Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas from Cambodia

Its Christmas day here in Cambodia but it certainly doesn't feel like Christmas. Its sunny and hot and here and there we see a few Christmas decorations but sadly it is another work day here in Cambodia. The young women at RAP have school today and outside my apartment I can hear the noise of construction work at a new building nearby. As I think of all of this, I am reminded again that Christmas is not about a holiday, but it is about Christ our Savior's birth so despite the visible reality, today I am blessed to just reflect on His birth and am filled with thankfulness for His coming in such a lowly and humble way to deliver us from our sin and to give us a new life filled with hope, peace and love.
RAP Home Christmas Tree
This past week at the RAP home the young women were busy preparing for the first ever Christmas party at the RAP home on Saturday December 22nd. A few weeks ago our staff had gone shopping to buy Christmas decorations with the young women and they all began to decorate the tree and the home.
One of the young women putting up the Merry Christmas sign outside the front entrance

One of our staff finishing off the decorations
In the midst of the decorations, the young women were busy practising different dance routines. One was a Christian Hip Hop dance and the other a traditional Khmer dance known as the ''Blessing Dance''.
Practising the Blessing Dance
The Ratanak Christmas party at the RAP home was an opportunity to invite the previous caregivers of our partner organizations to come and spend time with the young women. We believe it is important for the young women to continue to keep in contact with their caregivers who have played a significant role in nurturing their journey when they were first rescued. All of these relationships are part of a journey of restoring healthy relationships where the young women feel loved and cared for knowing that there is a big family of people who are there for them as they continue their road to healing and ultimately to reintegration.
A Tent is set up for the CHristmas Party

Here in Cambodia when one is having any kind of party, you will see tents being set up at different places and along the road. We are thankful that the RAP home has enough space at the side of the building to have a more private party as we invited some of our partner organizations who have assisted us throughout this past year. As well, the young women were each given the opportunity to invite 3 of their caregivers.
Musicians from the Svay Pak Church
As part of our Christmas program, each young woman at RAP chose what they wanted to participate in...some of them were involved in the dancing, others were leading worship and others were reading scripture while other young women had created a drama skit. We didn't have any musicians so we were thankful that three of Pastor Chantha's disciples were able to provide the musical equipment to accompany our young women in a time of worship.
One of the Young women in the Khmer outfit

Make up used for the young women participating in the traditional Khmer dance
The five young women who were involved in the Traditional Khmer blessing dance were busy getting dressed in a special Khmer outfit that really makes them look like royalty. Indeed they are princesses of the most High God and to see their reaction when our staff completed all the make up for them. They had these big smiles on their faces as everyone began complimenting them. They looked so pretty and looked well like royalty! It is these occasions we see how the Lord is literally restoring value, dignity and self esteem to them as they feel good about themselves.
Some of the caregivers from our Partner organizations

The party began with different events and skits performed by the young women at RAP followed by a message about Christmas from the pastor whose church we are partnering with. One of the young woman who wasn't involved in the skit was busy serving the guests dressed up in her Christmas attire---a Santa Clause hat!

Some of our RAP staff also participated singing a Khmer Christian worship song as they wore their traditional Khmer clothes.
RAP staff 
The party ended at 6:15pm---yes here in Cambodia people eat and run but our young women continued their Christmas celebrations inside the house dancing up a storm to different Christmas hip hop music late into the evening and then ate again like hungry teenagers do! It was always such a joy to see them laughing so hard and having so much fun. They had done a great job that day and at the end of the event I had the privilege of presenting each of them with a rose for in God's eyes and in our eyes, they are beautiful flowers that are blooming and with each day we trust they will continue to be a fragrance of Christ in all they do.

We are thankful to all our donors and friends around the world who have supported our ministry for without your partnership we would not have the opportunity to be Christ hands, feet and voice in the lives of these young women and to host such events that allow the young women to discover a whole new life that is full of joy and laughter despite the challenges they face each day. Events like this become spiritual markers in their lives that enable them to feel special, to feel valued and most of all, they discover that there is a Savior who loves them and wants them to experience an abundant life in Him. In celebrating Christ's birth, they like us are again reminded that Jesus is the reason for the season!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Baking Christmas Cookies!

This past Sunday my friends Dave & Esther Allen who are with Elim Missions came over to the RAP home on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas baking with the young women at RAP. Dave is a baker by trade and he has already been helping out one of our partner organizations who run a cafe so we were grateful Esther and he could spare their Sunday afternoon to come and teach the young women how to make shortbread cookies for Christmas. They came with all the ingredients needs to make the cookies as well as the cookie cutters and their portable mix master.
Young women measuring out the flour for the cookies
Not all the young women participated as we make these social events optional. After all, not everyone has a desire to cook. Some just have a desire to eat (like me). Nonetheless, those who have a passion to bake and cook were ready and waiting. One young woman was a note taker, writing down the recipe in Khmer for future reference as she wants to eventually experiment on her own to make all of these different desserts. First up was converting all the ingredients from ounces to grams. Esther pulled out her Ipad and started doing some calculations and then we realized we had no butter. So Dave went off to our local supermarket to buy the butter. Our home advisors were helping the girls and I was left to be the translator --- fun stuff learning all the baking names in Khmer and crucifying the words such that the young women give me these confusing looks before figuring out what I was saying.
Dave mixing the ingredients
Dave returned and began to show the young women how to use the portable mix master machine that he had. Then it was Esther's turn helping the young women as they began to mix all the ingredients together.

Shortly thereafter, the young women were doing it all, first mixing the ingredients and then following Dave's lead as he demonstrated how to knead the cookie dough, they followed suit. It was one big production line.

Young women using cookie cutters 

Shortbread biscuits ready to go into the oven
Soon enough there were cookies in different sizes and shapes representing Christmas trees, angels, and ginger bread men. However some of the more creative young women decided to do their own version of cookies and began creating hearts and one even made a cradle and a figure representing the baby Jesus.
Baby Jesus in a cradle cookie!
Some of the finished product!
From start to finish it was clear who were the real bakers -- 3 young women who are discovering their passion for baking and making food. Since most Cambodians do not like a lot of sweet foods, we made about 70 short bread biscuits but the bulk of them did not have any icing. The young women simply enjoyed just eating the plain shortbread biscuits.

All in all these fun activities are ways to help build up the self confidence and self esteem in the young women and reinforces our desire to encourage them that they can achieve their goals step by step as they learn different skills and discover God's gifts within themselves that they never knew about before.

That day, two other young women had made plans to go and visit their former caregivers and were quite disappointed that they could not be there to participate in the baking activities. They kept asking if we could change the time or date as they looked at me with there big brown Cambodian eyes.  It is neat to see such eagerness to learn a new skill and thankfully Dave and Esther have offered to come back once a month and bake with the young women. We are grateful that they are willing to do this and no doubt the young women at RAP will be excited to participate in what was a fun filled activity that resulted in more opportunities for them to taste new foods but most of all, to discover that they can do all things through Christ who has given them the abilities and the skills to accomplish far more than they can ever imagine!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Celebrating Our First Birthday Party

Yesterday we had the opportunity to celebrate the first birthday  party of one of our young women at the RAP (Ratanak Achievement Program) Community home. ''M'' was not aware that we were planning anything for her birthday as one of the other young women had told everyone it was another girl's birthday. So at 6pm, the lights in the main foyer area were turned off and I was whisked into one of our staff offices and before me was the birthday cake lit with candles. Because I was the ''Country Director'' I was told I had to give the cake to 'M'---what a wonderful privilege and honor. So off I went into the main area to a small choir of voices singing ''Happy Birthday to You'' followed by a loud booming sound from the internet with a more jazzy version of Happy Birthday being played over the speakers.

 As I walked towards ''M'' she was stunned and somewhat confused but suddenly the light bulb went on and she realized we were celebrating her birthday and then her eyes watered, tears flowing from her eyes and a big smile. As I looked at her, a thought flowed into my mind----had she ever had the privilege to celebrate her birthday like this, did her parents ever treat her special on her birthday. One of the joys of this ministry is being able to restore dignity to these young women, by helping them discover that they are special in God's eyes, that they have value and have worth despite all that they have experienced. In that moment, ''M'' was experiencing that  she was not an accident or a mistake, but that she was a person of significance. One whose life was worthy to be celebrated. One whose life mattered.

She prayed before cutting the cake and began passing around slices to each of us.  And then came the crazy antics. One of the other young woman ''A'' who had helped organized this birthday event took scoops of icing and began dabbing it on some of the faces of the others and soon enough, we had several young women running around screaming and laughing their heads off chasing each other inside and outside of the home trying to put icing on each other's faces. I was not immuned nor were the rest of our staff from these antics. It was an ''icing fight'' to behold as we looked like we had war paint on our faces and hair. One other young woman decided she was going to hide from the icing fight and sat underneath a table with her phone. She was quickly discovered and like the rest of us, was marked with icing.

It is scenes like this that are precious for in such times, these young women get to laugh, have fun and do things that perhaps they have never experienced. This evening was an opportunity to relish in the joy and laughter that erupted from celebrating a young life whose life was not forgotten by the One who created her with an everlasting love .The One who has a plan and a purpose for her life. The One who daily is demonstrating to us His redemptive powers in the lives of these His precious children.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where the Boys are, the Girls will be!

For some time, we have been wanting to clean up the back part of the RAP Community home. There are a few fruit trees there but they are surrounded by long grass and other assorted vegetation. Our plan was to have the young women be involved in cleaning up the back of the home, after all it is their home. Last week one of them started to pick out the weeds at the side of the home and cut the grass. It was a tedious job but nonetheless, one particular young woman had found her 'passion' and decided to just do it.

However, given that we were not sure if there were any snakes at the back ''jungle'' we thought about hiring someone to clean up the area but couldn't think of anyone until the Lord brought to mind some of my favorite young friends ---the disciples in Svay Pak. So I called up Pastor Chantha and asked if any of his male disciples would be willing to help us out for the afternoon. We would bless them with a small stipend for their efforts given what was involved. We shared this with the young women at RAP that 5 young people were coming to help clean the backyard. The first question I was asked was ''Bong (older sister), who is coming? Are they male or female?'' Hmmm....I responded ''males.'' I got a few smiles from the young women.

1:00pm Sunday afternoon, five of Pastor Chantha's young male disciples arrived. They were an answer to prayer as they arrived with machines that are used to cut the grass and diligently began hacking away at the grass with all sorts of different equipment while toiling the soil.

Pastor Chantha's disciples 
Two of our young women peered out the back door to see who had arrived---I think they were checking the young men out! Teenagers! One young woman asked if we were paying them money to help us---I said ''yes'' and her reply '' so if we help do we get paid.'' Í responded ''no, this is your house.'' I then went on to tell her that these young men have been serving the church in Svay Pak for at least 3 years and they serve for free, offering their gifts and talents to the Lord. They do it because they love Christ and not because they are expecting money. But today, we wanted to bless them because they were blessing us.'' She smiled and that was the end of the ''money discussion.'' She went out to help the guys and then one other young woman joined her. Another young woman came out to look at the guys and then went upstairs to the back balcony to check them out from a more discreet position! In the mean time, I was having a good chuckle watching this all play out. It is interesting to observe what motivates young women to help out! :-)
One young woman gathering leaves in a basket

Pastor Chantha's young male disciples are great guys. They have been trained to respect young women and to treat them with dignity. So it was a pleasure to have them help us out. They went into the high grass with their rubber boots and gloves and started chopping and cutting away all the overgrown vegetation. Slowly, other young women began to appear to participate in the backyard project.
Helping Pastor Chantha's disciples

Raking leaves and toiling the soil

Other young women were quite happy to do their own tree chopping and clean up. As time passed by, they all started to come outside, one by one as the clean up continued. No one had prodded them to help. They just started showing up.
Cutting down dead wood
Cleaning the ditch

After a couple hours in the hot sun, the clean up crew took a break. We bought some local ''meats'' for them all to enjoy. Where there are Asians, there is always food and so Malak our Psychosocial Coordinator had come into work that day and enjoyed cooking up some food for the young people.
Malak cutting up some meat balls
Khmer snack - meatballs with cucumbers and hot sauce
As the afternoon progressed, different young women came out of the house, some helping to cook the food, others cutting the grass, others putting all the green vegetation into garbage bags. It became one big family affair. But this is all part of Khmer culture, where everyone in the family joins together to help out. It is such a far cry from our Western individualistic mindset where everyone is for themselves. But here in Cambodia, everyone shares the load---in situations like this it is wonderful to see but we all have seen the extreme where family pressures so often result in young women being sold for sex.

Pastor Chantha's disciples having a snack

The young women hanging out with the young women sharing some snacks
Four hours later, all the clean up was done. The bags of dead leaves and vines were carried off by one of our young women and and the five disciples. It was a fitting end to what had been a long day but a fruitful time.
Young woman with 5 of Pastor Chantha's disciples taking out garbage

The young women got to interact with some godly young men and at the same time had the opportunity to work together on a project that would ultimately bless them. Our next step in this garden project is to buy flowers and plants. Our desire is for the young women to be involved in this process, to choose the flowers and design their garden. How fitting it is that they now have the opportunity to create His beauty in a plot of land that was overgrown with weeds and dead trees. Even here, God is using them to tend to His garden, to be givers of life as He uses them to restore beauty in places that were once deserted and dead.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Day 2 & Day 3 of The Water Festival Holidays

Day 2 of the Water Festival holidays had us taking the young woman to the local water park. They had voted for this and so off we went. However, when we arrived it turned out that only 3 of the young women wanted to swim. One other girl chose not to wet her hair as she had just spent time using one of those straightening hair irons, a couple others decided they just wanted to walk around and take photos of themselves at the Waterpark and the rest of the young women just didn't want to get dark from the sun. In a previous post I had mentioned that having fair skin here is seen as beautiful so many Khmer females avoid the sun and if they do go swimming, well they are dressed in full attire from top to bottom so no part of their skin can get tanned. It is such a far cry from how women in the West would act.

I had taken my swimming wear but having seen the environment and the water color, my first thoughts were bacteria and infection. I don't think this waterpark uses chlorine as the water color reminded me of a river. So I opted to take photos and watch those who had gone swimming.
Two of the young women having a swim
No sooner had we arrived, some of the other young women were hungry so out came all the pre-packed food they had made---fried chicken wings, kimchi, deep fried vegetable wraps, fried eggs, boiled eggs, and mangoes with hot sauce.

We spent about 4 1/2 hours at the Water park and those who swam did not want to leave. They made sure their got their monies worth. The rest of us like typical Asians continued eating to pass the time.
Food prepared for our ''Hot Pot'' dinner 
Day 3, involved more food and it is becoming quite clear that we have a few young women who are passionate about cooking. They are always in the kitchen cooking even if it is not their turn. I am convinced that one day one of them will be managing a restaurant. She has a natural talent for organizing and preparing food and is good at instructing the others what to do. Today the young women voted to have a hot pot meal which involves making a clear broth soup and mixing it with various vegetables and meats. Its actually quite a healthy meal so several of the young women helped clean and wash the vegetables and cut up the meat.

Other young women decided to do some frying of shrimp chips and another Khmer delicacy that would be part of the hot pot meal outside.

Frying Shrimp chips outside in the 'garden''
One young women decided to kill some time by cleaning up a section outside of the building and pulling out weeds at the side of one of the walls. We are hoping to clear the entire area as we have been blessed with different types of fruit trees (mangoes, jackfruit, bananas and a Khmer fruit called Champoo) at the back of the property. The young women love picking fruit off the trees and often one will find some of them sitting outside having sour mangoes with a pepper sauce.

Weeds near the wall were cleared today

Small green mangoes appearing on one of our fruit trees
Jackfruit growing on one of our trees

This coming weekend one of the young women has volunteered to coordinate all the flower planting so we will head to the local garden shop and pick up some flowers and other plants as we continue our garden project.
Making muffins

But the cooking was not done, some of the young women also wanted to bake a cake so earlier in the day, I had found one of the easiest muffin mixes at the local supermarket that only required water to be added. It is my type of baking! The young women were happy to help. Within 15 minutes the muffins were ready and the young women were quite impressed with their baking talents and ended up taking photos of themselves with the freshly baked muffins.

Shortly afterwards it was time for dinner. We opted to eat outside given the cooler afternoon temperatures. It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon as we sat around cooking the food in the hot pot. Of course, since most of the young women are of teenage age, the stereo system was brought down from the recreational room and the volume was cranked up as we sat around to Khmer pop music and the infamous Gangnam Style music. It was loud but the young people did not seem to notice!

The holiday has ended now and its back to school tomorrow or back to work. The two young women who were visiting their families arrived back in the late afternoon.

Am thankful for this holiday time to just relax. Hanging around teenagers might not seem relaxing to most people but strangely enough, I seem to get energized by their antics. Perhaps I am re-living my youth! The brief reprieve from work has ended but it was a much needed break to just enjoy each other's company and most of all, to see the laughter and joy that was evident in the different activities that the young women participated in. They are a breath of fresh air. We pray that in all of these experiences, each of these young women will continue to feel more at home and as they spend time together, God will continue to strengthen their sense of belonging and that they will be like ''iron sharpening iron" as He deepens the bonds and relationships among them.