• Glimmers of Hope

    Posted by Micah Challenge

    15 November, 2011

    On a recent trip to Cambodia, I ventured an hour outside Phnom Penh to visit a project of the National Centre for Disabled Persons (NCDP). The trip itself told a story. Leaving from the centre of Phnom Penh  we drove on well surfaced roads past well constructed and large buildings – offices, government ministries, restaurants and homes. The further we got from the city the more run down the roads and housing became, until we were on dirt roads pockmarked with deep holes and bordered by small, shoddy timber and iron houses on stilts. The contrast between the wealth and poverty in this country was vividly displayed.

    Arriving at an obviously poor, rural community we drove through the gates of a local school. Alighting the van we were shown into a classroom where a dozen or so severely disabled children sat at desks. A 15 year old girl with a twisted body and intellectual difficulties grinned mischievously as she wheeled it into the teacher; a curly headed girl with a broad grin concentrated on a puzzle; three boys with intellectual difficulties and twisted hands attempted to copy letters onto their slates. among the children sat a number of women – the mothers – while the teacher moved patiently from one student to another providing instruction, a word of assurance and retrieving wayward students.

    After speaking with the teachers and education officials we moved outside to hear from the parents. The stories were heartbreaking but tinged with hope. Susan (pictured below) has three boys in the class, aged 17 to 31, though they looked much younger. Each had suffered fevers fitting at the age of three or four which had resulted in their severe intellectual difficulties. They were unable to communicate, absorb learning or contribute around the house. Their condition led to them being ostracised – parents of able bodied children refused to let their children play with Susan's boys. Support services were non existent.

    Susan’s situation deteriorated when her husband died in 2004. Already poor she became one of the poorest in the community. Her only income came from her 33 year old son who, unlike his brothers did not have a disability but was unable to marry because Susan couldn’t afford the cost, remained with his mother, working their meagre plot of land. Some years they grew their own food for consumption and sale; other times they rented the land out.

    It is difficult to imagine a more ruinous situation – no husband, meagre income (the family would sometimes go hungry) and three  sons with intellectual disabilities that meant they would never be able to care for themselves.

    A glimmer of hope had emerged with the presence of NCDP in the community. The school class, initiated by NCDP and the teacher and supplies funded by NCDP, was originally held underneath Susan’s stilted home before being mainstreamed into the school. Susan’s boys love attending, have discovered a welcoming community and have learnt some basic life skills. Susan now feels more confident about their future. The boys are no longer ostracised by her neighbours and with the skills they have learned Susan believes that her  older son will be able to care for the boys after she dies.

    The Community Disability Committee (CDC) facilitated by NCDP has cared for Susan and her boys in other ways. The CDC has connected Susan with services available in Phnom Penh and provided an interest free microloan which Susan used to buy rice seed for the farm. She reports that she is expecting a good crop.
    These small but significant glimmers of hope are helping Susan cope in the most demanding of circumstances. The other mothers sitting sharing with us had similar stories of the impact the school in the lives of them and their disabled children.

    After an hour or so sharing their stories the feeling among us was one of admiration for the resilience and courage of these mothers and great appreciation for the dedication of the teacher and the Community Disability Committee members. We also wanted to see more done. The need is so great and the resourcing so limited.

    Scott Higgins is the Baptist World Aid Australia Community Relations Manager and a member of the Micah Challenge Australia National Steering Committee. This post originally appeared on Scott's blog.