Chen Chat came to the Light of Hope Children’s Village (LOH) in Cambodia, run by International Children’s Care Australia (ICC Australia), when he was just 10 years old. He had spent a relatively peaceful early childhood with his parents in a rural village before they died as a result of the country’s ongoing civil war. His extended family was unable to care for Chat, either because they had fled the carnage or because of their extreme poverty.
Chat’s earliest memories of LOH were of feeling very secure and happy and of enjoying school, his new friends and football. He studied hard, grew up and left the village. But a couple of years ago Chat returned to LOH with his wife (also a former LOH child), where they now serve as house parents, reaching out to the children, all of whom they can so easily identify with.
Chat finds his role at LOH fulfilling, and he enjoys giving back in his capacity as a father to these children. He admits that he was a somewhat challenging child himself, but now he finds it rewarding to invest back into these children as others did for him.
It has been 35 years since Pol Pot’s brutal and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime came to an end. The following years brought more instability, and United Nations peacekeepers had to step in to maintain order after a series of attempted military coups. Most of Cambodia’s educated people were among the two million who perished either at the hands of the destructive Khmer Rouge forces or from hunger and disease.
With no universities, almost no teachers and hardly a functional school standing in the country after 1979, it has been a long road, but ICC Australia is starting to see its hard work pay off. The orphans they cared for in LOH are now in their 20s and 30s, university-educated and extremely talented, and they have a desire to give back to the organisation that saved their lives.
Another such person is Saona, who came to live in LOH as a young boy with his brother. Orphaned and destitute on arrival and carrying an emotional load that no child should ever have to experience, Saona discovered that life in the LOH village was happy and carefree, and he was given the opportunity to grow up in a secure and safe environment.
Many years later, Saona returned to LOH after completing his training as a biology teacher. For the past seven years, he has contributed to the LOH school program and is now a valued leader as the head of the high school. He also spends time encouraging and guiding each student under his care.
“I see the value of education in each of the children in our school at Light of Hope, and I want to reach out to them all,” Saona says. “I know I could earn more money in Phnom Penh, but I’m devoted to the development and education of these children at LOH out here in this rural province.”
Then there are others like Deth Yann, who, together with his parents, was forced into a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. Both his parents died in the camp from malnutrition and illness, leaving Yann to survive alone. Arriving at LOH with a spirit of survival and tenacity, today he is in the final stages of completing his medical degree.
During the past year, besides studying and running his own clinic in Phnom Penh, Yann has volunteered many hours to test and vaccinate children at LOH. Yann loves to “come home” and often reminisces about his own life as a young boy growing up at LOH and studying by candlelight till midnight to get good grades.
Today, many former LOH children are engaged in the fields of medicine, teaching, nursing, theology, engineering, design, beauty and accounting. “What a blessing it is seeing these young minds develop and reach out to people around them,” says Sherree Hughes, ICC Australia’s program manager for Cambodia. “The most rewarding aspect of being a part of the students’ development is witnessing their desire to serve and pay it forward to those they really identify with, who like them were in extreme poverty and vulnerable situations.”
Earlier this year, former students formed ICC Cambodia Alumni so they can all have the opportunity to give back to today’s children who live at LOH Children’s Village. They have plans to invest time with the children, to share their experiences and advise them as mentors.
Building a brighter future for destitute children
ICCC Australia believes that children are not just to be protected, but to be blessed with a supportive family, dignity, human rights and a hopeful future. Children benefit directly when their education and health needs are met, and food security and safe housing are available.
Call +61 2 9987 1136 or visit www.iccaustralia.org.