In the large rural population of Cambodia, it is not uncommon for families to adopt desperate measures when the rice crop fails, or when work is scarce. Many adults and youth cross the border in search of work in neighbouring Thailand. This year, Thai authorities have shot dead 14 Cambodians who have attempted to log Thai forests illegally. To ensure money for food and other essentials, others mortgage their little plots of land. Another rice crop failure often results in the loss of land and homelessness.
Families in desperate circumstances move to cities like Phnom Penh in search of work and a new life. Unfortunately farm skills are not a priority. Accommodation is also problematic. There is a variety of ways of responding to this predicament. This background explains why a settlement of small cramped wooden homes emerged on a water-logged property next to Phnom Penh's city dump. It is called Russey Village, at Slung Meachey.
On this hot May morning, Asano Miyuki, of the Japan Lay Missionary Movement, hosts my visit. Miyuki has extended support and care to perhaps 120 families in this community for nine years. As we walked around the weather beaten little buildings, we frequently jump along stepping stones, thereby avoiding the surrounding mud and sludge. Many residents are not home. Miyuki explains that many here eke out a living by searching for saleable items in the nearby dump. There is a broad age representation amongst the pickers. The more hands on the garbage 'deck', the better. They search for plastic bottles, fabric, metal cans, twine and so on. Night work in the garbage dump, with torches attached to helmets, or an early morning commencement, helps avoid the sweltering heat. Income varies from $1 a day to perhaps $5 for the best sorters.
After visiting some of the families, Miyuki brings me to a largely dry spare allotment. I am introduced to the participants in the Missionary Movement's "Home of Children" Project and a play group Miyuki and her confreres have established. I see the 20 youngsters, aged 2-4, who participate in the Home of Smallest Children group. They happily interact under the shading above their concrete slab. Soon, I visit Home of Small Children, where there is a group of about 20 slightly older children. They too have their shaded concrete slab meeting place. Finally I visit the nearby concrete slab number 3, the Home of Bigger Children with perhaps 40 children, aged 5-9.
For a variety of reasons, access to regular school is presently not possible. The children are obviously enthusiastic and attentive as they learn Khmer script with the help of the only teaching aid, a free standing blackboard. Six teachers and three other assistants are employed to help provide the daily three hourly sessions, Monday - Friday. Importantly, the children look well, and indeed beam with enthusiasm. At 11.00am, all the children gather under the shade of the biggest concrete slab and sit down in neat rows to be served their daily cooked lunch; today, rice, meat and vegetable soup. Older children help feed some of the toddlers. After lunch, they find their way home.
Opposite our 'outdoor school', builders are busy constructing a brick building, 10mx16m. Miyuki explains that this two storey building will be developed as a Women's Support Centre with an infant day care area on the second floor. The project was made possible by funds left for this purpose by a Japanese priest who worked with Miyuki, and who recently died. Bishop Olivier, of Phnom Penh, also assisted with the commencement of this greatly needed resource.
Upon completion, this building will become a significant sign of hope for many, particularly after it is fully equipped. The second floor roof will be constructed in the future when more funds become available. I have arranged to meet with Miyuki again. I will have the opportunity to look at the plans for the new building and talk about some of the anticipated immediate needs. The new building will need to be completed and equipped. Funds generously provided by Forster/Tuncurry parishioners will be used in support of Miyuki's and her friends' work. Jesus continues his mission of 'bringing Good News to the poor' through the faith and lives of service of people like Asano Miyuki. It is an honour to meet such people, and to offer encouragement and a little support.