(Published in the November issue of my church’s newsletter. This was originally the transcript for my sharing about Cambodia to the church’s congregation, with minor alterations made to ease accessibility to readers.)
Cambodia is a land of wonder. At one point in history it was one of the world’s richest civilizations. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, where most people live on less than 2$ a day. Food is extremely scarce, and malnutrition is a constant problem. Disease runs rampant, since most people cannot get adequate medical treatment.
During the 1960’s Cambodia was heavily damaged by the effects of the Vietnam War, which in turn helped fuel their own civil war, which laid waste to the country. During that time, the country also experienced a terrible famine, and for years, many people died of the fighting, disease, or starvation. In 1975 Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the capital of Phnom Penh, and the people cheered, thinking that their suffering had finally come to an end. They had no idea that the worst had yet to even begin.
The Khmer Rouge implemented dramatic reform, doing their best to transform modern Cambodia back into the Feudal Age. They forced the cities to be abandoned and turned the entire population into forced laborers working on rice fields. Schools, libraries, and anything modern was destroyed, as they did their best to wipe out technology and culture. Teachers, artists, doctors, and anyone they considered “smart” were killed. People too old to work, people with disabilities, and people who wore glasses (who were thought of as “smart”) were also killed. People who couldn’t handle the labor, who were too malnourished, were killed, people whose clothes were too clean or hands too soft were killed (as this was a sign of not working hard enough), and some people were killed at random, for no apparent reason. Even though everyone was forced to work on rice fields, food was scarce, and many people starved.
Children were reeducated, brainwashed, and turned into killing machines for the Khmer Rouge. Mothers were forced to watch as their babies were taken and brutally murdered. It was common for soldiers to grab kids by their legs and swing them against a tree like an ax, smashing their heads against the trunk.
If, for whatever reason, someone was accused of being a spy or rebel, they were thrown in jail, tortured until they confessed to doing something they never did, and then executed. The Khmer Rouge did this to even their own members.
In just 5 years, anywhere between 1 and 3 million people died as a result of the Khmer Rouge. The entire population of Cambodia at the time was only 8 million.
Our mission going to Cambodia was to build a house for a family Aunty Adele has been working with, deliver supplies for her to distribute at her discretion, do Bible school for the kids, build relationships with the people there, and spread the love of Christ. Here you can see the house they were living in previously.
Cambodia is a heartbroken country. The Khmer Rouge is gone now, but their devastating effects remain. Everywhere you look, you can see the scars that still linger.There remain over 4 million undiscovered landmines throughout the country. Poverty, and everything that comes with it, is a part of daily life. I think the rest of the world has largely turned a blind eye to the devastation that took place so recently in Cambodia, which is why I felt it necessary to share a bit about the history with you today.
Corruption runs rampant in Cambodia. Everyone from the government, to the police, to the kids and teachers at schools, are expected and encouraged to cheat and bribe their way through daily life. With cheating such a regular part of life, the people just know no other way of living.
In Cambodia, people with disabilities are ostracized. The Buddhist culture there dictates that people with deformities are cursed, and that they must have done something bad in a past life to deserve their punishment. People don’t want to be associated with “cursed people,” so the handicapped are often rejected by everyone, including their own families.
We became friends with many people who have been through so much more than what we could imagine here in America. People like Hia, a boy we became good friends with, who was sold by his mom, and is forced to work at a crocodile farm, where he takes care of hundreds and hundreds of crocodiles by himself. Or this girl in the wheelchair, Gemaryan, who was born missing both her legs, her left arm, and with only 3 fingers on her right hand, and because of her disabilities, was beaten by her family. Or Kaiyi, another boy we befriended, who suffers from severe malnutrition, an enlarged spleen, and many other diseases, and was also beaten and rejected by his family.
These people have been through so much suffering, and lived in fear. But it’s amazing to see Christ at work in their lives, as they are transformed into new, stronger people. Like, Visnae and Pisae, two girls we met who have become leaders in their communities, and recently started attending medical school in Phnom Penh.
We did a lot of VBS’s for the kids. They were a lot of fun to work with, and seemed to really enjoy the Bible stories, crafts, games, and just hanging out.
One of the most memorable faces in my mind was not someone I met in person. While at her house, Aunty Adele handed me a photo album to look through. In it were pages and pages of pictures of people she’s met over the years, many of whom were suffering from giant tumors the size of softballs sticking out of their neck, forehead, and other odd places, many were missing limbs, and many had other terrible diseases and deformities.
Then I saw a picture of a girl who was about my age. Acid had been poured all over her body. Her face is horribly scarred, with the skin permanently removed, and her facial features missing, out of place, or otherwise hanging in odd positions. I cannot describe to you how terrible it is. It is easily the worst deformity I’ve ever seen. I can’t get her face out of my mind.
The world might call these people ugly. Their country may be ashamed of them, and their culture, and even their own families, may have rejected them. People tend to look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. God only makes beautiful things. These are exactly the kinds of beautiful people I find so much joy working with.
The finished house. It’s not much by American standards, but for them it’s their dream home. For a family as poor and desperate as they are, where getting enough food to eat is considered a good day for them, a house like this seemed impossible, nothing but a pipe dream. But for God, all things are possible. This house was built entirely by Him. It was such a huge blessing to get to work on that house, and I thank God for giving me that opportunity.
Our tour guide and interpreter for the trip was a man named Viloth. He’s a pastor, but he doesn’t get paid at all for his ministry work, and instead supports his family by working as a tuk-tuk driver. He works hard to serve the Lord, and God has blessed him. Whereas most people in Cambodia are undernourished, somehow Viloth is able to provide enough food for his family, and they are all at healthy weights. Their nine-month old baby, Elijah, was born with down syndrome. Normally kids with disabilities are rejected by their families, but it’s clear that Elijah will always be loved.
If you’ve never been on mission to a third-world country, I encourage you to go. It is a great opportunity to see God at work in so many different ways. But you don’t need to leave home in order to be a blessing. You don’t need special skills or a lot of money, just a willing heart. There are so many people right here in our neighborhoods who need help. All we have to do is be willing to obey when God calls us to act.