Friday, September 27, 2013

University --- Here We Come!

In two weeks time university classes start up again after the Pchum Ben holidays and we are so excited that  some of our young women  are now preparing to attend their first year in university. This has been a long journey for each one of them as they have overcome much to get to this point. Having passed their grade 12 exams recently,  they are heading to the university of their choice. Over the past few weeks our social workers have been busy meeting with each of them and discussing their career opportunities and what they want to do as part of their Individual Achievement Plan (IAP). Can you imagine this? Young women who are discovering the joys of dreaming about their future and what they want to do. This is not an easy journey but part of helping them to transition well, is helping each of them to discover first of all that they have choice to make decisions about their life and secondly, our ongoing desire is to help them choose wisely and make responsible decisions in all facets of their lives so that they can truly live out their dreams and achieve their goals.

For us at Ratanak, we feel such a privilege and are indeed proud of their achievements thus far. Its one of the reasons we have called our community home the Ratanak Achievement Program Community Home. These young women have achieved much to get to this point in their lives. They have had to endure much pain, rejection and abandonment, go through years of counseling, work through ongoing issues related to self esteem, value and self worth and here they are now, living examples that  ''we are more than conquerors in Christ.''  In all of this, we are part of a team of organizations investing in their lives and are grateful for our partners organizations who first walked with these young women and have now passed the baton to us to continue facilitating their journey of transition into the real world.

As part of their preparation for university, we give each young women an initial ''education pack'' ie: a small sum of money to buy their school supplies and school uniforms. Any subsequent purchases, during the university year, they have to save up their weekly allowance and budget wisely in order to pay for their ongoing supplies. Some of them are also hoping to work part time so that they can earn extra income. We encourage this since this is how many young people here supplement their university costs.   This is all part of preparing them for independence and a move away from dependence on the NGO to provide for every single one of their needs. This is not easy, but it is a necessary step if these young women are really going to develop the necessary resilience and tools to live in the real world.  However,  like typical teenagers or young people, the money is never enough but as a team we  have evaluated what is a reasonable cost for a university student.  So today, some of our young women piled into the Ratanak truck  excited to go shopping for their school supplies and uniforms. A few hours later, they arrived back to display some of their purchases.

University supplies, school uniforms
University students are all required to wear uniforms and our young women got a good deal buying their long skirts and blue shirts at the local market among their notebooks, pens, shoes and backpacks. One young women mentioned that she needed 6 notepads but only bought 3 because she ran out of money.  I showed one of our staff the notebooks the young women purchased and she mentioned, ''well she could have chosen a cheaper notebook and bought all 6 but she choose the most expensive ones.'' So the lessons on budgeting and saving begin!

So what will these 5 young women be studying? Well this is the fun part---one young women SL is planning to study Information technology. She is already gifted in this area and even teaches our home advisors when they have questions on different computer programs and has taught them how to set up their Facebook pages! Another of our young women C, is planning to study social work. She had a chance to chat with both our counselors and social workers asking them what's the difference between those two professions and through those conversations discovered that she doesn't want to be stuck in an office all day long listening to peoples problems but rather would be out on the field helping others. Our third young woman SN is hoping to become a social worker as well.. We think she will do well in this area as she has a very gentle presence and warmth that makes people especially little kids feel safe. Our fourth young woman TY wants to be an author/journalist. The other day I saw her trying to translate a very difficult English passage into Khmer. She perseveres and is diligent in making the effort to study despite the challenges before her. Then there is P, who received a scholarship for 50% of her tuition fees. She wants to pursue International Relations as one day she hopes she can become an ambassador!  Such is the dreams and hopes of these 5 young women who are entering university. Pray for each of them that this initial enthusiasm and excitement will continue as their studies begin and that they will persevere as they enter a new chapter in their life. After all, it is not how well we start, but how well we finish but God does promise that ''He who began a good work in them will complete it.''  Stay tune!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bitter Sweet Moments

Life is all about bitter and sweet moments and how we learn to respond to them. Here in Cambodia there is not a day that doesn't go by where we do not encounter one of these emotions. The sweet moments are so often infrequent that we barely have time to savor them and then we are hit with a bitter moment. Many times, it is the bitter moments that weigh on our spirit and if we are not careful, we can either let such moments take us down by discouraging us or we can embrace those moments in all their fullness knowing that There are blessings we can never have unless we are ready to pay the price of pain. There is no way to reach them save through suffering. —Dr. Miller.  Yesterday I experienced both the bitter and the sweet all in a short space of time.

One of the joys of this ministry is seeing young women overcome all the challenges of their past and live a ''normal'' life. So it was a joyous moment when I and our RAP Program Manager were met by one of our reintegrated young women V near her work place. She had heard we were coming to pick up one of the other young women at the RAP home from the same work place as we were going out on a ''date night.''  So when our reintegrated friend V heard we were coming she wanted to say hi. It was so good seeing her and seeing the little weight she had gained from over a month ago since our last visit. She is doing so well and in her second month on the job, performed her work function so well that she got an unexpected 25% bonus on her salary. We took the opportunity to visit the place she rented which is within walking distance of her work place. By North American standards, one would consider this a little shack, but by Cambodian standards, it is a huge place for one person. It could easily fit a family of 10 people. She proudly showed us around her simple surroundings and brought out a large fresh fish that she was given by her ''mother in law to be''. This was her dinner with some steam rice and being the ''mother'' that I am, I asked her if she wasn't going to have it with vegetables to which she replied ''Bong Lisa, Oun oth joel jet bonlai (ie: Young sister does not like vegetables)---oh yeah I forgot about that! Her bedroom is on the upper level and as I am getting a bit old, climbing up to this other level by way of a wooden ladder was a reminder that I need to go and get some exercise.:-). It is like a little attic but in this upper area one finds her bedroom, with some of the items we had purchased for her as part of her reintegration package. V is unusual in that she enjoys living on her own albeit her boyfriend's family is not too far from here. Nonetheless, she is relishing this opportunity to live independently and is currently working in order to save money for her future. We are thankful for our partners who work in this community as their staff also encourage V and keep an eye on her in case she needs any support.

So as I was walking around this familiar environment with my Khmer friends, I asked about another little friend S who I have known for 5 years. I first met S in 2008 when she joined in the kids club that I was involved with with our short term team from Canada and our Khmer friends. She was a spunky little kid with a bit of a tough attitude but that soon soften as she began to frequent the kids club held in this community. She joined the community school as well and from time to time, I would see her in this village whenever I visited. She has always remained very dear to me as I remember going to visit her one day in her home and her grandmother promptly asked if I would adopt S when the grandmother died. It was an unexpected question as this little girl looked at me. Navigating such questions is not easy but I managed to suggest that I would have to consult with the local pastor to see what the possibilities were. That seemed to pacify the grandmother at that time. That was 3 years ago. Fast forward a few months ago and I was out on one of my regular exercise walks near the waterfront in Phnom Penh when I heard a little voice calling my name. Surprisingly enough it was S standing there all dressed up with her little sister. I was so overjoyed to see them both and asked her a few questions in Khmer to which she quickly responded in English! She is so smart! She was just ''dahling'''---meaning visiting in the waterfront. Of course I had to ask who she was ''visiting'' with and she pointed to her older sister sitting on a motorcycle curb side who looked at me rather suspiciously as she talked on the phone. At that moment, I asked her if I could take a quick photo as she had now grown so big and was close to my shoulders. She quickly obliged with a big smile happy to pose and we chatted a bit more before I left. But my joy of seeing her quickly turn to concern as I walked away thinking of what I had just seen on her face and that of her little sister. They were both wearing makeup---my mind started to compute and that sinking feeling set in. She was not just ''visiting'' the waterfront, she was being prepped to be sold along with her little sister that very evening. S is now about 12 years old but her size is that of an 8 year old. As for her little sister, while she is the size of a 6 year old. As I walked back home, I prayed for her and her sister not knowing what would happen to them. So yesterday as I was catching up with some of my Khmer friends in this little village so notorious for the deadly abuse of so many young pre-pubescent girls, I asked how is S? To my dismay, I was told that S no longer goes to school nor the kids club but daily she is all dressed up and wearing lots of make up.  My worst fears for this little friend had now become a reality.

What does one do with such news? What can we do? I found myself last night and this morning literally crying to God for this little soul. She is one of many that is being sold but she is one whose name I know, more importantly she is one who is not forgotten by her heavenly Father. I don't know whether we will have the opportunity to walk with her through a journey of restoration and healing but I have to believe, that God has allowed our paths to cross for a purpose if only or at the mere least for us all to intercede for this young life. So as I write this, it is the song ''Blessed Be The Name of the Lord'' that rings in my head ''He gives and takes away but my heart will choose to say, Blessed be the name of the Lord.'' 

In these two stories of V and S, God has given but God has also taken away---at least for now. We rejoice and praise God for His redemptive work in V and cherish this sweet moment of seeing her becoming a responsible young adult. But as I think of S,  it is a bitter moment, yet, we are called to embrace the pain of loss as we grieve for S and what is being done to her daily all for the sake of money. As we grieve and sow our tears by praying we are sharing in the fellowship of Christ suffering. I long for the day when her suffering will end but even that I have to entrust into God's hands. He is sovereign over this young life, He is sovereign over her suffering, He is sovereign as we wait for her rescue and restoration. In his Sovereignty, I rest knowing that He is her Messiah, He is her Savior and He is her Redeemer! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Celebrating a graduation!

One of the greatest privileges we have is seeing how God restores hope and value  in the lives of young women who have experience sexual exploitation. Last  night was such a night as we had the opportunity to witness the graduation of one of the young women at the RAP home For the past three months she has been training at one of our partner organizations training center learning skills in hospitality.  She successfully passed all the requirements and so it was with great joy to celebrate with her and the other graduates on this special night.  She was able to invite 8 guests and so she took the opportunity of inviting her fellow room mates at the RAP home as well as some of our staff.
RAP staff joining the graduation ceremonies
There are not many places here that provide employment opportunities for the young women we serve but we are grateful to our partner organizations who are seeking to make a difference in this area. Their training centers are more than employment centers but they too seek to provide holistic care and empowerment to survivors of trafficking by providing them not only meaningful employment to earn a sustainable living, but they seek to care for the ''whole person'' providing medical care, counseling support and spiritual support.
The founders of the cafe Ruth and Murray have assembled an amazing team that operate a cafe and training center here in Phnom Penh.

Ashley, Grace, Ruth & Murray
So last night as part of the graduation ceremonies, we had a time of worship with a team from the ICA (International Christian Assembly) church here in Phnom Penh.

Then it was time for the graduates to receive their internationally recognized certificates. Each young women wore a graduation gown and received not only words of encouragement from the management of the training cafe but they each received a silver bracelet, a photo album with a collection of photos of the activities they were trained in and of course the graduation certificate.
our RAP Young woman receiving her graduation awards
It was a great time of honoring these young women for their achievements and other graduates who now work at this training center came forward to sing  a Khmer Christian song in honor of their accomplishments.  Of course what would a graduation party be if we could not celebrate with some ''to die for'' cupcakes'' made by the young women who work at this training center.
Cupcake Heaven!
Tonight as I stood watching all the graduates of this program sing, I couldn't help but think of what they have experienced and now here they are on a new journey, singing a new song -- a song of hope! They are a picture to me of what redemption looks like. God can take the most broken lives and as He restores, binds up the wounds and heals, a life is free to sing, to dream, to hope and to live a life of dignity and value.