This post was written by Kent Hammerstrom, a Freedom’s Promise Board Member, during his first visit to Cambodia.
Writing from my hotel room in Siem Reap on the last day of our trip to Cambodia, I am reflecting on the visit, grateful to God for having led me here. For a variety of reasons, I had almost not gone forward as a member of the mission team. After praying for weeks for guidance, and being encouraged by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and our Freedom’s Promise leadership, I joined the team. It proved to be a life-changing experience.
Having never been in Southeast Asia, I was in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. I was unsure of what I would do on the mission team and how I would participate. In my prayers, I asked that the Holy Spirit teach me as God willed, allowing my eyes to see and ears to hear what He intended for me. I longed to see His work, to serve, and to be enlightened, growing closer to God in my spiritual walk.
I found Cambodia to be a land of sharp contrasts. It is steeped in history, culture and tradition. The gulf between the wealthy and the poor here is quickly apparent. In Phnom Penh, tall glass high-rises, many only partially completed were interspersed with small run down buildings with living spaces above and numerous small businesses beneath. Vendors of all descriptions hawked items ranging from clothing, food, auto parts, and tourist trinkets to gasoline in liter soda bottles. Small motorcycles “motos”, laden with items of every description and as many as four family members of all ages competed with trucks and cars for road and shoulder space. I have never seen such congestion in traffic, and our van rides through the city were hair raising. Traffic moved surprisingly well without many stop lights or stop signs. Drivers and riders seemed tolerant and nonplussed, and unlike at home, horn greetings were used to alert rather than curse competing drivers.
In the rural areas, rice fields stretch for miles, fed by flood waters of the Mekong river and tributaries. Small hamlets of wooden and concrete homes on stilts dot the flat landscape, with ornate Buddhist temples periodically rising above the plain in bright gold and red colors. Emaciated white cattle and water buffaloes feed along the roadside. Farmers haul their families and their crops using tillered tractors and motor on the rutted, muddy dirt roads to town.
Within an hour of arriving in country, I was confronted by a harsh reality of life here – prostitution. En route from the airport after midnight, we passed street after street of night clubs, brightly lit with gaudy neon lights and music blaring. Just inside their open doors, rows of young women on stools dressed alluringly, enticed passers by to come into the establishments. I was told later that these “karaoke bars” were really fronts for brothels. Customers entered the bar area and later went to the “karaoke rooms” at the rear where commercial sex was transacted.
Our visit to the Light of the Future School was a highlight of the trip for me. After a trip across town, we turned off a main street into a series of side streets, finally parking along a fenced area. Ahead of us, along a narrow strip of land bordering a “sometimes operational” freight railway, a community of small shacks constructed of scavenged wood scraps, corrugated tin, brick and mixed cinder blocks, with open doorways and windows, perched on the crown of the railroad right of way, just feet from the tracks themselves. They were constructed over mounds of garbage and debris, and over low-lying flooded areas that reeked of mud, weeds and rotting food.
As we left the road and our van, we walked along the tracks. At mid block, a defunct rail service roundhouse facility with several rusted out and windowless rail passenger cars fronted the Light of the Future school. We were told they were homes to drug users, receiving daily deliveries to feed their habits through the windows. The Light of the Future School was a non-descript block building with two half floors. A blue tarp screened the sidewall against rain and light. As we entered, class was in session. Under mostly ambient light, several dozen uniformed children sat at tables or around their teachers and our team members, reading, working on projects, coloring and chatting. Adults lined up for clinic visits, receiving care from our medical team members.
Our host and founder of the school, Koy, greeted us and gave us a tour of the facility. He had started the school with Freedom’s Promise support by literally going door to door in the neighborhood, offering schooling and free meals to entice parents to send their children to the facility. Koy led a number of us down the right of way into an area of shacks surrounding a ramshackle wooden pathway constructed over wetland. Among the garbage-strewn area, a series of shacks were home to about two dozen families. Greeting residents warmly by name, Koy led us into several of the occupied homes. Grandparents, parents, children and pets crowded into the one-room structures and reclined on mats hammocks and rough wood floors. Light filtered in through cracks in the walls. Open cooking fires or rough, unvented stoves heated the family meals. Plumbing was nonexistent, and residents obtained water from rain and remote sources in the neighborhood. The midday heat was stifling. Looking into the faces of all, I saw a combination of despair, defeat, and some curiosity at our tall, mostly Caucasian party walking through.
How people could exist in such conditions was beyond my comprehension. I thought I had seen poverty before, but this was by far the worst living conditions I had ever seen. Families scavenged items to sell and raised chickens for income. Parents and older children worked in what jobs they could find in the area, often leaving younger children unattended for long periods of each day.
As we left the homes and headed back toward the school, I was haunted by what I had seen. As I was reflecting, three young girls walked toward us, attired in Light of the Future school uniforms. They were smiling broadly, chatting loudly and clutching their school papers. As they passed between us, it struck me that the Light of the Future school was probably the only refuge from the life of desperation and despair that they faced when they arrived at home just down the street. The efforts of Freedom’s Promise to offer them a means to a better life rang true. The school was aptly named – it was truly a light leading the way out of the darkness for many.