After an invitation from the Catholic Agency for International Aid and Development, Caritas Australia, a group of Queensland educators along with Caritas representatives travelled to Cambodia last November for 10 days to see the work of Caritas first hand. QCEC executive officer for communications Gerard Delaney reports
CARITAS is a Latin word for love, and love was clearly evident in the work that Caritas Australia is doing to support some of the poorest of the poor in Cambodia.
Our group flew into Phnom Penh on a rainy afternoon last November.
The bustling capital city of about 1.3 million people, despite pockets of obvious affluence, is clearly “developing world”.
Rubbish and powerlines are strewn between the shacks and sheds that pass for houses and shopfronts.
Motor scooters are everywhere and many have three, four or even five people crammed onto them.
On the day we arrived, people were huddled together beside the road under whatever shelter they could find to wait out the storm.
A police officer asked our driver for money in order to be allowed to pass through an area of the city that was closed off due to the annual water festival, but the driver declined, refusing to be part of the corruption.
Despite the obvious challenges, people seemed to be happily going about their business.
Happy, peaceful and dignified were qualities we found consistently among the people we met during our 10 days in this intriguing nation.
An estimated 36 per cent of Cambodia’s 14.2 million people live below the poverty line and about 85 per cent of these live in rural areas.
The average daily income of Cambodians is less than $1.20 per day.
Among other health issues, about 170,000 Cambodians live with HIV/AIDS and more than 60,000 children are orphaned by the disease.
Caritas Australia, known in Cambodia as Australian Catholic Relief (ACR), has been working there since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime collapsed.
The dictator Pol Pot seized power in mid-1975 with the aim of returning Cambodia to a purely agricultural-based society. He forced city dwellers out to rural areas to work on farms and labour projects.
Over the next four years, the combined effects of slave labour, malnutrition, poor medical care, torture and executions resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people or about 20 per cent of the Cambodian population.
In many ways the country is still recovering from this horrific chapter in its history.
From 1979-1987 Caritas focused on providing emergency relief support and from 1988-97 on reconstruction work through the government ministries of agriculture, primary health care and education.
Since 1998 Caritas has worked in partnership with several local non-government organisations (NGOs) and has focused its energies on two main areas of support – integrated community development projects in both rural and urban settings, and HIV/AIDS care and prevention.
The partnership approach is central to the Caritas philosophy that local people are best placed to make decisions about their own needs and priorities.
The approach also helps ensure that improvements are sustainable as local people are empowered to design and manage their own development programs in a way that is culturally appropriate and therefore “owned” by the communities.
Caritas provides assistance to 560 Cambodian families with 2746 members in 73 villages and one urban slum area.
Support is also provided to 114 people living with HIV/AIDS and 162 orphaned and vulnerable children.
Caritas’ community development work includes construction of school buildings and water wells and the provision of small loans to increase income generation capacity and food security through small businesses or growing vegetables and livestock.
Education about hygiene and health care is a high priority, along with HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support.
The positive impacts of the community development programs are obvious when comparing the villages working with Caritas and those nearby that are not.
The project villages are much cleaner, the poultry and other animals look healthier and gardens are thriving.
The people are engaged in meaningful activity such as weaving, handicrafts and farming, and the children have the opportunity to attend school.
The role and dignity of women in the communities is also a focus of self-help group meetings along with emotional health and well-being in general. In some communities a “Happy Happy Club” has been formed for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS to come together to play and talk about their hopes and aspirations for the future.
Seeing children in circumstances of such poverty was, for me, the most challenging aspect of this immersion experience.
In each of the rural communities we visited, we met the children at their school, which consisted of a concrete slab and an iron roof. There were no resources and the availability of a teacher was sporadic.
Despite the circumstances, the children were happy and vibrant. They beamed with delight and some joined in as we did impromptu performances of the Hokey-Pokey and I’m a Little Teapot. It was hard not to be moved by their joy, but equally difficult not to ponder what their future might hold.
In addition to its community empowerment programs, Caritas also provides funding support for programs for people living with HIV/AIDS, education programs for deaf children and adults, and a youth-for-peace project that are implemented by partner aid organisations Maryknoll, Caritas Cambodia and Catholic Relief Services (Caritas USA).
Caritas Australia maintains an office in suburban Phnom Penh. The team of six staff are all local people and the professional, dedicated way they go about their work is highly impressive. The support projects are all carefully planned and outcomes are measured and documented right down to the number of chickens in each village.
The office is headed up by 49-year-old Lay Sothy (“So – tee”) who as a teenager in 1975, like hundreds of thousands of others, was forced out of Phnom Penh and separated from his family under the Pol Pot regime.
Sothy returned to the city in 1979 and his involvement with Caritas happened by accident. He was working two jobs as a taxi driver and government factory worker and secretly learning English at night.
In 1990 he delivered a Caritas visitor to the office in his cab and at the time the religious sister in charge was looking for a driver and offered him a job.
He soon became the office book keeper and the rest as they say is history. Caritas encouraged and supported Sothy to study and he graduated with a masters degree in development management from the University of Cambodia in 2007.
This immersion program has been particularly important in helping strengthen relations between Cambodia and Catholic education. ACR program officer Sothun Nop will visit Brisbane as a guest of Brisbane Catholic Education from April 14-25 to work with students and staff in the archdiocese including a presentation at BCE’s “Powerhouse of Leadership” event on April 19.
While there are indicators that things are improving, there is still a long way to go before all Cambodians can live with an acceptable level of human dignity.
Caritas Australia is committed to working with the poor and striving to empower them to improve their quality of life.
I believe the Australian Catholic community, in supporting Caritas, can be extremely proud of the contribution it is making to this challenge.
Caritas’ annual Project Compassion Appeal will be officially launched by Governor Penelope Wensley on Shrove Tuesday, this week, at the Australian Catholic University at Banyo.