Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tears in the Slum

I have been visiting many of World Relief's ministries since arriving here, which have all been very eye-opening, but they can also be extremely sobering at times. 
Friday was one of those particularly heavy experiences. I went with a woman named Chantea to an very poor area where she meets with people to encourage them and mobilize them to educate people about HIV/AIDS, trafficking, abuse, and other prevalent issues. Chantea and other World Relief workers meet with many groups each, and then these people are empowered to go out to teach the people around them.

We stopped at several places in this slum area. This area is built with little wooden houses hovering over putrid water, filled so thickly with garbage that they created islands of filth. There was something very oppressive and forlorn in the air, which seemed to lay weights upon the shoulders of these people. Although I felt uncomfortable photographing a lot of what I saw, I snapped one photo from my hip as we were leaving: so you can see one of the rows of homes above the water. These rows kept going and going in a windy maze of tin and wood. Half-rotten wooden slats across the water provided footholds to avoid sloshing through the rubbish-filled water.

That being said: Here are some encounters we had with the different people we went to see:

Many people were sitting around playing some card game and drinking. Chantea frowned at me and told me about how people in these areas often waste what little time and money they have gambling, drinking, and doing drugs. Little kids ran around, usually with one article of clothing. A lot of them had bleached looking hair. We talked to one woman who was actually Vietnamese. Apparently there are many Vietnamese people in Cambodia, often living in slums along rivers, because they are often fishers. They are the lowest of the low, because Cambodians often look down on them and show animosity. I am not sure of the details of this social dynamic, but it's something I'd like to look into a bit more.

We slipped behind a little fruit stand, (covered in flies), and visited a family that Chantea works for. The women seemed to be blind. She was sitting on the floor trying to tidy up around her. The man was very skinny and stood behind. Chantea asked about their family. The old woman smiled and told us about her cute little grandson. But she said it was difficult taking care of him so much, because her daughter's husband had just left her and she was alone, and so she would go to work in the evenings, (as a prostitute), and leave the child with them. Chantea told me that in this community there were many woman who's husbands had either left them or they continually abuse them. If the husband has left, prostitution is often what the mothers must turn to for financial support.

Another visit brought us to a house with a younger woman sitting down with her face in her hands. Chantea called to her from the door. The woman mumbled something but didn't move. Her son (probably around 8), was pushing things around on the floor and looked up at us. Chantea went over to the woman, who finally looked up. Her eye was swollen shut and she was crying. Chantea tried to care for the woman's eye while talking to her, looking concerned. I crouched by the little boy to say hi. He was very quiet, but gave me a little smile. As we left that house, Chantea told me it was as she suspected: The woman's husband had been beating her. There was apparently another woman. I couldn't believe what she was telling me or what I had seen. We made our way around a corner and I almost ran into a woman dressed in tall heels, smeared make-up, and a short, tight, black dress. A prostitute returning home after a night of work. I was just so overwhelmed. Chantea asked me if I had questions or anything, but my eyes filled up with tears and I could not say anything. How could people live like this and treat their fellow humans so badly? These seemed to be typical encounters for Chantea's ministry. She continued informing me about it as we walked back to the moto to go home.

The story ends there by all chronological sense, but in my mind, there was an encounter before that that will still mark the day with hope, so I end here:

In one of the first groups, there were about 8 women and a few of their children in a dark, bare room as we crawled into a little home for Chantea to give her presentation on educating about trafficking. She gave them pictures and material to use, and then when she had finished her presentation, she turned to me expectantly and said, “OK, can you say something to these women? Or ask question?” I looked around and the women seemed eager to here me speak. I was impressed and inspired by the ministry that they were a part of, but I could not for the life of me think of anything important or eloquent enough to say in for the situation. I had a momentary freak out inside my head. “This is a moment to bless people, to produce words and wrap them up as a gift for people who had so little!” I thought. But alas, words did not come. I eventually just asked a few questions about the program and how world relief had helped each of them individually, and I said I thought it was a really good thing they were all doing, because many people they spoke to were not very easy to deal with. Then Chantea asked the women if they had any questions for me. They asked about my home and school and work here, as Chantea translated. Then one woman said “Can I tell you about Jesus?” When I heard these words, I think my brain did a little back flip in my skull. Here I was, desperately trying to present help to these women, who I had mistakenly pitied. One woman looked at me and desired to give me the gift of the greatest thing she possesses. She wanted to help me, to minister to me, as I sat bewildered in her dark little home. “I know Jesus!” I answered, maybe a little too loudly. I'm not sure why, but I don't think I've ever been as excited to say those words. It was like when you meet a new person and talk for a little while and realize that you have a mutual friend who is dear to both of you. We had a mutual saviour! This woman and I didn't have to exchange gifts or try to help each other. We had something to share. So we sat and talked about our mutual saviour for a while.

1 comment:

  1. The bleached-looking hair could be a symptom of kwashiorkor--malnutrition due to lack of protein.