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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Water Festival Holiday Plans

Each year Cambodia has a water festival in November where many people crowd into the city and watch boat races held along the Tonle Sap river. However with the passing of the King Father Sihanouk recently the water festival events were cancelled but the 3 day holiday still occurred. So recently our staff sat with the 13 young women at the RAP home to ask what they wanted to do over the holiday period. Two of them were heading to the province to visit their families but the remaining 11 then had an evening discussing and voting on what it was they wanted to do. On Day 1 of the holiday they voted to go to Dreamland---Cambodia's version of Canada's Wonderland, Day 2 it was to the water park and Day 3, it is making a special soup---actually it is cooking in a hot pot and then spending an evening singing Karoke songs and hip hop dancing---can you tell we have teenage girls in the house! :-) With the holiday plan in place, we felt it was important for the young women to contribute a small amount towards the activities during the holiday time, after all it is important for them to learn financial responsability for their own future holiday plans long after they leave the RAP home. So they each gave $1.00 each as part of their contribution to cover the cost.

So yesterday morning was the first day of the 3 day holiday. Several of the girls went shopping with Malak our Psychosocial Coordinator to buy food they themselves would prepare for Day 2 at the Water park. They voted that their lunch for the outing would be boiled eggs,  fried chicken, steam rice and Kimchi---so off they went to the local markets to buy the ingredients needed for the Korean Kimchi and all the other food they would pack in their lunch boxes. When the group who had gone with Malak arrived home it was all hands on deck, cleaning and making the food. The kitchen was a beehive of activity.
Making Kimchi
Washing chicken wings
 As a westerner watching all of these activities in the kitchen, I am once again struck by the fact that Khmer young people are far more equipped in the kitchen and adept at making food than their western counterparts.  But more than that, they tend to instinctively know that they all have to help.  This was seen in another situation where we asked 3 of the young women to share some of our extra lunch food with the driver of the van who had taken them around to 3 different local markets yesterday. In a few seconds, all 3 young women got up, organized 3 plates---rice, the meats with vegetables and the sauces and then marched off together to give the food to the driver. Wow---no complaining or whinning that one might see among teenagers in the West.

Malak (Psychosocial Coordinator) teaching the young women about recording the food expenses
One of the comments we keep hearing from the young women is the fun they have going to the market and choosing the food needed for the meals. Yesterday when the group returned from the market with Malak she had them track all the invoices and money that was spent for the food. These exercises are all part of our intention to help the young women learn basic life skills regarding budgeting and helping them understand the prices of different foods.
One of the young women filing Nary's (Operational Manager) finger nails.
For other young women, their form of relaxation is to paint our toe nails and finger nails. So a couple days ago I had a free manicure and pedicure done by one of them. How could I refuse such service? Yesterday it was Nary's (Operations Manager) turn to be blessed with this. It is during these times together we find the young women share some of their own personal journeys and again another opportunity to bond with them and hear what is on their hearts.

Anyway, 4pm rolled around and it was time to head to Dreamland in the city. I am learning a lot about teenagers and their fashions.  As we gathered in the main foyer area of the RAP home, the young women were all dressed up with their makeup. Three of the young women had on pointed high heels so my motherly comment came out in Khmer: girls, you will be walking for 5 hours are you sure you want to wear those kind of shoes. Your feet might hurt. Two of them were convinced that my comments were wise advice and quickly changed their shoes but one young women felt it was ''no problem''. However, its amazing how peer pressure works as soon enough she looked around at all of the other young women and the shoes they were wearing, she changed her high heeled shoes to the usual flip flops! :-) Since 7 out of 9 staff were on holidays during this time, we were blessed that one of our staff's two sisters could come and help us out. One of them works for one of our partner organizations and the other knows a few of the young women when they used to attend her church so it was like a mini reunion.We headed into the city and just as we arrived at Dreamland, it started to rain. Like typical teenagers the young women said ''Bong (Older sister) can we go back home''---they did not want the rain to ruin their recently curled hair that they spent time on. Oh brother! :-) I had a good laugh---I forgot those years as a teenager when physical appearance was more important than anything else. Anyway, we jumped out of the van and some of them managed to find a street seller who was selling cheap rain coats that had hoods. Thankfully the rain showers lasted no more than 10 minutes and we entered the park. Their hairstyles were still in tact!

A local vendor selling everything for $0.50
We broke up into three groups with some of our staff and myself assigned to go with each group of young women. The young women were each given $10.00 for this outing which they could use to cover the cost of their purchases, food and any games/activities they would participate in. Well, it doesn't matter where you are from but all girls seem to know that shopping is a favorite past time. Forget the games and activities. The main highlight was to head straight to Cambodia's equivalent of $1.00 (dollar) stores that we have in North America except here there are fifty cent stores. You can find all sorts of jewelry and gadgets for 50 cents so our young women spent about 40 minutes shopping.

Three of the young women checking out headbands and jewelry
Some of the young women purchasing their movie tickets
Some of them bought baseball caps, but the main purchases were necklaces and jewelry. Next stop for our group was to watch a 4-D movie. The young women were responsible for buying their own movie tickets and again, all of these activities facilitate a more normalized lifestyle for them to learn to be independent and to be responsible as they attend different social activities.

Some of the young women heading onto the Galatica ride
Following the movie, a brief interlude for some snacks and then they were off again to participate in one of the rides. With all of these activities, as I watched their smiling faces, I could help but think to myself, this is what normal teenagers do all the time. These events are in many ways symbolic of the way in which God is restoring the years the locusts have eaten from these young women. He is restoring the joy and laughter that so often was not part of their lives. He is restoring hope that the future He has for them is a good one as they continue to focus on their education. He is restoring their dignity as individuals who have a right to freedom and to life. Despite another long day of activities, heading back up to the RAP home, one could hear the chatter and laughter. Indeed the young women had a fun night and could not contain their excitement and joy as they recapped their memorable experiences. We praise God for a fun day and a time to just relax and do some playful things with the young women.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Motherhood and The Flower

Its been just over two weeks since the young women arrived to stay at the RAP (Ratanak Achievement Program) Community home. I feel like a new mother who just gave birth to 13 children except in this case they are teenagers! With each day I find myself asking them how they are doing, did they sleep well and eat well. Overall, the young women have been enjoying the greater ''freedom'' and independence of living in this transitional home.  Our team too has been adjusting to new schedules and new programs. Two of the young women are working full time while the remaining 11 are going to school and so we have found ourselves rotating dropping young women to school and to work. In the midst of all of this constant movement of picking up and dropping the young women to different school locations or work places, a few of the young woman had some serious illnesses. I found myself at one of the nearby hospitals spending hours with different young women as they underwent tests.

In all of these activities, I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that this is what if feels like to be a mother. Just watching one of the young women as she lay in the hospital bed getting medical treatment and seeing her cry as an IV tube was inserted into her hand. She felt the pain and winced. I felt so bad for her that she was suffering and there was nothing I could do to ease the pain. Other times, it was receiving news from the doctor that a particular medical treatment was not working and seeing the frustration and anger of one of the young women when the medical tests came back showing that the medicines she was taking was not working. It is times like this where God has been filling in the gaps. We are constantly casting our cares on Him knowing that He has created each one of these young women and when we have reached our human limits to help them, we leave it to Him to heal them completely.

So these past two days it was a time to rejoice after spending much time at the hospital that two of our most serious medical cases were on a journey towards healing. The new medicines were working, the young women had more energy and were full of joy. Yesterday they even helped me make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Today, I was touched when one of them came into the office and gave me a handmade picture she had made out of paper.

The drawing says ''To All the sisters (staff), you are the light for this flower. You are the fertilizer and water for helping this flower grow."  Indeed for this young women to define herself as a beautiful flower is a reflection of the value she is seeing in herself. Indeed they are beautiful flowers made in God's image and as I think of all the medical challenges and the numerous hospital visits we have made with these young women in just these two short weeks, this picture is a reminder of the privilege we have on a daily basis to plant God's seeds in His garden. It is is a privilege to nurture their journey to wholeness and to tangibly see how appreciative they are of the time we have spent with them in the midst of their sickness.  Like a proud mother,  I have pinned this picture to our office wall as a reminder to all of our staff that the Lord wants us to be His light and to shine His light as we walk together with the young women at RAP sharing their burdens and lifting them up when they fall down. At times it is not easy but we celebrate these small victories with them as we see them experience healing in their bodies. We are thankful for the opportunity to invest in them and empower them so that they indeed can grow strong in Christ and achieve all that He has planned for their lives. Today when one of the young women came back from the visit to the doctor, she came right up to the office to joyfully report that she was healed. Just 4 days ago one of my staff and I had prayed with her to not give into resignation and discouragement because of some of the medical concerns and we asked for God's intervention on what seemed to be a bleak situation at that time. To see her smiling face today, full of energy and joking around was a gift --a gift of thanks to the Lord who is not far from those who are broken hearted and crushed in spirit.

The light of God is shining in the RAP home and the flowers that were wilted are coming to life again as the Lord breathes His life in broken places and strengthen those who have been bowed down.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Week at the RAP Home

I was hoping to do more frequent blogs this past week but life at the RAP home has been busy and there has not been much free time to reflect but over the next few days things will be a bit more relaxing. With many World leaders (U.S President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao) visiting Cambodia in the next for the Asean Summit several main roads in Phnom Penh are being closed. In conjunction with this the schools are closed and so are some businesses so all of this provides a much needed break both for the young women at RAP and ourselves.

This past week started off on Sunday morning with all of the young women going to a local Khmer church we are partnering with. The worship at this church is full of energy and our young women knew most of the songs we sang that morning. In fact, they were having a fair bit of fun dancing to a Khmer worship song and were attempting to teach me this but I convinced them that worship dancing was not my least for this moment! :-) Following the service it was back to the RAP home for lunch and for a mini break before we set out for a trip around the local area so the young women could get acquainted with all the places in the neighborhood they live in. We ended up at one of the plaza's nearby for some frozen yogurt ice cream.

Monday morning arrived and it was off to school and to work, we had 2 cars and 1 van taking young women in different directions. I felt like one of those school mums dropping kids in the morning and picking them up. Here in Cambodia, most young people do not have full day school. Most of the schools are for 1/2 a day but for those of us who are working, we have to use our time wisely in the hours we have before we need to pick up the young women. Now I can appreciate all those stay at home Mums who have to arrange their schedules around their childrens schedules. One learns to multi task in a whole new way! Nonetheless, with all the comings and goings at the RAP home one thing I continue to be amazed about is the resilience of the young women who are staying here. They have gone through so much and yet they are so adaptable, flexible and resilient. Perhaps its because they have such strong survival instincts that they can adapt to new situations. I thank God for many who have been praying for their adjustment at RAP. God has been clearly answering these prayers.

We are slowly getting into a routine at the RAP home. These young women are fairly self sufficient when it comes to doing chores. Unlike North American teenagers who often can be spoiled, here each young women does her own laundry by hand. This is the Khmer way. There are no washing machines. So each day we see different young women taking their dirty clothes to the back and washing by hand and hanging their clothes.
Soklin our Counselor talking to one of the young women
We also have a rotation schedule for cooking and cleaning up the kitchen so each young woman will be taking turns cooking. Some of them already know how to cook and are excited to finally be able to practice their culinary skills. They asked if I loved to cook and I told them I loved to eat so I'm excited that they want to cook! For the past few days I have been sampling their food. I am impressed already with their cooking abilities as the food is quite tasty and healthy. One of the first meals made by one of the young woman was a fish soup and a beef and broccoli stir fry dish. It was all very tasty and quite healthy.
Vegetable Fish soup and a broccoli Stir fry with meat
One of the other favorite meals they made was Loc Lac ---a traditional Khmer meat dish that is made with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. They also made a sweet and sour fish which I practically devoured as it was incredibly tasty. I have a feeling I will be gaining some weight over the next few weeks!

Loc lac (Khmer Meat Dish) and Sweet and Sour Fish
Week 1 has now ended and today some of them are off to a friend's birthday party nearby. Slowly they are ''finding their wings'' learning to be independent as they take their bicycles and head off to spend time with their friends. Whenever they leave the RAP home, we have a sign out white board where they list where they are going and with whom and what time they leave and expect to be back in.  Others are now heading to the local market to do some shopping.
Young Women watching cartoons on the computer
Still others are quite happy to use this rest day to just relax and take it easy by watching movies on the computer or playing computer games or just hanging out in their rooms listening to music and I might add, the sound of the music is loud! Oh to have teenagers in the home! It is joyful noise but it is a joy to see them just be like normal young people relaxing and having the opportunity to just rest knowing they are in a place of safety and peace.

A Young Women washing the hair of our Operations Manager
For our staff, it is a joy to just hang around these young women. Today our Operations Manager Nary had one of them wash her hair which involves a hair massage. These are small ways in which to engage conversation with the young women and to build trust and cultivate our friendship with them. Later this afternoon, I will bake a cake with them...and when I say ''bake'' its one of those Betty Crocker cake mixes I brought back from Canada.

In all of these activities, we simply praise God and give thanks to the Lord for all He is doing in each of their lives and our lives. It is an incredible privilege to simply spend time with these young women and to walk along side them. I admire their inner strength and their ability to overcome so many obstacles along the way. They truly are my heroes!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Moved In!

These past few days I think we have gotten a taste of what a new mother must feel like when a baby is born!   One's time is no longer their own! :-) Saturday was the move in day for 13 young women into the RAP home. We were dealing with a whole bunch of new schedules, with many needs and different requests coming all at the same time and young women with various emotions,  It was an early start first picking up a suitcase of supplies at 7am that a team from Canada had just brought over and then arriving at the RAP home at 7:30am. Some of our staff were already there. One of home advisors was already preparing the initial lunch meal. Within the next week the young women will then begin the journey of preparing meals for each other. But for these first few days we felt it was necessary to just welcome them and help them get settled in. 
Sophea (Home Advisor) preparing fried chicken for lunch

 Over night our Home Advisors had prepared and label the rooms with the following names: Faith, Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. It is our prayer that each of the young women will truly experience all of these attributes as they spend time at the RAP home.
The ''Faith'' bedroom
The ''Peace'' Bedroom

The first group of young women arrived just after 8am with their caregivers along with their suitcases, body pillows, stuffed animals, books and other paraphernalia. One young woman even brought her own little fan. 

Stuffed animals on top of a suitcase

School books and personal belongings

Our staff welcomed them and brought them into the main greeting area to review the schedule that was on the white board so that they could learn what would be happening over the course of the day.
Young women listening to Malak (Psychosocial Coordinator) discussing the schedule for their first day
 We all helped them carry their suitcases and items to their assigned rooms but we had not assigned beds as yet. Given that the two groups of young women were arriving at different times we wanted to wait till the second group had arrived so that together the roommates would each choose a number that would determine the bed that they would have.
Unpacking items in the bedroom
No sooner had the first group and carried their stuff into their bedrooms, the second group of young women arrived. This group had less items to bring but similar to the first set of young women were the familiar stuffed animals, pillows and books in their luggage. They too were given an overview of the day’s activities and took their stuff to their assigned rooms.
Second group of young women's items arrive
 Once the young women were in their rooms, it was time to pick a number (drawing straws) to determine which bed they were given. With that all done, we had scheduled a break time with their caregivers from our partner organizations so that they could have one last opportunity to spend time with their caregivers before saying goodbye to them. As an entire group, we formed a circle and spent time praying for this new chapter in these young women’s lives and then it was time for the farewell.

The farewells were not easy for one set of young women. It was clear how attached they were to their caregivers and even as they left, several of them stood at the gate entrance with tears in their eyes, some sobbing quietly. My maternal instincts came out in full force as did those of my staff as we simply held them. For these young women who have endured so much in their lives, it was a bitter sweet moment, saying goodbye to those whose tangible expressions of love had been healing to their wounded souls. Yet here they were, in a new environment, having to trust a new set of people and develop new relationships all over again. I can’t help but admire the courage and the resilience God has built into their hearts to keep moving forward and to face the challenges ahead.

Once their caregivers left, it was time to unpack and begin this new journey with new friends. Some young women were very organized and managed to set up their clothes cabinet very quickly so while they were waiting time for the others, I joined one of our other staff and played a game that the young women had brought with them. It was a time of just relaxing and having a few laughs together.
One of the Young Women organizing her clothing cabinet

Nary (Operations Manager) playing a Khmer game with a couple of the young women
Young Women's cell phones and lights being charged --feeling at home!
Lunch time came by quickly and our first time together as one big family. One of the girls who is full of energy and enthusiasm had helped set the table in a joyful manner. It was clear that she was just excited to be here.

After lunch, it was suppose to be a rest time but I found myself playing badminton in the mid afternoon heat for 25 minutes with one of the young women. All those years of playing competitive badminton is coming in handy here---talk about some good exercise! Other young women were watching TV, playing video games and reading in the library. The emotional farewells in the morning had given a way to an afternoon lightness among the group as they began to get familiar with their new home. At 2pm, it was time for them to receive their bicycles---our staff had numbered their bikes and the girls had to chose numbers from one to thirteen.
Young Women's bicycles with helmets

Going for a ride!
Some of the young women decided to try out their bikes and explore their new neighborhood surroundings and then following that it was time for a mid afternoon snack ---a cake from our friends at Bloom Cafe that was donated from one of our partner churches in Canada.
"Welcome Cake'' from Bloom 
After dinner it was time to go over the Young Women's Handbook. This is a book that our Technical consultant Julie had helped us create. It has been a wonderful tool that we gave the young women to review to determine whether this program would be of interest to them. The Handbook contains all sorts of information on different aspects of living in a community home and it is a tool to manage the young women's expectations so that they are well informed on what they can expect during their time here. Our Counselor and Social worker went over the handbook  to address any initial questions and provide clarification that the young women would have.   
Soklin (Counselor) & Sereyrom(Social Worker) reviewing the Young Women's Handbook with the young women
It was a long day but by evening some of the young women were relaxing and checking out their favorite online programs on the computers. Others were just quite happy to just take it easy.

Relaxing at the computer room
Our two senior staff --Nary and Malak were totally wiped after navigating many different questions and situations during the day.
Nary (Operations Manager -left) and Malak (Psychosocial Coordiantor - right) taking a much needed break 
They had a brief time out before we went up to the ''Joy Room'' with our home advisors---this is the TV/Recreational room and had a group meeting with the young women. We formed a circle and holding hands together joined in prayer for the Young Women. Following that, we went around to each of the bedrooms and then asked if there was any specific prayer requests that the young women had so we could pray with them right then and there. Many of them were asking for  good health, the ability to do well at school, to get to know our staff better, for Jesus to increase their faith and for God to bless them with a deep love for their other housemates and our RAP staff. I am humbled by such prayers of these young women and their capacity to adjust to new surroundings with new challenges. Despite what has been two long days, the physical tiredness is nothing compared to the deep joy that we are experiencing of spending time with our young friends, laughing with them as they tease us and tease each other. 
Slippers - Good night from the RAP home
By 9pm it was time to head home and as I took this last picture of the slippers, I was reminded of the different gifting, different talents, different personalities of each young women who is staying at the RAP home. We feel so blessed at having this privilege of journeying with them. We look forward to seeing how the Lord continues to give shape and form the passions He has planted deep within their hearts for He has fearfully and wonderfully made them!  

Stay tune for Day 2 --- visiting church and our first outing as a group!