When Ratanak International was first approached to participate in a Drug Abuse Prevention Program, Brian McConaghy, the director of Ratanak, was reluctant. Coming from a law enforcement background, and seeing the plight of so many "innocent" people in Cambodia, he was not too keen on making youth who had made "stupid choices" a priority in Ratanak Programming. But as he learned about the issue he was shocked by how inappropriate it was to apply the North American model of the recreational drug user to Cambodia. It was shaming to discover that drug addicted kids in Cambodia often get hooked because the use of drugs suppress hunger pains and such drugs are cheaper than food! With that knowledge Brian was not only open to the idea of such a program but became enthusiastic.
Many poor families migrate from provinces to find jobs in Phnom Penh. Some of them find employment as labourers while others find work by recycling the garbage. They rarely have their own home. Frequently they are moved from one location to another as they squat where they can. There is no sense of stability and no sense of hope. They are poorly educated, and almost all of them are illiterate.
In this context the children and youth lack hope and food. Drugs are readily available and are becoming more widely used by young people who are unemployed and hungry. The young people who become addicted are normally between 13 and 18 years old.
Many of them become addicted to glue sniffing, Yamma (an amphetamine mix of speed and ecstasy) and intravenously used heroin. The personal and social implications are huge in a country with nonexistent social services. The kids frequently become involved in criminal gangs and resort to the stealing and even killing that is part of the gang lifestyle. "Yamma", in particular, produces aggressive behavior that seriously impacts both the family and the community.
The Cambodian Government has no effective strategies to cope with such issues and so the Drug Rehabilitation Project was established in August 2004 and seeks to work with youth who are dangerous to the community.
We help them by providing health and nutrition education, appropriate sex education, and life skills training. We assist directly with malnourishment by providing meals (currently 25 kids are fed per day) as well as training them to grow nutritious food for both them and their families. We have found that bringing home fresh vegetables to the family is a source of pride for the kids and encourages acceptance by their families who have all but given up on them.
But how do you get tough drug addicted street kids into such a program? Soccer! These kids just love to play soccer but they have no training and no soccer balls. This program provides both. There are currently 80 young people in the program. They exercise through soccer training (The program team is becoming quite good!), they grow vegetables, take 'in house' classes including literacy and even computer training and are taught about their own value from a biblical perspective in weekly Bible studies.
They have the opportunity to attend camps and participate in normal activities such as chores. The program has been a resounding success and the community is fully supportive, as they have seen local "trouble makers" transformed into productive members of the neighborhood.
The Goals . . .
- to see poor, hopeless, urban youth, free from all forms of addiction, transformed into productive lives with good interpersonal skills, solid work ethic and career skills by which they can help their families and community.
- to empower youth to make good life choices in freeing themselves from addiction, and in choosing the career paths that have a future.
- to help the families of our target group cope with poverty & addiction issues with which they are struggle.
- to develop relationships with, and assistance from, the community and its leaders, local churches, other NGOs, & the government to contribute to the rehabilitation process thereby building the skills and hope of the entire community.
Two Examples . . .
Savee is 14 years old. His mother works as land caretaker they live in temporary accommodation. She raises some pigs to earn a little more money. His father is a vegetable seller. Savee has five brothers and three sisters.
Savee is popular and has a lot of friends in his commune. They persuaded him to try sniffing glue. His friends had told him that, "when you use glue it will make you not go hungry and feel stronger". But after he used glue, he became weak and "felt that he was able to fly to catch the stars in the sky". He ended up using glue two or three times a day, and dropping out of school.
The Drug Rehabilitation project staff went to visit the kids of Savee's commune and meet with his mother. Through this meeting she became aware of the program. Savee's mother was keen to help him stop using drugs and asked him to join the program. Some time later, he decided to come to the centre for rehab and to and continue his education.
After Savee came to the program for drug rehabilitation he managed to completely stop using drugs. He currently is studying grade four at the local Primary School and is tutored in the Drug program center. Both his family and his neighbors agree his attitude has completely changed and he is well thought of in the community.
Vebol is 14 years old. His mother is working as a cook and his father is a motor taxi driver. Vebol has three brothers and one sister. When he was 12 years old, he began to smoke Yamma (methamphetamine) once a day.
He became a part of the Drug Rehabilitation project in November 2007. Immediately he started to play soccer. The exercise greatly assisted him in reducing the addictive cravings. He is very thankful to the teachers in the project because they "helped him to play a lot, English teaching, Bible teaching and many activities to help him stop using drug. He thank to God that help him to become a good son and stop using drug."
Vebol is currently studying grade six at the local primary school and being assisted in the program. He has not smoked Yamma since April 2007.
From a statistical point of view there are not many old people in Cambodia. Civil war, genocide, malnourishment and lack of medical care have a way of thinning out the ranks. For many of the older folks in Cambodia life is very different than in other societies for they do not have extended families to rely on. Many lost their children in the revolution and are now alone with no social services to assist them. Begging becomes a way of life for such people. For a few, enough money is earned from begging to meet their needs quite well, but for the majority it is a desperate hand to mouth existence. To many they are an embarrassment and so they are subject to constant harassment and some times incarceration by the police who are forever making sweeps to "clean up the streets".
Most NGOs and individuals are more interested in funding projects in support of children or families. It just seems to be an easier sell with donors. Old people simply don't warrant any attention in the minds of many people. Yet all of the old people in Cambodia have survived terrible things. They have lived through many decades of trauma always hoping for the better life to emerge - it never did. It is our hope to be a blessing and help to such older people.
Our elder care program Started as a drop in centre during the daytime in 2007. This changed to a night shelter following continued research and requests from the elderly people concerned.
The Shelter is open from 6pm - 6am and is staffed by a manager, guard, and cook with the occasional locum to cover holidays and sickness. The old people (or Grannies as we call them) register, then have a shower, wash their hair using soap and shampoo and dress in a sarong provided by us. This enables them to wash their clothes, often the only ones that they have. They receive a good nutritious meal. Clean drinking water is available at all times to them. Following the meal they can watch DVD's, some Christian, some secular if they so desire. Books are also available, both Christian and secular, including a picture bible. The grannies can have a chat with one another, our staff and other youngsters. If asked, the staff are always willing to pray for the grannies, this happens frequently as they are often sick.
They are given access to health care as appropriate and given daily multivitamins and worm tablets every three months. Finally the grannies can go to sleep in clean, properly ventilated, comfortable surroundings, safe in the knowledge that our manager and guard are there for them all night, and they are safe from the dangers of the street.
In many ways this project is not dramatic it is simply allowing older people feel like human beginnings again. To be treated with some dignity and to know they can eat and sleep in safety.
Initially it was hard to get them to come to stay at the centre. These old ladies have seen all the evils imaginable and they can be quite cynical. They assumed this offer was simply too good to be true. They are accustomed to brutality not compassion so fear rules their lives. The original rumor was that our centre was a government front to clean up the streets. Older folks would show up for a free shower and meal and would be killed and disposed of. Such a notion is absurd to us but given what these older ladies have experienced this was absolutely plausible. Over time that rumor has faded but many in the market place still believe it is all a plot to rob the ladies who visit with us. It is hard to develop trust with older folks who have lived a life of surviving oppression, beatings and killings!
However, over time, more are coming and appreciating our help.
The room in which they sleep is a simple tiled area with mats on the floor for them to sit and sleep on. Small pillows are provided. On first arrival some of the women exclaimed that it was like sleeping in heaven! They are clear; it is easy to sleep in the centre because it is cool. We have several fans.
We have bought a number of books on some of the stories of the Bible e.g. The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, Jesus heals Jairus' Daughter etc. These books are being read - and often more than once. We have the opportunity to pray for them and tell them about Jesus. This usually happens after their meal before they settle down for a rest.
The ages of the women guests range from 55 - 83. We have made 55 years of age the cut-off point. Anyone younger is not allowed to stay as there are other programs available to them. The daily numbers fluctuate significantly based on the begging opportunities available to them on given days or weeks. Daily numbers fluctuate from 0 to 16 but this is staring to stabilize and slowly build up over time. We still continue to visit the markets to see new people and invite them to the centre. Some come, some do not. Often new ones are brought in by the regulars.
Our desire is to give the old ladies access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not just with words but also by practical demonstration in a non-threatening way that allows them to decide for themselves if they so chose.
Ratanak has been funding projects in Cambodian prisons in partnership with Prison Fellowship Cambodia for many years. We continue to be thrilled by relationships developed with senior Cambodian government officials and the access to prisoners that has been granted. The success of the prison program speaks for itself. Even the government officials have been completely impressed and solid relationships continue to develop. Traditionally, Cambodian prisons simply warehouse prisoners until they are released. When the day of release finally comes they find them selves "outside" bewildered, socially orphaned, with no skills and no hope. The prospects for a productive life are bleak, to say the least.
Currently programs funded by Ratanak involve assistance within the prison such as nutritional supplements and emergency medical care. But the real emphasis is on preparation for re-entry into the real world. Educational programs such as motorcycle maintenance, electronics repair, computer, first aid, literacy, English, and even music and art are all taught. This has totally changed the lives of many who have never been to school and who have never been given a helping hand. Programs for women and children in prison have been developed and even a safe house for kids whose parents are in prison has been set up. Once again we are convinced, even shocked, by the power of compassion to change lives.
A few selected programs are highlighted below.
The Basic Needs Project focuses on the women in prison and their children who live with them, through providing toiletries and daily needs such as noodles, bread, toothpaste, tooth brushes, shampoo and soaps etc. This is especially for the children, as they are not provided with meals by the government. Visiting and encouragement also gives hope for their futures as they look toward release from prison. Currently basic needs packs are distributed to 17 prisons where 423 youth, 1802 women, 818 men, 41 children and 88 female guards have been provided for. In most of the prisons, the local church run the programs and so build good relationships with prison chiefs' staff and others NGOs.
Often the prisoners are destitute when imprisoned and have no concept of compassion. They are viewed with disdain and rejected by society not only for their previous criminal activity but also for having bad karma. There is no room for forgiveness, redemption or hope in such a system, so the showing of compassion is a powerful and new thing for them to experience. Many "hardened criminals" have been reduced to tears by simply being helped - sometimes for the first time in their lives. This is also a powerful tool that speaks into the lives of the prison staff as they witness tenderness and changed lives.
The Christmas program has now become an annual event. With performances, testimonies, speeches and packets being handed out along with a nutritious meal served to the prisoners. This past year it was run by 19 local churches with 172 volunteers, in 12 prisons, reaching 6322 prisoners, 28 children of prisoners, 877 officials and 150 officials' children. Much trust has been gained over the years with this program and the results are clear in lives changed. In one prison 534 prisoners came to the Christmas program. Women prisoners gathered in groups for songs, youth prisoners for drama, imprisoned children for songs, and Official's children for a drama show about "Jesus being born into the world". Prisoners gave testimonies of how Christ had changed their lives and had given them hope and even joy living within the prison walls. A few days after this program a letter was received from a woman in the prison ...
"When I was outside I didn't believe in Jesus. I had much money but I was not happy. One time I was disappointed I left home and family went everywhere and did everything until I be in prison. I was sentenced 10 years by court. One day in prison team provided some bible and I asked them for a bible. My friends said "How did you read this bible because you can not read a word in Khmer" But one of the team told me if "You try to read God will teach you how to read this bible the truth in God" When I open the bible to read my friends said "you are crazy". But I wanted to read. Praise the Lord! It is not so long time and I can read. Now I understand what the bible said. Then I gave my heart to Jesus. Even I have to be in prison 10 years I am happy because we can worship and praise God in prison too. Jesus stays with us every time. I am glad because I can meet all Christian volunteers two times a week. Praise the Lord I put you first in the world, you are holy God, you are my leader, you are my father, I am not an orphan now, you are my protective shield for ever."
The Gift of Freedom
The work in one of the mens maximum security prisons has been amazing. Some years ago we began by doing emergency food distribution for the 1400 inmates. This gained us favor with officials who grew to trust us and allowed for the expansion of programs. We started courses in First Aid which led to classes in motorcycle repair, literacy, art, and music. Classes in living an "abundant life" were offered and taken by many. (The irony of providing such a course to men locked up for the long term is not lost on us!) Through this course, Bible studies started. Lives began to change and now hundreds of men have come to faith. The cell bosses assigned by the prison for their trustworthiness are all Christians who serve and minister to their own cellmates. They no longer fight and stab one another; they share their food and work hard on personal Bible study (currently over 500 enrolled in Bible courses) and being servants to one another. Over half the prisoners are now Christians and have a solid understanding of their faith.
A recent visit by Brian McConaghy of Ratanak International is worth recounting.
"I got up early again - 4:30 or so - and was picked up by a van at about 5:30. The weather was cool (for Cambodia) and there was much to talk about as we drove, projects, hopes, dreams, failures and successes. We have funded programs there for many years so this first visit was way overdue. We arrived and were greeted by the staff and ushered through the first layer of security. We sat down with the prison chief who, after introductions, greeted us more formally and thanked us for supporting the programs in the prison. I was impressed by his apparent concern for not only the running of his prison but for the condition of the men held within. He spoke quite openly about how the programs gave the men education and hope and would transform them in mind and heart so they would return to society productive and healthy. Our programs also have made his working environment much more pleasant - an understatement!
After the formalities we proceeded through another layer of security. Here prisoners were in work parties tending to the grounds and growing vegetables etc. In the center of this area was a six-roomed building, which was built for the purpose of housing our programs. First we visited a literacy class where we were warmly received. The Christians who run the programs obviously have a love for the prisoners and have a great rapport with them. It was interesting to watch the warmth and fun between the project staff and prisoners, yet there was a clear masculine strength about these Christian workers - frail and delicate they are not. Nor could they be so in this environment! This is a maximum-security prison and not a desirable place to live! We went on to visit the electronics class where the guys had built a working TV out of what appeared to a pile of junk lying in the middle of a large table. We stopped in on an art class where the guys were learning to draw. Such men have never been trained in anything remotely creative. It was touching to see their tender attention to detail as they focused on their work. Water buffalo, kids harvesting rice, rural scenes and portraits of pretty girls were all subjects they were working on. Classes in traditional musical instruments are also offered and it was a treat to hear them singing and playing Khmer Christian songs. The exciting thing about this place is not just the programs but the fact that they are genuinely changing lives.
While there are many aspects to our program in this prison it was the Christian component of the work that had brought us to the prison on this occasion. For today we would be going into the inner courtyard to witness something very special. It was strange to move into the inner part of the prison with Sotheary and Linda who, as females, had never been there before. Plenty of guards accompanied us but there was no sense of danger at all. As we entered we saw crowds of men in their blue prison uniforms. Each man was colour coded for his level of security. I knew what we had come to witness yet it was a shock to realize that these men were being lined up in preparation for baptism. (Just in case you are wondering, this is no flippant shallow decision to curry some favor from the prison officials but rather the result of many months of study and a clear change in a prisoners life.) 210 men were being baptized today! They were escorted to the water cisterns by the senior cell bosses in groups of four, climbed into the water, were prayed for and then bent bellow the surface of the water. After they emerged dripping wet, they were escorted by a large group of cell bosses and guards back to the cells and locked inside. Moments later the next four were escorted out and the process repeated. This went on and on. The majority of the prisoners I saw being baptized were maximum-security guys that have no real hope of getting out of this place for decades. How strange to see so many men in this prison who, for the first time in their lives, really have an understanding of freedom! It was a powerful and truly indescribable experience. We all stood in silence transfixed by this strange and obvious transformation of so many lives. Over and over again I thought, "How do I possibly express what I have just witnessed?" In short, I really can't, except in the somewhat pathetic passage above. My writing simply does not even come close to doing it justice. It is an afternoon I will never forget."
And on and on it goes, too many stories to recount here. It is so wonderful to see that God is bringing hope to those in prison. Thanks for making this and many other prison projects possible. The impact is great.
Ratanak International has been assisting in the establishment and funding of orphanages since 1997. It was as a direct result of our work with medical projects that we started to come across more and more orphans left at the foot of hospital beds after the death of their parents. This process was only multiplied by the coming of AIDS to Cambodia. Thousands of AIDS orphans resulted.
In a country with virtually no social services something had to be done. So for years now Ratanak has assisted struggling orphanages and funded the establishment of several more.
Our goal is to assist in the provision of clean, safe, loving and Christian environments where children will know the meaning of the word "home". We want to know that they will be blessed with a stability that will allow them to, not only thrive in their schoolwork but, be emotionally mature adults capable of forming positive relationships with individuals and their community. We also desire that they will grow wise spiritually that they will be a blessing to their country and be able to assist in rebuilding Cambodia in every respect.
It is a thrill to work with little lives either destitute or destined to be so, and offer them hope of a real future where they are loved, protected and nurtured.
Visiting such orphanages is not a pastoral experience. They are noisy places as kids run in circles. There is constant activity, yelling, games of tag, kids playing pranks, staff trying to find those who have not done their chores, cloths hanging everywhere, staff looking tired, and chaos when a visitor comes - perhaps not unlike your home! This is just as it should be.
Ratanak has known the privilege of assisting in the lives of hundreds of kids. It is they who are the future of Cambodia and we are privileged to be able to help them, and ultimately the country, on a journey to normal life.