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How it all started

(by German Association Founder Michael Weiss)


Phnom Penh SlumMy, or actually our, first contact with street children in Cambodia occurred in connection with a vacation trip that my wife Veronika and I took in February 1999 from Thailand to Phnom Penh and on to Angkor. We traveled through Phnom Penh again on our way back to Germany. I won't take time here to give an account of the miserable state of affairs in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime came to an end.

Later, in connection with a long-term professional commitment in Thailand, I visited the fascinating city of Angkor once again. As chance would have it, this time I made contact with some street children who were begging. The children remembered me, probably because I didn't give them any money, but instead bought them food at the variety of food stalls there - and as time went by we built up more trusting relationships. Seeing the heaps of garbage where these children slept, either alone or in small groups, lead to my eventual promise to provide the children not only with food, but with a roof over their heads (the rainy season there is formidable) and to make it possible for them to attend school if they wanted.

essenIn my naiveté, I thought that we could find a relief organization that, if we paid the expenses, would take care of everything except selecting the children.

Because this didn't work for a variety of reasons, I was frustrated on one hand, but on the other hand I was able to find local people that offered help and encouraged Veronika and I to make good on my promise to the children even without the assistance of NGOs (non-government organizations).

Thanks to their help, we found an organization with a home facility located in the Phnom Penh's central slum that, due to a lack of sponsors, was on its way to failure.

This situation enabled us to get started with our work on behalf of the local children. Veronika and I assumed responsibility for the expenses, including medical care for the children. We started with 23 children and by Sept. 2001 there were 72.

Until the end of 2001, along with close family members we were able to take care of the financing; in 2002 we found that friends and acquaintances were also ready to help.

KidsThen, in 2002, we experienced a number of unexpected problems that we had to deal with, including the partial burning of the slum. At the end of 2002, bulldozers were sitting at the edge of the facility's property. But even more dreadful was that the local home director was charged with sexually abusing one of the girls, but with our efforts he was convicted at the end of 2002 and (in the face of ferocious resistance by the slum population) he was incarcerated.

This all lead to us searching for a new place for the adults and children to stay. In December 2002 we finally found it.

At the beginning of 2004 we had to move once again because new street construction almost completely took over the necessary open space that we had rented with the house. For safety and security reasons, staying there was impossible.

LandThese experiences demonstrated that a long-term solution had to be found. My wife and I decided to acquire 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land in a residential area outside of the city near a school. This would be the new home for our children and employees.

The plans for the new village were created in cooperation with the children. First, the children made dolls to represent themselves. The children each had a small sleeping mat (5 x 10 cm) for their dolls so that they could understand the size ratio of the model structure. Then, using these dimensions, they worked in ever-growing circles: first their beds, then their rooms; then, together as a family, their house; then, together with other families, the village. Everyone was excited to share their modest dreams of a new home in miniature.
buildIn the context of this playful cooperation, both the children and the adult employees began to experience feelings of social community lost in the difficult past that most of them had faced. They began to understand again the importance of sticking together and the advantages that result from personal commitment and service to the group.

The final model was so good that local authorities found it sufficient for issuing a building permit, which was officially granted in June 2004. The initial plan included a village of 10 residential houses for the children, a meeting facility, a kitchen building, a gatehouse with workshops and administrative space, a generator building and a day care center for other children from the neighboring slum. In the village, drinking water treatment, waste water treatment, electricity supply, garbage removal, cooking with solar power, small scale animal and fish farming as well as training in the trades will be managed by a qualified advisory board, e.g. by the GTZ (German, "Gesellschaft für technische Zusammenarbeit" or Association for Technical Cooperation).
 

We have a lofty goal: we want to build a social center that supports personal initiative by providing training for social work, first aid and rescue service and skills in the trades and agriculture. This can provide a basic livelihood, even if it is subsidized at first, for the majority of the people entrusted to us.

Enabling the meaningful participation of as many people as possible from the social focal point of our neighborhood and supporting the personal responsibility connected to this participation will certainly require a significant commitment, even as we start to build our village.

Along with his team, Nico Mesterharm, a documentary film producer, will follow and document the work at the local site as a long-term study (see the ARTE channel for programming regarding Cambodia).

However, our means are not sufficient for completely realizing our plans, and for this reason, we will depend on more donations in the future. To facilitate this, a non-profit, charitable association was founded in Germany in order to be able to issue donation receipts.

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You can now see how it's going with "our" children and their village on this web site.

 

Thanks to everyone who is supporting our work.

 

Michael Weiss