Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Grannies!

In Cambodia, one doesn't have to go far to see the ongoing effects of the Khmer Rouge era and how it continues to play havoc in Cambodian society. During the Pol Pot period, the family structure was systematically dismantled where parents were separated from their children. A whole generation was wiped out and so today, the reality is there are many displaced groups of people---the genocide touched all areas of society and left a huge whole in the family structure. One of these displaced groups are the elderly women that we at Ratanak affectionately called the ''grannies''. Many of them lost their children in the genocide or through the AIDS epidemic such that, the two most vulnerable groups ---the grannies and the grand children were left to fend for themselves. In a society where the weak are daily exploited, one doesn't have to go far on the streets of Phnom Penh to see many grannies begging during the day.  Some of them are homeless with no place to go or stay and there are no social services here to really take care of them. There is no such thing as an old age pension or a senior citizens home for in a culture that is community oriented, most elderly live with their immediate relatives. Yet here in Cambodia, many elderly women don't have such a luxury.  They have to somehow survive on their own and so many of them come from the province and hang out near the local markets begging from morning to the late afternoon in the hopes that they will receive some money that can help themselves and even support their grandchild who still live in the province. Believe it or not there is business to be made in the begging. In this Asian Buddhist culture where the elderly are treated with respect,  there is merit to be earned in giving to the elderly, so on a good month a ''grannie'' can earn about $300 begging in the city. But there are other grannies who have an entrepreneurial spirit.  One grannie after she had begged used the funds accumulated to buy new clothes and upon returning to the province, sold the clothes at a higher price for a nice profit! I love the creativity and the ingenuity that is often found among the poor in this nation. They simply know how to survive despite all the obstacles they face. In this context, one could argue that this grannie certainly knows how to bear fruit in old age and stay fresh and green (Psalm 92:14) in spite of the daily challenges she encounters.
Sathya our Finance Manager with Rosalie 

Into this environment, in 2008, two missionaries had a vision to start a drop in center for such elderly grannies who came to stay in the city on a short term basis. After some initial research and with a request from the grannies, the drop in center became a short term night shelter that we now called the Ratanak Haven Night Center. We have had the privilege of funding this Center in its entirety right from the early days when it was started, and so today, Sathya and I were out again visiting this project in Phnom Penh run by one of our consultants Rosalie who has lived in Cambodia for 22 years. Rosalie who is from Australia,  is one of these older ladies whom God called to Cambodia to reach out to the poor and the vulnerable. She has been an advisor to this Haven Night Center, overseeing it with 3 Khmer staff.

The grannies who stay at the Haven Night Center range in age from 55 to 83 years old with the average age around 70 years old. On average, 9 to 12 grannies come to stay nightly or about 200 plus per month at the Haven Night Center. These past two months over 476 grannies spent time at the Center on a short term basis,  and in a year about 2000 grannies stayed at the Center. But the numbers who stay fluctuate because it depends on the season. During harvest season, many of them can earn money in the province by helping to plant rice, but when harvesting season is over, they are left to beg to support themselves and their grandchildren and hence they come into the city for these short visits. The thought of a 70 year old grannie planting rice under the hot sun, is just another example of the inner strength and resilience that I have come to appreciate about Cambodians. They have the ability to function under the most dire conditions!

The Haven Night Center is open from 6pm – 6am, 7 days a week and is staffed by a manager, guard, cook with the occasional locum to cover holidays and sickness. The old people (or Grannies as we call them) register and are each required to pay 1,000 riel (or 25 cents) per day for their stay. Some people may question why they have should pay to stay in the Center, but the goal of this project is to help the grannies be responsible and not be totally dependent on the NGO. They gladly pay the 1,000 riel because ironically, to sleep at the market, they would actually have to pay more than 1000 Riel for water and the use of a public washroom. So in  the mind of the grannies, they get a good deal hanging out at the Haven Night Center. In return, they receive a good nutritious dinner, access to appropriate medical care, they can have a shower, wash their hair using soap and shampoo and dress in a sarong provided by us. This enables them to wash their clothes, so when they leave each morning they are all clean ready to face the daily challenges of living in the city.   

These grannies have expressed that they are not at the Night Center for handouts but just need a place to stay when they are in the city. Since the Center opened, Rosalie noted that the grannies have never asked for anything and even when they have medical needs, they gladly contribute to the cost of their own medical treatments. They have a sense of responsibility, instead of a spirit of entitlement and are grateful for a place that many of them now consider their home in the city because of the fellowship and love they experience with each other and from the staff who serve them. They have said they would rather be at the Haven Night Center than stay in the province, because here they never get sick.By providing a safe, secure and stable environment for the grannies to stay on a short term basis, they know that they can rest in peace, without danger, fear or worry that they will be mugged or robbed had they slept on the street overnight.  Furthermore, they can go to sleep in a clean properly ventilated comfortable surroundings, safe in the knowledge that our manager and guard are there for them if required all night.

Following the meal they have a bible study, (which they really enjoy) which is conducted by the manager. The grannies love to sing and have learned some Christian songs which they sing with vigor! As well, they can watch Christian DVDs and have access to Christian books  including a picture bible for those who can't read. Over time as the grannies have had exposure to the Gospel in various forms, the majority of them have become believers.  On the weekend, the grannies will accompany the manager to her church on Sunday mornings and they often go to programs held for the elderly at the church during the week. Now, the Night Center is looking for an outreach pastor to minister to the grannies when they return back to the province, as many of them experience persecution if they have families and several of them have already requested a Christian funeral when their time ends on this earth. 

For the grannies, the Ratanak Haven Night Center provides a sense of belonging. It is place where dignity, value and honor is being restored to a group that many would disregard because of their age.  It is a place where they can experience community and a sense of family even if they are ostracized by the rest of society.  It is place, where they can receive the basic necessities of life like a clean shower, a simple meal and medical care after facing the daily struggles to survive on the streets. It is place, where they are honored and respected, unlike on the street where they are ignored or forgotten. It is a place, where they can laugh again and experience a sense of joy, hope and love. Indeed, the Haven Night Center is a shelter from the storms of life for them, it is literally a place of refuge for the grannies where ultimately they are experiencing the love and care by those who represent the God who is Our Refuge!

But as I think of the grannies, I think of the 3 Khmer staff who work with them. There is a cook who comes from 5 to 7pm to prepare the dinner meal for the grannies. As well, the security guard Sophea has been at the Center since its inception in 2008 and the Program Manager Soeun started in 2009. But Soeun has a day job as a teacher in a Christian school and comes to work in the evening at the Night Center. On the weekends, these two dedicated individuals, voluntarily work---they are not paid on the weekends but they rotate, gladly choosing to work because they love the grannies and wanted to ensure that the Center is open to serve the grannies 7 days a week. Their heart and willingness to love the least of these, reflects the heart of Christ for they do not see their responsibilities as a job but rather as a calling from the Lord. What an incredible privilege it is to witness such commitment and compassion among our Khmer brothers and sisters who are doing their part to invest in those in their land whom the rest of society would consider not worthy of such an investment. 

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