These makeshift homes flanked the foot of Phnom Oudong (Oudong Mountain), located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh. Between 1618 and 1866, this was the site of the old capital of Cambodia, before it was moved to Phnom Penh under French colonisation. Today, tourists climb this mountain daily to visit the magnificent temples and stupas on its summit, and to soak in the panoramic views.
But this 11-year-old girl was not there for any of these reasons. In fact, she was there not even by choice, but circumstance. Her family – together with 300 other families – had been forcefully evicted from the Borei Keila district in Phnom Penh and dumped here.
“In early 2003, a ‘land-sharing’ arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed the well-connected construction company, Phanimex, to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing to the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was obligated to build 10 apartment buildings on two hectares of land for the villagers in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.
In April 2010, Phanimex unilaterally reneged on the agreement, however – with the approval of the government – and only constructed eight buildings. That left 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement – and still living in housing on the site. These were the homes that Phanimex representatives destroyed today.”
(Source: THE DIPLOMAT, 15 Jan 2012)
These forcefully evicted families were dispersed and relocated to three campsites outside Phnom Penh – Oudong being one of them.
While they waited for their little plots of promised land, they lived in flimsy self-constructed tents, cut off from their sources of income, and left to fend for themselves. And for a young girl with a disability, moving around the campsite alone was hard as the ground was uneven and unpaved.
This was how Eunice Olsen – a former Singaporean politician, actor, TV host and avid volunteer – found Srey Nuon back in 2012.
Travelling to Phnom Penh to do research for 3.50, a film she was making about human trafficking in Cambodia, Eunice was put in touch with a doctor at Sihanouk Hospital. It was through this doctor that she was directed to NGOs working with trafficked girls, as well as a home care team that did outreach to persons living with HIV.
Outside of research work for her film, Eunice tagged along with this home care team as they made their rounds. Over the span of a few days, she was brought to Borei Keila, and then to Oudong, where she first met Srey Nuon.
Srey Nuon’s family was one of those evicted.
“You know, poverty isn’t the problem,” Eunice said to me in one of our casual conversations. “People can still survive, and even be happy, when they’re poor. The problem is injustice.”
At Oudong, the social worker Eunice was trailing approached Srey Nuon to engage her in conversation because she was a “new case”. They had not seen her before and they wanted to find out more about her situation. The little girl could not speak a word of English.
Through the social worker, who translated their exchange from Khmer to English, Eunice learnt that the girl’s father would transport her everyday to the foot of Oudong Mountain on his scooter, and there, she would climb over a hundred steps – on her hands – to beg.
In the community’s eyes, Srey Nuon’s fate was to be a beggar.
When Eunice heard this, she asked almost instinctively, “Did she go to school before?”
The social worker translated her question to the girl, and came back with this reply, “Yes.”
“Did she like to go to school?” Eunice pursued.
The translated answer came back once again, “Yes.”
It was the girl’s non-hesitant answer to that pointed question that compelled Eunice Olsen to make a decision on the spot: She would put Srey Nuon back in school, and support her till she was 21.
When I was in Phnom Penh last week with Eunice, we visited Srey Nuon at her school. It was a school for the disabled, run by a Catholic mission, and one of the first stops we made on our 4-day trip to Cambodia.
Together with Chhavelith from Sihanouk Hospital’s home care team, we rode out in Lala’s tuk tuk, veering off the main road after about an hour onto a dusty, bumpy path. The school was located at the outskirts of the city, tucked away in a corner of nowhere.
I know this bothered Eunice a little because she has always stood up for integration, even as a Parliamentarian. But I learnt that Srey Nuon did start out trying to integrate into a mainstream school, but because the school’s infrastructure and teachers were not equipped to provide adequately for someone like her, she wasn’t coping physically and intellectually.
And to be fair, this little school for the disabled was out of sight, but not out of mind.
As we spluttered through the open gate and climbed out of Lala’s tuk tuk, I breathed in the fresh air and soaked in the vibes of the place – as I often do in a new place. It felt light and safe, and there was no heaviness hanging over the place, like I sometimes feel when I step into Singapore schools.
The compound was small and quiet, a tad old but clean and well maintained. I could tell that the Catholic missionaries took pride in this place.
The supervisor, a gentle soft-spoken man, came out to meet us. He led us down a row of classrooms towards the canteen, and on the way, pointed out a computer lab for the students, complete with second-hand laptops donated by well-meaning donors and volunteers from the West.
It was “dessert time” and the children had spilled out from the classrooms into the airy canteen. Some were already huddled over bowls of soupy dessert – one bowl on each table to be shared.
The children were understandably curious about us. We were visibly different. But unreservedly, they greeted us “good afternoon!” in English and followed us around.
They were adorable! While similar in that they all had disabilities, they were also uniquely different: Some were running around with shrivelled arms, others were on wheelchairs and crutches, while others had no arms or legs. Even the cheerful young teacher who recognised Eunice and came out to greet us, had a stump for a right arm.
Eunice scanned the canteen for Srey Nuon but she was nowhere in sight. I felt my breath quicken because I had heard so much about her and I was finally going to meet her face-to-face. The supervisor informed us that she would be along in a bit because she had just finished swimming lessons, and was changing back into her uniform.
Just beside the canteen where we were was a small swimming pool, shallow and rectangle-shaped, and protectively fenced to prevent the children from falling in. I was lost in thought for a moment as I watched the clear blue water shimmer happily in the afternoon sun.
I was heartened to learn that the students here did not just have swimming lessons, but also music and art lessons.
“Srey Nuon is also learning English,” the supervisor informed us.
Chhavelith beamed like a proud father. After all, he had been instrumental in making arrangements for Srey Nuon here in Phnom Penh while Eunice was back in Singapore.
Since that chance meeting at Oudong, Srey Nuon had moved back to the capital and was living with an aunt and her family. But more recently, she was boarding five days a week at the school, returning home only on weekends because her aunt had just given birth.
“I think this is a better arrangement,” Chhavelith had updated Eunice when we were discussing Srey Nuon’s progress back at the office. “She’ll have more care here.”
I knew Eunice trusted Chhavelith’s judgement, and the moment I set eyes on Srey Nuon a distance away, I understood why. My first thought was that she looked happy!
Her face lit up when she saw Eunice, who had bounded over to hug her. Even though she was on a wheelchair, she appeared strong and healthy and her eyes twinkled merrily.
She is now 13.
“Hello, good afternoon!” she said in English, much to our delight.
The rest of the conversation between her and Eunice was carried out with the help of Chhavelith’s translation. Eunice handed her some gifts from Singapore, and she updated Eunice on how she was doing in school. She said she enjoyed swimming and music very much.
“You must learn to play the piano, OK?” teased Eunice, herself a proficient pianist.
A group of children had gathered around Srey Nuon, children of different shapes and sizes, all hanging on to their every word with interest and curiosity. Srey Nuon introduced Eunice to her best friend, who was standing quietly behind her wheelchair.
“That’s her best friend!” Eunice shot me a glance from her kneeled position on the floor, and I could see from her expression that her heart was melting. As was mine. That was the sweetest moment, to see two little girls connected in a special friendship this way.
For some reason, I remembered then that Srey Nuon had lost her mum. Some time back, Eunice had taken her to the hospital to visit her ailing mother. “I cried the whole day after that, when I thought about her sitting by her mother’s bedside,” Eunice had revealed.
A week after that hospital visit, Srey Nuon’s mum passed away.
How happy her mother would be, I thought, knowing that her daughter was safe and in good hands. And that she had the possibility of a future brighter than her own. She must be smiling from heaven.
I wonder. When Eunice first met that little beggar girl sitting on a wooden crate two years ago, would she have seen this in her mind’s eye? Her in a school uniform, beaming happily beside another little girl she called her best friend? Would Eunice have envisioned her speaking English and learning music and enjoying swimming?
“Did she like to go to school?” That question that Eunice asked so instinctively was perhaps the one most important question to have asked at that moment.
I don’t know what prompted her to ask it, but I do know as a journalist that it was a question that arose not from the intellect but from the heart. And oh, what a difference it has made!
This, to me, is what it means to find a need and fill it.
I don’t think Eunice realises the difference she has made to this child. A decision to support Srey Nuon till she is 21 is a huge commitment. And as a freelance writer, I understand how unpredictable work is for people like us who don’t hold 9-to-5 jobs.
But Eunice’s simple gesture – which she does not share publicly or boast about – taught me that despite not knowing how or from where your resources will come, you sometimes need to respond without counting the cost, because there is simply a need to be filled. Period.
It brings to mind – and to life – a verse that I have cherished since I was 16.
“I expect to pass through this world but once.
Any good therefore that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.”
~ William Penn ~
Srey Nuon put a face to Cambodia’s forced evictions for me. I felt indignant by the injustice of it. But at the same time, I felt deeply touched because I had witnessed compassion and generosity given freely from one stranger to another.
I left Cambodia believing that there is goodness in this world. And somehow, that changes you.
* * *
THE STARFISH STORY
A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.
“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.
“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”
“But, old man, don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”
The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.
“It made a difference to that one.”