Imagine you are 12 years old. Your dad died when you were very young. Your mum remarried and, when you were seven, she left you. All alone. No family. No support. A palm leaf shack to live in.
This is Chea’s story. And sadly his is not an isolated case.
Children are sometimes abandoned here in Cambodia. Often, they are left with grandparents or relatives. But sometimes they are just left behind, presumably in the hope the village will look after them.
For most of us it is hard to imagine and easy to judge. What mother would abandon her child? But I don’t pretend to have walked a step in her shoes and can’t imagine the situation she has found herself in to walk out on her child.
But it doesn’t take away the emotional turmoil of a child abandoned – the confusion, the fear and the stress. I can’t begin to imagine.
Given the circumstances it is amazing he is doing as well as he is. Chea is a serious young man. He is quietly spoken and respectful of others. He is polite and helpful. He cooks for himself and despite everything, he takes himself off to school – and by all accounts he is a good student. In short, he’s bringing himself up the best he can.
Fortunately a few people are looking out for him. Some village ladies keep an eye on him and occasionally give him some food and possibly some scraps of love and affection. Others like Suon, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, keeps a watchful eye out for him. And recently he’s come to the attention of Sue, a big-hearted lady trying to right wrongs and inspire hope in a small village overshadowed by the ancient temples. Where she can, she is giving him love and affection, maternal care and a kind word. She’s tending to sores on his feet, making sure he is clothed and has food. It’s not the same as having your own family — people to surround you with conversation, laughter, love, safety and security 24 hours a day. But it’s better than it was.
It was through Sue and Suon that I learnt about Chea. Early in the New Year I found myself at Chea’s home. I was invited to join a group of volunteers who were there to clean it up and patch it up.
It’s set well back from the main road in a quiet little village. Down a narrow dirt track with vegetation growing wild on either side. A mango tree stretches its branches next to his humble abode. The grass was high and plastic bags and other rubbish littered the surrounds.
When we arrived – armed with brooms and rakes, gloves and rubbish bags and loaded with supplies for storage and cooking and cleaning – the front awning had all but disintegrated and the framework was coming apart. There were holes in the fragile banana leaf walls and the interior needed a good clean out.
We – well, I use that term loosely because I really just waltzed about with a camera and took a few snaps – got stuck in and gave the place a spruce up. Then the new roofing arrived, loaded in the back of a small trailer and towed by a motorbike.
Chea, when he arrived home from school, was quiet and serious. He didn’t crack a smile. He must have wondered what was happening to the only home he knows. He sat in his new hammock and watched proceedings for a while. Then, quietly got up to help those replacing his new awning.
Nobody asked, nobody expected him to do this, but he did it.
Suon was busy directing proceedings and working hard at attaching the new thatching. He’s an old hand at this sort of work.
A few villagers came and helped, including this lovely yay (grandmother) who lives nearby and is the sole carer for her small grandson.
Chea was overwhelmed by all that was going on but quietly pleased with the renovations, and more importantly, the attention. There is no doubt he appreciates everything Sue is doing to help him.
Chea’s story is heartbreaking. He is just one of so many children in this country doing it tough. You have to admire his resilience. I don’t know if I’d have done so well at that age.