Almost a week ago I returned to Cambodia for another extended stay. In a few weeks I begin my second assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres, this time in Phnom Penh. Meanwhile a holiday with friends, tripping around the country, is underway.
Two nights at Wat Opot Children’s Community was as boisterous as one might expect of a place where 50 children who have lost their parents/carers to AIDS reside. It is difficult to find words for the beauty of Wat Opot. Their website might do it more justice than I could – Wat Opot. We arrived on the same day as a new resident, a 12yo girl who might pass for 7yo, with severe malnutrition, spinal scoliosis (I have a high suspicion that this may be caused by spinal Tuberculosis), struggling to walk on tiny pin legs, and all alone in a sea of new children. Another new resident, 2yo and a shockingly tiny 6kg, has recently started her lifelong course of anti-retroviral treatment. Her misery is likely a combination of medication side effects, which should subside and her new and overwhelming environment. Otherwise, every other child plus “Number 51”, as we labelled our 8yo Australian travel companion, was robust, active and thriving in this world of organised, joyous chaos.
I learned of Wat Opot through my friend and about-to-be-colleague-again, Dr Theo, when he identified it as a refuge for three brothers orphaned by AIDS/Tuberculosis in the final months of the MSF project here in Kampong Cham. It was amazing to meet these brothers again, and after one year since we last met, be able to converse in English with them! While most of the children were in school, we walked to and climbed beautiful Phnom Chisor (“Chisor Mountain”), where we explored the hilltop temple grounds. Lunch inside the ancient walls consisted of sitting in an unwalled bamboo hut within sight of our cook who promoted her fried chicken with lemon grass option. Said chicken made a noisy but swift departure from this world, thankfully from behind the open fire so that we didn’t quite witness it, about twenty minutes before being presented to us on a plastic plate, infused and tasty, with a pot of boiled rice.
Anyone looking for a worthwhile cause, whether for fundraising, donating or volunteering, would be hard-pressed to find better than Wat Opot with it’s impelling history of quite literally “rising from the ashes”. Yet there is a growing movement against orphanages, most famously perhaps, the arguments put forward by JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. Rowling founded Lumos, an organisation dedicated to closing all childrens’ homes, arguing that “No child should be denied a family life because they are poor, disabled or from an ethnic minority. Lumos works to support the 8 million children in institutions worldwide to regain their right to a family life and to end the institutionalisation of children.”
Voluntourism and Orphanage Tourism are phrases coined from the arguments raised – rightly – against the exploitation of children living in institutions. The issue is especially pertinent in countries such as Cambodia where corruption can permeate through absent and/or poorly governed regulations. I have written on this topic before, for example at An Infinite Learning Curve in August 2014. There certainly are children who should not be living away from their families and there certainly are institutions which exist for the wrong reasons and/or exploit the children in their care, often in shocking ways.
Yet there is another side to the coin. There are institutions which exist for the right reasons, who are doing the right thing for the children in their care. There are children who, without those institutions, are either dead, or abandoned to their own devices. It is not uncommon to see “street children” in Cambodia, existing in dire circumstances and without care and support. Wat Opot in Takeo Province or the residence where the children from Phter Koma now reside in Kampong Cham, have strong and valid reasons to exist. The twelve year old girl newly resident at Wat Opot is a visible example of what can happen to stigmatised and rejected HIV+ orphans when they lose their parents in communities which are already struggling to survive impoverished circumstances. Without Wat Opot, she and so many of her fellow Wat Opotians would die. The same can be said for the children of Phter Koma.
Today I visited the Phter Koma children who, along with their Khmer carers, have moved to another establishment after Phter Koma, as was always their aim, transitioned to a local organisation. The children are focussed on their studies, accept their routines including continuing English classes and twice yearly visits where possible, to extended family in their home towns. Each of them appears thriving and happy. Much like an aunt from another place, they know and trust me yet also understand that I am not a primary carer, connecting me instead to speaking English and having occasional treats. When will we go swimming next, when will we eat at Night Market next, can I advocate for them to have improved internet access so that they can send emails to myself and the French founder.
Wat Opot and Phter Koma are two excellent examples of institutions serving a valuable purpose in the community. Both employ local staff who dedicate time and skill to identifying family, assessing the ability of family to receive the child back into their care, if not permanently then at least for visits, and maintaining a safe and nurturing environment for those children who cannot return home. The children at both of these institutions are engaged in school with opportunities to advance through trade school or university which are inaccessible to so many of their peers. Volunteers are or have been an integral part of both institutions, for the purposes of offering exposure to new languages and skills. The children have uninterrupted relationships with long term carers and do not suffer from separation anxiety around short term volunteers.
Far from exploitation, the children at these two examples of valid residential institutions, are protected, cared for and flourishing despite histories of extreme loss, illness and suffering. They have only benefited from the input of overseas volunteers who are vetted and work within set boundaries relating to the needs of the children rather than the needs of the volunteers.