She was f-o-u-r. 4 years young. At the end of the infant spectrum, a toddler transitioning into a child who probably barely fit into a size 3T. She was four. 4 years young.
At 4 years of life, a child is still developing their personality and temperament. At four, a child is discovering the world around them, displaying behaviors that mimic those of their parents or caregivers, a time when family genes and traits surface, a stage where love is reciprocated verbally especially from child to parent. Think for a moment about your 4 year old daughter, niece, or grandchild…how tiny they are, how soft their hair and skin is, how cute they are when they laugh, how fun it is to see their personality unravel, and how eager they are to learn about the world. Four is supposed to be a fun age for parenting. An age that marks the beginning of autonomy, learning, dialogue, and expression. Four….four was the age of the youngest girl brought to the shelter at Battambang. She was four when she got sexually assaulted. Four. Four years young.
My stomach turned sitting on the back of the motorbike as we drove in the dark on an unpaved and bumpy road heading towards my hotel. I was in so much shock that still I haven’t been able to digest it or even wrap my head around it. The director of the shelter elaborated that her case is so severe she can never go back to her family. She was four when she arrived in Battambang.
The director picked me up at my hotel around 4pm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, two days before Christmas. When she knocked on my door, I hugged her right away. We had been communicating via email for months so I already felt like I knew her. A tall thin blonde with crystal clear blue eyes from Iowa with beautiful energy. We packed up all the gifts for the staff and headed to the shelter. Along the way we chatted a bit. She told me her parents had moved to Battambang and had done a lot of work for the shelter. I shared my experience with her about Siem Reap and spoke to her about my goals with Travel With Purpose. Then we arrived at the main shelter, a beautiful and enormous compound that can accommodate up to 120 girls with a garden to grow their own fruits and vegetables, a playground, a study and computer room and a shop with over a dozen sewing machines so the girls can learn to sow as a vocational skill. In addition, they recently had acquired another house down the road for the girls with special needs. She gave me an extensive overview of what the organization does for the girls from housing to counseling to education to helping them and their families seek justice to vocational training in order to successfully integrate them back into society. It really is a happy place and it reflects on the girls’ attitudes, especially in their smiles.
When we walked in, a group of young ones ran towards us hollering the director’s name and without an introduction, three of them jumped on me and started hugging me. The littlest one, which I’m guessing was about 5, climbed on me as if I was a tree (I am taller than the average person in this part of the world so perhaps I reminded her of the giraffe she always wanted to climb). Then we walked over to the house down the street that accommodates the special needs girls. My first interaction was with a witty and eloquent girl who was legally blind. She has partial vision in one eye and a glass eye in the other, the org had paid for her surgery. Her English was nearly perfect and jokingly she told me her name was “Pineapple” and I, being fluent in banter, introduced myself as “Dragon Fruit”. She laughed. The banter went back and forth for a bit about our monikers…I am “Bird”, “Milk Fruit”, “Crocodile”, “Linda” and so forth. She told me she was the president of the Kids Club, a prevention program that strives to create awareness amongst young kids about sexual trafficking and rape. She had also mentioned she wanted to become a teacher. Sadly, the director later told me that “Pineapple” possesses real leadership skills but because she is partially blind she is marginalized by the society there, so the chances of her realizing her dream of being a teacher is not likely. Another girl who was fully blind was also introduced to me. She hugged me and felt my hands and wrists and in Khmer told the house mother to tell me that she could make the bracelets I was wearing. Lovely she was.
Just like the shelter in Siem Reap, the love that flows through this magical place is unbelievable. After the tour, I played Cambodian “hacky sac” with a few of the girls who eagerly invited me to join them. Then, a sudden impromptu photo shoot happened in which I became the photographer, taking about 57 pictures of the girls in their best model poses and 87 selfies with special requests to take individual pics with just me and one of them. It was hilarious watching the girls push each other out of the way when one or two tried to photobomb our pic. It was absolutely adorable! Unfortunately, I had to delete all the pics due to the confidentiality agreement I signed and primarily for the girls’ safety. Oh how I wish I can show you what the face of an angel looks like!
The next day we had an early start. The director picked me up at 7:15am on her motorbike and we headed to the shelter for the morning devotion with the staff. During the devotion we were asked to share what the greatest gift we had ever received was. I told the director I had been given the gift of being able to travel the world and that Honda 70 ATC my dad bought me when I was 5 that I was obsessed with and cried for two weeks when it was stolen. Then I paused…and with tears in my eyes told her that as cliché as it may sound, meeting the girls has been the greatest gift I have received. She smiled, she smiled because she felt the same way…she empathized what I was feeling…because she was lucky enough to be showered with the girls’ love every single day. After they discussed the bible, sang, and said their prayers, the director introduced me to the group. I was asked to say a few words to them. I told them that they were beautiful people for the work they did, that because of them the girls will have a better life, and that lots of people in America are supportive of this cause and really care about what’s happening. I also told them that the gifts I brought them were a small token of appreciation for their labor of love. They all clapped and smiled incessantly. One of the staff members, a man with a gentle face who spoke English fluently, said he wanted to say some words to me on behalf of the staff. He expressed his gratitude for all I had done, how happy they were that I came all the way from America to visit them and that they wished me health and happiness and wanted to bestow their blessings upon me. My cheeks were frozen because I couldn’t stop smiling. In that very moment I was enveloped in their love…I felt like I belonged there, despite the fact I look nothing like them, despite that my skin is white and that I don’t speak Khmer and that I have everything they might ever dream of having. But I was welcomed…I was addressed as “sister”…I was important to them…they loved me no matter who I was or what mistakes I’ve made or whether I was a Christian or not. It was so humbling, I wanted to stay in this moment forever.
Right after the closing prayers, we brought the gifts out of the storage room and I handed out the gifts to each of the staff. They all said “thank you” in English and I replied “Ah Kun” (thank you in Khmer) and with my hands in prayer formation bowed my head. They took turns hugging me, complimenting me, taking pictures with me, and three of the women said “I Love You Sister”. I was so moved, so deeply humbled. Later on, the director mentioned to me that the staff hardly ever gets presents. Usually when people come to volunteer, they only bring stuff for the girls; hence, the reason they were so overjoyed. I’m so glad the director asked me to get them gifts as well because these men and women sacrifice so much of their lives for these girls. Each and every one of them is a selfless and humble human being who cares deeply about the hundreds of girls who haven been broken and marginalized, seen as damaged goods, dirty and useless by the rest of society. They are the real heroes, not me.
I retuned to the hotel around 9am. Walked over to the café across the street and checked in with the fam back home. I called my mother first, being that my maternal instincts had been brought to life. I needed my mother…I needed her to tell me everything was going to be okay, just like I told my “daughter” at the Siem Reap shelter. Mami expressed her sentiments about my previous blog, said she read it twice and couldn’t stop crying. I re-lived the entire experience with her over the phone, sobbing in front of a handful of tourists having breakfast, only pausing to sip my lukewarm French pressed coffee. (I’m sure everyone around me loved having breakfast watching me cry and attempting to stop my snot river). I expressed to my mom my desire to continue to do this and to adopt a girl. She was so supportive and really understood how this experience had profoundly changed me. Then I FaceTimed with my dad. I needed a laugh so I had to see his face. We exchanged some banter and he kept telling me how ugly my glasses are and that I’ve been gone for so long I’m starting to look like a “China” (a Chinese woman). I laughed so hard and at this point the customers of the café were for sure trying to decide whether I was Bipolar, delusional or simply bat shit crazy. I asked him if he read my Siem Reap blog and he said he couldn’t talk about “esas cosas asquerosas” (those atrocious things) and that if my grandfather, who was a sergeant in Cuba, was still alive he would have hung them all. I laughed because I know that this was his Cuban redneck’s way of showing me that he cares about what’s happening here. I paid the bill, looking like I just stepped out of a psych ward, and returned to my room to spend the next 3.5 hours putting together the gifts for the girls.
One of the staff came to get me around 2pm. We went to go buy the bicycles for the girls. At the shop I realized I had about $200 USD extra so I was able to get them 2 more bicycles, 7 in total. We waited for a while at the shop as they polished, cleaned, and installed new pedals and baskets on the second hand bikes made in Japan. We dropped off the bikes and headed to the Kids Club Christmas party. “Pineapple”, the proud president of the club, was happy that I came to check out the event she worked hard at putting together. We walked around side by side embraced in a hug exchanging our usual banter. Some of the volunteers were passing out soda, curry soup and bread. I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said no because it was only right she ate when the staff ate. So cute. I sensed her thirst and hunger and told her “I” was cool with her not eating right away but that she had to at least have soda. She laughed and reluctantly drank the soda I handed to her.
After the Kids Club party we headed back to the shelter. As the girls did arts and crafts, I splurged in the sewing department’s shop where I bought a ton of beautiful gifts that were hand made by the girls…lap top covers, aprons, scarfs, headbands, ties, purses, wallets, etc. Some of the girls learn sewing as a vocational skill and they get to keep the proceeds of whatever they sell. I swear I wanted to buy the entire shop! And due to my shopping spree I would now have to buy a small suitcase. Great…because I already look like Erykah Badu’s backpacker version of “Bag Lady” carrying around 2 backpacks (one large, one small) and a large hand bag filled to the top with “stuff”. Smh.
During arts and crafts two of the girls made ornaments and gave them to me. It’s so incredible that they’re so giving. I smiled, thanked, and hugged them. Then it was time for the gift giving ceremony to commence. One of their peer leaders, a strikingly beautiful long haired 16 year-old who looks more Vietnamese than Cambodian and fluent in English, lined them up into groups. Timidly one by one, a total of 70, came up to me to receive their presents. They bowed with their hands in prayer formation and said thank you and then sat back down in their assigned rows. Once they opened their gifts the excitement ran rampant and most of them came back to me to hug me, climb on me, to say thank you or “I Love You”. It was so beautiful, so so very beautiful.
Some of the girls stayed and hung around me for a bit, some just kept hugging me. One in particular stole my heart, again. It was the 16 year-old peer leader. She was eager to converse with me and share her lifelong goals. She wants to be a teacher and continue working as a peer leader. I expressed to her that she possesses real leadership qualities and that she would make an excellent teacher one day. She wanted reassurance from me that God has great plans for her and I validated her belief. She hugged me, very tightly. She said God had sent me here and that she was so grateful for what I had done for the girls. Then she asked me for a pen, I said I didn’t have one but in the pencil case inside her gift bag there was one. She immediately grabbed it, took out the pen and started scrambling to find paper. She ripped a page from the notebook inside her gift bag and told me to wait, that she needed to write me a letter. I smiled, doing my best to prevent the Mekong from overflowing out of my tear ducts. After she handed me the letter, I asked her if she wanted me to read it then or later…she said later and boy was I glad because I already knew what that would do to me. I asked her to do one thing for me before I left, I asked her to write the word “LOVE” in Khmer on a piece of paper. She did, and taught me how to pronounce it, “Sro Lan”. I thanked her and right away I knew I would be tattooing that on me the minute I returned home. We hugged, tightly….for a long while and again I told her how beautiful she was and what a great life she was going to have and what an amazing teacher she would be. I told her I loved her and kissed her head and she said…”I love you too sister…please come back, please don’t forget us.” I nearly died.
I took the director to dinner that night, it was Christmas Eve. We got to know each other a bit more. We talked about how else we can work together in the future. I told her about my plans for Haiti and showed her my blog on Siem Reap which she felt was very powerful. I expressed to her how grateful I was that she let me in their beautiful world and the impact it had had on me. Then we said our goodbyes and I stayed near the restaurant to explore the area and have that much needed glass of wine or two. Later that evening while packing, I decided to be brave and read the peer leader’s letter. “Dear sister, I would like to say thank you so much for your spending your time with me and with our girls. I’m so glad that I met you sister. I will do remember you and pray for you all the time. I love you so much. I wish you have good health and more beautiful and beautiful. I hope that one day you come back to Cambodia again. May God bless you! Love your sister.” I lost it…and after hyperventilating fell into a deep slumber.
Over the last 10 years a lot of progress has been made in Cambodia regarding the sexual trafficking situation. Tons of non-profits have been working relentlessly in order to create a real change. They’ve done so by partnering up with local police in order to teach them how to deal with cases properly, working with the government in order to seek justice for the victims, creating prevention programs for children, and more importantly, spreading awareness amongst the community about this issue. Regardless of the progress, there is no spiritual or cultural justification as to why this happens to children, especially a four year old. I will never believe that Christianity’s God allows this to happen to a child in order to learn a valuable life lesson, nor will accept Buddhism’s karmic policy that the reason such atrocities occur is because of a past life situation. The ONLY consolation I have found is that these horrific and traumatic things that occur to young girls in Cambodia can possibly land them in a little piece of heaven such as the shelters I worked with. And although they may have been usurped from their families and villages due to such horrible events leaving everything that is familiar to them, there’s a chance that they may end up in a place where they are showered with love, are able to pick up the broken pieces, healed, educated, and integrated into society with a real chance to succeed in a country where the majority of people live below the poverty level, are uneducated and will never have a real chance of moving forward in life. Battambang gave me hope. And I will never forget them.