I have three nieces: ages three, four and five. They adore tiny stuffed bunnies and princess puzzles. They sing Call Me Maybe from the backseat of the car in pink booster seats and star-shaped sunglasses. They carry zip-lock bags full of goldfish and kid-sized aluminum canteens of clean water. Their tiny fingers can pinch and zoom on an iPhone to my wonder and awe.
They are brand new to the planet, relatively speaking, and are totally oblivious to the winnings they hold of the highest lottery never played: they are among the 5% of little girls born into education, healthcare, independence, relative equality and material wealth inside the freedoms of the United States.
Before coming to Cambodia, I watched the documentary Half the Sky. I saw the little faces of three, four and five-year-old girls, the tiny lips and squishy fingers moving in a traditional Cambodian dance rhythm – little painted toes, tiny gold-plated earrings and a miniature strand of fake pearls. These preschool and elementary-aged girls had been rescued from the sex trade and were being cared for by a formerly trafficked woman at a safe house. A giant crack formed right in the middle of my beating heart. I immediately thought of my nieces. Each one could easily have been born a baby girl in Cambodia.
If you are born a little girl in this world, you arrive with a lottery ticket and low odds. Somewhere in time and space, knit together in the wombs of oppressed women worldwide, these little girls burst forth brand-new and fresh-faced not into pink booster seats and princess puzzles, not into tiny stuffed bunnies or aluminum canteens of fresh water, but into ownership and disease. Into shanties and civil war and violence. Into refugee camps and brothels. Sometimes they are the result of violence perpetrated on their mothers. Sometimes they are born and then disappear. 107 million girls are currently missing in the world right now. Vanished! 107 million.
Even as I sit in Cambodia face to face with these realities, I can’t comprehend them. As a lottery winner, I could easily have lived my entire life squandering the winnings, unaware of what I so narrowly escaped. But I do know, and the aunt in me wants to scoop all the girls from the corners of the earth and kiss their faces, give them nicknames and star-shaped sunglasses. I want to play the game I play with my nieces: “Who loves you? Daddy loves you, yes! And Mommy? Mommy too! And who else loves you? Auntie and Uncle and Grandma and Papa and Mimi? And who else loves you?” On and on we play until she has named every single person who loves her, which takes forever.
I wonder if anyone plays this game with any of these little girls, and I wonder how long the game would last. This girl whose value is based on how many cows a family can get for her dowry, on how much her virginity will generate in dollars, on how light her skin tone is because it determines how many times they can re-sell her to purchase a new TV— it is too much for me. I am overwhelmed, and I know I can’t begin to fix any of it. The problem is too big and too deep.
The easiest thing to do when I feel hopeless about the state of humanity is bury my head the Target dollar spot, a House Hunters International marathon and a DQ mini blizzard. These are the mind-numbing benefits to my winning lottery ticket. But what if I could use the winnings to actually make a change in the lives of one of these girls? What if I didn’t have to bear the burden alone or solve the problem myself? What if others were already working against these injustices, and I could pour into that bucket with lots of others to form an entire network to end—and even prevent—the injustices from occurring in the first place?!
Guess what. No, really. Guess.
I can do each of these things, and there is an organization in Cambodia working against these injustices! The organization is called The Center for Global Impact (CGI), and CGI’s sole purpose is to function as a vessel for each of us with skills, talents and resources to help others worldwide. Right now, as a result of the ideas of skilled and inspired people in central Indiana, CGI is working with girls and women in Cambodia through several vocational and micro enterprise programs to both prevent girls who are at risk from being trafficked, and to reintegrate formerly trafficked girls into the community with self-sustaining sewing and culinary skills. They’ve also started a brand new community-based outreach program in Kien Svay, a small community outside Phnom Penh, working to alleviate the effects of poverty.
As I prepared to leave for Cambodia, balancing my heart between my nieces at home and the kids I’d seen and heard about, I couldn’t wait to see CGI’s work firsthand. Would the issues be right out in front of me, or tucked below the surface? What would the helping look like, and how would I fit in? Would my skills and interests be used? And finally, how in the world would I manage the heat and the spiders?! They eat spiders in Cambodia, you know.
It took about thirty hours of travel to chill me out and a cold shower every 25 minutes to mitigate the heat upon arrival, but I finally settled into my (mostly spider-free) host home and embraced the chance to roll up my pants—literally, it’s rainy season here—and find out what CGI was all about. We had previously talked about my interests (adorable kids) and skills (social work), so I quickly linked up with Kien Svay Kids and a children’s home they partner with called Enzo Tina.
I’d heard that in Cambodia, students are ranked by performance, with the highest raked students promoted, encouraged, and given seats up front, while the lower ranking students are penalized, kept at the back of the classroom, and often-times ignored. Kien Svay Kids is using the primary school as a gateway into the rest of the community by identifying the three lowest performing students in each class, visiting those families, and assessing their needs.
Each morning I met Srey Leak, CGI staff, at the Machem Vorn primary school to speak with the teachers in each class. Usually we were greeted by excited and squirmy students, and the top one or two were selected by the teacher to stand up and perform a song or greeting, which was adorable. But we had come in search of the lowest-ranked students, who were sitting at the back with embarrassed smiles and very little eye contact. We walked home with a different struggling student every day at lunchtime to visit with the families and learn what might be keeping each child from being successful.
I realized early on that each situation was infinitely more complicated than it looked from the surface. No two stories of poverty were the same; no two barriers to education would have the same fix; no two kids at risk of exploitation follow the same formula.
We went home with students whose parents were fighting or divorced or used drugs. Our hearts broke with a student whose siblings were killed in a car accident and who was being called “a gentleman’s boy”—the equivalent to being called gay—by other kids in the class. There was a little boy whose parents had each abandoned him, leaving his two grandmothers in a deadlock over whether or not to sell the little boy to ‘His Excellency’, another term for rich man. There have been orphans and single parent homes and homes with disabilities. We’ve seen families of four living in 10×15 sq foot rooms, and four families of too-many-to-count living in a four-bedroom house. We’ve seen families who simply don’t have the means to pay for afternoon classes or for lunch. We’ve seen kids who live too far away to walk back and forth every day. And we have visited with kids whose families can’t care for them at all and have arranged for their stay at a Children’s home, which most refer to as an orphanage.
The stories not told, however, were those things that happened when the poverty became insurmountable. When the snails didn’t sell, and the fish didn’t bite, and the kids had already dropped out of school, and there was nothing left to eat. In that tight spot, I found the underbelly of poverty. It wasn’t hunger or filth or lack of education—though these things are difficult enough. For some families, there is one last option, one final economic recourse: selling or renting out a child. The underbelly of poverty in this neighborhood was the sex trade.
It’s what happens when there is simply no other solution.
In the middle of this dark realization, however, I met two girls whose stories are living proof that hope exists here. For these two girls and their families, CGI has provided an alternative.
I first met Sreyka (not her real name) when I was visiting a yellow-washed bright and airy local Children’s Home, just a block from the primary school. Kids sang, jumped and played around the compound freely and happily. Sreyka was quiet at first, often looking back and forth to see what others around her were doing, but reciprocated any greeting with a bright and inviting smile—perfect teeth and long bangs that swooped down across her eyes. We played classic hand-clap games we both knew in different languages and marveled at each other’s chipping nail polish. At 12 years old, her clothing and stature reflect a nine-year-old, but her beauty and culture would soon push her over the cusp of childhood into adolescence. Although Sreyka’s family lives just two houses down from the children’s home, she stays at the children’s home, sponsored by CGI, for access to two things not available to her at her family home: safety and education.
Sreyka is the fifth out of six girls, and, based on the secret lives of her mother and older sisters, would have been next in line to be sold for prostitution to meet the basic needs of the family. A few years ago, CGI began building a relationship with the family, and while the oldest daughter remains an active prostitute, CGI was able to draw the next two sisters into the organization’s vocational and rehabilitation program, now known as Imprint Project, to provide skills, value, and an alternative income for the family. One of the sisters graduated the program and now works at a factory; the other sister ran away and returned to the lifestyle of abuse, cash, and pretend value—having been previously abused and having grown up with this as the norm. Sometimes the smokescreen proves more lustrous than the work of recovery.
We met with Sreyka, her mother, and the runaway sister at their family home—a small tin shack with tarp and fabric draped for walls and overhangs, and a short wooden ladder leading to the interior two bedrooms. The kitchen and sitting area were outside, surrounded by piles of dishes, clothes, baby chicks, dog food bins, flip-flops and ceramic water basins, and we sat together with the family on top of the dual purposed bed/table. Although happy to be home with her family and giggling with her sisters, Sreyka mentioned, “At home I could not go to school. I could only cook and clean.”
After years of missing school on and off due to the inability to pay school fees and following closely in the footsteps of her older sisters, Sreyka could have easily become another rescue and rehabilitation story. But CGI, having already invested in the family and community, took notice of Sreyka’s vulnerability and the high risk of her being sold, and they began to provide for her needs through the Kien Svay Kids program. Now, with her mom’s agreement and admitted desire for Sreyka to do something in her future and to “get more learning”, Sreyka lives at the Children’s home where her meals and clothing and school fees are paid for by CGI, relieving the burden of care from her family while protecting her at the same time. She is working hard to slowly rise from the lowest class ranking as she has difficulty reading and writing, but gets daily lessons and homework help.
I asked Sreyka what she hopes to be when she grows up, and she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. She lives day-by-day, our translator explained, and all she can see are the lives of her family members. “I think I want to do the work of my sister,” Sreyka said, “but I don’t know what my sister does.”
And there, again, came the urge for face kisses and the Who Loves You? game. Left in her family environment, she could easily end up standing in her runaway sister’s exact footsteps. She has the potential right now to be so much more than her sisters, but she has no idea! Fortunately, CGI knows. And they’ll hold onto that vision for her until she’s able to see a future for herself.
While we interviewed Sreyka, another sweet face kept popping around the corner. It was Sokha, another CGI sponsored girl living at the Children’s Home with the same needs as Sreyka – safety and education – but with an entirely different story.
Sokha, thrilled with the opportunity to go home and see her family, grabbed Sreyka’s hand (it was clear the two were becoming close friends) and we all hopped into a tuk-tuk for the 40 minute ride through the Cambodian countryside, through rice fields and farms, to Sokha’s family home.
There, we saw the farm her family maintains on the land they rent for $100 per year and the factory where her four siblings work. As her dad cut corn from the stalks for us to eat, her mom began frying some eggs and rice to serve us for lunch. We sat on the floor of the family home and learned about sweet Sokha.
She first came to CGI about ten months ago when her mom approached the Children’s Home in desperation. Sokha’s three cousins, whose mom had died and dad had left, were living there, and Sokha’s mom knew there might be a chance for the same graces to be showered upon her youngest daughter, who was forced to quit school and work on the family farm. The youngest of five kids, the family had simply run out of money for Sokha’s school fees. Even more concerning was Sokha’s vulnerability. At 14, she was becoming older and more beautiful, and with fair skin in a rural community, her parents began to fear letting her ride her bike to or from school in the country as she would be an easy target for kidnapping, rape, and trafficking.
“It’s dangerous to be born a beautiful girl in Cambodia,” our translator told us, Sokha’s mother nodding in agreement.
Because of the money and fear, Sokha had missed so much school she had to repeat a grade when she first arrived, but is now the top in her 6th grade class. “I want to complete my studies, so I can work in a bank!” Sokha told us, smiling. “When I was 11 or 12, I saw the girl at the bank, and I noticed her beautiful uniform and hair. I knew she made lots of money, and I knew I wanted to be like her someday.”
Sokha’s mom and dad looked at her proudly and stroked her hair.
When Sokha’s mom approached the Children’s Home, last fall, they contacted CGI as they had before for other partnerships. The two organizations came to an agreement that the Children’s Home would house Sokha if CGI paid for all the expenses, including food, clothing and school fees.
“It’s safe and easy for her there. She can go to school, and she has enough food,” Sokha’s mom said. “We used to be a poor family, but now we are a normal family.”
Her parents gave us hugs and sent us back to the tuk-tuk with a bag of corn from the farm, and in front of us walked Sokha and Sreyka, hand in hand. I was certain Sokha could rattle off an endless list of those who loved her, and now Sreyka could list Sokha.
As I watched them giggle and run toward the tuk-tuk, I was reminded of my last niece, Rachel, who’s 13. She has a compassionate heart, is artistic and fun, loves glitter shoes and creative baking. I rode back to the Children’s Home with 12-year-old Sreyka and 15-year-old Sokha and thought if Rachel knew about the lives of her peers on the other side of the world, she would want to help. But how? I could hear her asking.
How can kids help kids?
That’s where the CGI Kids movement comes in. CGI Kids in the US exists to encourage and equip kids to use their God-given passions and abilities to make a positive impact in the lives of children around the world. Kids have all the creativity and none of the barriers of “grown up” practicality!
Take Mackenzie and Zachary. When they saw a picture of a dirty water bottle, they asked their dad, “Who would drink that?” A conversation followed about kids all over the world drinking dirty water, and Mackenzie and Zachary were inspired to do extra chores and set money aside to help provide children with clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They talked with CGI President Chris Alexander as he was getting ready to leave for Cambodia, and Chris explained that he was going to visit little boys and girls that live on an island with no access to clean water. Two families who live on an island halfway around the world now have a clean water filtration system because two kids from central Indiana wanted to make a difference.
While here in Cambodia, I learned about another group of kids in Fountaintown, IN. They heard a presentation about CGI’s work with kids in Cambodia and went nuts! The kids emptied their wallets and piggy banks raising enough money to fund new school uniforms and school supplies for 200 kids, which were being delivered on the days I was at the primary school.
A couple of other kids set up a lemonade stand in their neighborhood, earned $25, their mom matched it, and they sent $50 in cash on the next trip to Cambodia to meet a need of a kid who was struggling.
One last group of kids in Indiana gathered together at a park with buckets donated from Menards and tomato plants. CGI Kids hosted a gardening workshop for the kids, everyone took their tomato plants home to raise throughout the summer, and as the tomatoes become ripe, they’ll be sold and the money will be collected to help CGI’s culinary training restaurant, The Green Mango.
As I heard story after story about kids here and kids at home, it hit me: CGI Kids is the intersection of pink aluminum canteens and dirty water bottles; of stuffed bunnies and child labor; of Call Me Maybe from a booster seat and the lonely singing of a kid in Kien Svay who works a farm because she has no money for school. CGI Kids is the intersection of Rachel and Sreyka, a meeting point for little ones who won the resource lottery and want to use their grace-given winnings to help those who simply missed the odds.
Some adults and kids and entire families can drop their lives for a few weeks or a few months and fly over to provide the hands-on work of whatever inspires them and with whatever skills they have for the kids of Kien Svay. Others don’t have the flexibility or means to do the direct work, but they can educate the people around them about the invisible lottery that exists, about the vulnerability of kids on the other side of the world, and about the value they can add to a little life by pouring time, energy, skills and resources in to CGI, already forging the way.
I’m not sure how I managed to get a winning ticket, but I am a part of this sisterhood of oppressed women worldwide, and I have to do something to make life better for all of us.
I can’t scoop up all these girls and kiss their faces, I can’t rattle off an endless list of people who love them, but I know that CGI is doing this, providing each one with value and love, and I can pour into CGI my time, skills and money. I can sponsor one of the girls. I can give up a summer to run a kids camp. I can purchase my bags or clothes from byTavi. I can simply tell others about what I’ve seen and learned. One thing is certain: I can’t just sit on the winnings.
From the July 2013 Issue of World Next Door Magazine
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