Over the past few weeks it seems like the subject of Cambodian orphanages has blown up…well it has if you follow certain organisations on Facebook or watched 60 Minutes. So I’ve been having lots of great conversations about this, which I think is awesome because there are some horrific truths about Cambodian organisations. A lot of people have asked my opinion, especially seeing as I lived and worked in a residential care centre last year and will continue to supporting the kids there.
Tar Winkler, who you may have seen on 60 minutes has done so many amazing things in the Cambodian province of Battambang (I just love saying that name!!) and I have followed her work for a long time now. Last year my parents and I visited her training restaurant, mum and I went to listen to her talk a couple of weeks ago and I have her book.
Tara is working with the Cambodian government to rectify the scary statistics that in the last 10 years the number of orphanages has increased by 75% yet 45% of the children in these places are there due to poverty rather than loss of family (Unicef). There are so many orphanages in city centres around Cambodia that are fake. They buy children off poor families (80% of Cambodian’s live off $1 or less a day) and then make the children look poor and dejected so well-meaning tourists donate money. It even goes as far as involving Tuk tuk drivers who offer their customers a chance to go to one of these places, donate money or their time and the cycle of corruption continues as the drivers get revenue from these places. While the people running the orphans gets all the money and the kids get nothing. There’s so many more issues about these fake centers but this wasn’t the point of why I wanted to write today.
I actually wrote about the same issue last year in one of my blogs about children not being tourist attractions and the dangers of visiting orphanages and short stay, unskilled volunteers being with children. I agree with and support Tara’s organisations (CCT – Cambodian Children’s Trust). They are doing such amazing things; she has changed the way people in Battambang view children, increased the value of education and changed how families support each other.
However, (and I say this knowing I’ve only been involved for 2 years with this industry where others have dedicated their whole life to it…but it’s just my opinion from my experience) I have to say that the claim that residential care is detrimental to all children doesn’t sit 100% comfortably with me. I talked a lot to the teenage kids about this last year and their perspective was really interesting and one that probably needs to be shared.
The kids that live at Child Rescue Centre (CRO), Krang Lovea, are there because they are from an abusive background or lost both parents and their elderly grandparent was unable to support them (emotionally, physically and financially). Many of the kids said, even though their immediate or extended families live locally, they would not want to live with them. They saw family members being abused at the hands of another family member, or were themselves abused; physically, sexually and emotionally. Other kids were abused in the way that they were forced to work instead of going to school. Many of the older generations living in this small village lived through the Pol Pot regime, they weren’t educated and only know that they need all the help they can just to afford food. Again, this topic isn’t what I wanted to write about. But the past stories of these kids are horrific and once you hear them and meet the kids you’d know why I’m so passionate about helping however I can.
Even though the teenage kids gripe about the staff, the rules and school (what teenager doesn’t!!!), they are so appreciative and grateful for the chance to live in this centre. They recognise that without this chance they would not have an opportunity to get an education, they would not get nutritious meals each and every day, they wouldn’t have access to medical care and they definitely wouldn’t get the chance to ever leave the village. These kids are not only supported throughout their school years, they are given a chance of tertiary education (if they pass their exams!!) – Something so rare for kids living in remote villages.
The kids at CRO get to visit their family and be part of their new extended family, without constantly feeling scared and on edge that past abuses will occur again. For that fact alone, I will continue to support this center because I don’t believe anyone should live with this threat. But one of the most important things I’ve learnt throughout my career as a teacher is that when it comes to kids (and our students) we need to talk less and listen more. Children can teach you a lot if you give them time to talk.
But please don’t naively support Cambodian orphanages without knowing the full and real story. Please try not to go through a company that sends you to an orphanage that you don’t know about. Please don’t be an unskilled, short-term volunteer (as in someone who goes to teach or build houses for a week but aren’t teachers or builders). If you have a skill, use it! Help teach the teachers, teach construction workers a new method of building, teach people to paint, cook a new meal, play an instrument or speak another language.
There are ways to help and support developing nations but on the flip side there are many more ways to harm than to help.
If this has sparked something inside you, I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about these issues, but again please note I’m going off such a small experience compared to those who have worked in Cambodia for decades. I’m still learning about it too and will continue to read all the posts and articles I can.