By Ann Soldner, FCF Project Manager of Family Care Cambodia
The Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CCPCR) is a local NGO whose purpose is to shelter, care for and educate children who are victims of sexual exploitation, domestic violence and other physical abuse. Family Care Cambodia has been involved in assistance programs for the Phnom Penh branch of the CCPCR Shelter for over four years.
The children’s poor living conditions were an aspect that we were particularly concerned about. Originally, when the shelter was founded, they hoped to build a two-story dwelling that could decently accommodate up to 50 children. However, due to lack of funds, this never materialized. They were only able to lay the foundation, build the ground floor walls, 2 inner partitions, and cover it with a tin roof, but no ceiling. A folding, metal grill door covered the front face of the building. When we first began working with the shelter, all 30 children and house-mothers slept in one room. Most of them slept on the cement floor until we were able to supply bunk beds for them.
All of their classes and activities, such as silk weaving, sewing, English and scholastics took place in the other room. A small room with walls and ceiling charred black from the soot from charcoal fires served as the kitchen. There was no dining room at all and the girls would eat their meals out in the yard in fair weather, along side the pig-pen, dogs, cats and chickens, or in their bedrooms during rainy weather. A crude structure behind the building served as toilet and shower for all.
The conditions were barren, primitive and depressing, yet we couldn’t help but be impressed with the way some of the house-mothers managed to make the children feel loved, secure and part of a family despite the trauma they’d been through. We searched for a way to improve living conditions and provide them with a home that would be safe, clean and inspiring for them all.
The answer arrived in mid- 2006 when “Drop in the Ocean” in Nottingham, UK, selected our project at CCPCR to be the recipient of their yearly fundraising drive. Family Care Foundation added an additional grant to bring the funding up to the amount needed to begin full scale construction of a second floor, plus renovations on the ground floor.
Work began in November of 2006. A temporary thatched roof shelter was erected on the property. All of the girls and their caretakers moved into that. Though small, not very well ventilated and quite over-crowded, it would have to serve as their living quarters for the next 4 months. The yard, which had served as their dining area and sole place for recreation, filled up with piles of sand, gravel and bricks. It was a case of things having to get worse before they could get better.
Typical construction work in Cambodia, as in many developing countries, is a marvel of ingenuity and sheer manpower. There are very few machines or technological procedures used. Teams of men and women work barefoot or in slippers without protective helmets, masks or glasses. Simple caps or scarves are their only protection against the heat, cement dust, fumes or sharp objects. They live on the job site, eating and sleeping in crude lean-tos or in the building as it’s being constructed. It is not uncommon for a man and his wife to be part of the construction crew with their babies and small children living on the job site with them.
Bricks and wooden beams are delivered by truck, unloaded by hand and then moved by wheel barrow. Rough tree trunks serve as scaffolding and supports. Baskets of sand and buckets of water are carried by hand and loaded into a manual mixer along with the cement. The mix is then hoisted to the 2nd floor by cables and pulleys. It was amazing to see the speed at which the work progressed, realizing that it was literally being “built by hand” and without easy access to electricity or running water.
To us, that made the results all the more stunning! Within 4 months the building was completed! As we walked through the new second story, we could only smile in a kind of happy disbelief at what we were actually seeing:
Clean tiled floors, 6 private bedrooms, and a large classroom, each with lovely carved wooden doors, bright ceilings, large windows for ventilation, and electric wall fans to circulate the air.
There was a row of 4 private toilet and shower stalls, with modern fixtures and shiny tiles. A walled veranda completely circumvented the upper floor, providing a lovely place to look out over the surrounding countryside and enjoy the cool breeze. The ground floor had been renovated to include an office, an infirmary, a kitchen with tiled counters and built in sinks, sewing and weaving rooms and the long awaited dining room!
On April 6th, 2007, a ceremony was held to “cut the ribbon” and officially open the building. This coincided with the month in which Cambodians celebrate the Khmer New Year. It is traditionally the most significant and the happiest holiday of the year. It is a time of new beginnings and great rejoicing! It’s a time when families gather at the setting of the sun to feast, and dance and play traditional games well into the night for many consecutive days. And so we christened the new shelter with lots of hugs, laughter, feasting, dancing and rejoicing together as a family that the CCPCR children at last have a shelter and a home!