness & generosity save the day and bond the team, as always.
Special thanks and well wishes to the 2 mvps who took the dengue fever hit for the rest of the team. A speedy recovery to both of you.
Finally, a special thanks to those who anchored the mission–you know who you are. It has been a while since i last saw some of you so emotionally charged, mentally/physically engaged by a mission. And the best part about it: your children got to witness your passion, dedication and talents, too. Nice going my friends.
So, good luck to us all—to the floating villagers in Cambodia and to all the volunteers everywhere. We will do our best and hope to be able to do something for the people who can use a little help the most.