by Jeff Cook
After surveying the construction site of the new school, the pastor led us to a home just a little further down the same narrow, dusty road where the school is being built. Turning into a wooden structure with a wide floor space littered with a bevy of car and motorcycle parts, I noticed a few people resting on a wooden bed with no mattress on the left side of the cavernous room. On the right side, carving out their own separate world in a corner of the same room sat a man on hard wooden furniture. His legs were like toothpicks as he sat motionless, leaning on a walker to keep upright. Standing beside him, his attractive 15-year-old niece, who had come from Vietnam to live with him and his wife, looked on with a confused but welcoming smile. They both greeted us warmly into their world despite never having met us before and our inability to speak the same language. Shortly after we entered, the man called to his wife, but having gone deaf some time recently, she continued to busily work in the kitchen a few feet away, in a room about the size of a closet.
The reason we were there meeting this family quickly became evident. The pastor facilitated the conversation and translated the painful details being relayed from the fragile figure seated in front of us. The man recalled how three months earlier he had gotten into argument with and received threats from some of the men in the village. Although he did not describe it at the time for fear of shaming his niece, the pastor explained that the argument was due to this man's unwillingness to give up his niece for prostitution. Her virginity could fetch a good price by these other men, and to turn such a lucrative offer down angered them.
On an evening shortly after one of these arguments, as any other day, the man recounted how he and his wife began packing up their roadside cart from which they eke out a living selling goods to passers by. Suddenly, and without warning, a car came crashing into them and in one fell swoop destroyed their livelihood and almost took their lives. The man believes that the devastating attack was due to his resistance to these men in the village trying to exploit his niece. The collision shattered the man's legs forcing him to remain in the hospital for two months. His wife did not fare much better. As he described the story, she emerged hobbling from the kitchen on a stiff right leg three times its normal size. Three months after the assault, neither have been able to maintain gainful employment in spite of crushing medical debt. The man's future return to the workforce is uncertain. After returning home, he has not received any physical therapy, and the one medical device he has, the walker, was donated by a wealthy neighbor who had broken a leg several years ago.
As for the niece, she remains in a perilous position. She stated that she is bored and has no money, and when asked if she attends school, she replied with an uninterested, "no." Of course, the family has barely enough money to eat let alone send someone to school. (In Cambodia public education is "free" provided families can pay the couple hundred dollars for the uniform and books needed to attend.) We stayed and prayed with the family, thanking God for the man's courage and asking for protection from future harm and restoration of their health so that they can once again be self-sufficient. As we walked away the pastor remarked that he wished he could help, but realistically he cannot provide support for every child he encounters who is in vulnerable and in need.