Once a month the OM Mercy Teams International (MTI) workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, return from their lunch break and immediately unroll a large emerald tarp in the office’s courtyard. After sweeping off the tarp, they arrange full bags of rice in neat alternating rows that, when finished, resemble an oversized green and white checkerboard.
Around 13:20, people from several nearby slums start arriving—many mothers with their children, but also a few fathers and grandparents. The adults slip off their flip flops before padding onto the tarp. First, they gather in one corner to press their thumbs onto a bright red inkpad and put their individual marks next to their names, a way for the illiterate adults to register and sign for their monthly aid. Meanwhile, the children race around the walled complex, chasing each other, climbing the play structure and shrieking with laughter before finding a spot to sit in the dappled shade under the courtyard’s scattered trees.
Kiry*, 14, breaks away from the children to add his thumbprint to the growing registration list. He and his 12-year-old sister, Champei*, attend OM’s Family Sponsorship Programme alone, as their elderly grandmother—their sole caretaker—can no longer manage the long walk from their home in the slums.
After a brief gospel presentation given by a visiting short-term team from Singapore and a lesson on parenting, OM Team Leader Johan hands out envelopes containing monthly school fees for the children. While the rice helps the 34 families enrolled in the programme physically survive, the school fees provide for their children’s futures.
“Our family sponsorship goal is to provide education for students who don’t have money. [The caretakers] don’t have the ability to support the kids, but we don’t want them to stop studying,” notes Phearun, an OM MTI worker who oversees the Family Sponsorship Programme.
Kiry accepts the envelopes for his and Champei’s tuition, and when the time comes to leave, he hoists the 11kg rice bag onto his wiry shoulders.
Life in the slums
Sturdy silver sheet metal wraps around the upper half of the four wooden stilts supporting Kiry and Champei’s grandmother’s house. In front of their home a dusty path parallels the toilets for a nearby construction site. Beer bottle caps, loose playing cards and used condoms litter the dirt—tokens of the addictions and abuse that run rampant in the slums.
Their grandmother, sitting on the stairs to her simple home, explains that Kiry and Champei have nowhere else to live. Their mother and father divorced when the children were six and four, respectively, and ran away to start new lives with other spouses. Before their mother left, she discovered she was HIV positive; Kiry and Champei were, too.
Although the grandmother has no way to support her grandchildren, she is adamant that Kiry and Champei not go into a care centre for children infected with HIV, the OM MTI workers report. The family can get medicine for free from the government, but they have to pay for the children’s blood tests. To cover the tests, as well as other basic living expenses, Kiry and Champei collect, sort and sell rubbish, earning less than 2.50 USD per day. They also take other odd jobs—like selling vegetables at the market or collecting gambling money to pay out to winners—to help earn income.
If not for OM’s sponsorship, school would be out of the question.
When OM enrols students into the Family Sponsorship Programme, workers, including Phearun, visit the children’s homes and get to know the families. Upon first visiting Kiry and Champei at their grandmother’s house, “we observed that her house is old and broken. …When the [rain]water comes, she cannot stay,” Phearun remembers. “So we decide to build a new house, a bit higher.”
“We also tell them about Jesus,” Phearun shares. “Even though you don’t have hope in your life, you don’t have parents and you don’t have anyone to support you, you have God, who always protects you, who helps you.”
A few months ago, Kiry was riding his bike home, when he was hit by a high school student speeding on his moped. Kiry crashed, and his bicycle handlebar pinned his stomach to the ground, causing severe internal damage. At the hospital, doctors operated just above his belly button, removing part of his intestines.
OM MTI workers went to the hospital to pray for him. After Kiry returned home, he announced, “When I was sick, I prayed to God, and I feel like God touched my sickness, so I became better.”
Since the accident, Kiry has passed his sixth grade exams and enrolled in grade seven at the local high school. “He still keeps on praying to God and [has given] his life to God as well,” Phearun says.
Now, at Kiry’s house, pale pink lace curtains flutter from an open window, behind which a pink mosquito net drapes over the thin woven mat covering the elevated floor. Rebuilt for Kiry, Champei and their grandmother in April 2017 by OM, the simple structure provides not only a home for the small family but also acts as a symbol of hope. Despite the family’s problems, they know they are not alone.
OM in Cambodia seeks to build community and share truth with each family they support. At the monthly family sponsorship meetings, OM encourages interaction between workers, parents and children through communal singing, Bible reading, praying and eating simple refreshments like fruit or cake. “We also want all the family sponsorship [members] and children to know about Jesus,” Phearun emphasises. “We would like to make disciples and mentor them to make other disciples.”
Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with believers to communicate the ways God is working across the globe