by Jeff Cook
There exists an alice-in-wonderland-like place not far from Phnom Penh where right is wrong, wrong is right and nonsense is common sense. This place is infamous among anti-human trafficking workers and heralded in the pedophile community as the destination for purchasing children for sex. If this place were not heinous and despicable enough for what it is known for (which it is), what makes it worse is that foreigners often purchase the children from the children's very own family members. The community is so steeped in this practice that families attempting to protect young girls in their care face isolation, threats or worse.
I recently traveled to this hovel of a town. Stepping out of the car, I could immediately feel the dust clinging to my clothes as my foot sunk deep into the sandy, unpaved road. The village is next to a river, but that geographical fact offered little relief in the way of a breeze. The sun beat down and looking around I saw shack after dilapidated shack lining the alleys and corridors of the village. Beyond the first row of buildings, there were plastic bags of all ages and colors along with yesterday's excess covering what could have been in a different time and under different circumstances a nice play area for children. Clothes dangled limply from lines strung haphazardly around the field acting as a barrier for those intending to do anything but dump more garbage into the space. I thought that I must be looking directly in the face of abject poverty, but was quickly reassured that this village is better off than most. I tried to convince myself this was a good thing. But the reality is that this village is "better off" because the stock and trade of trafficking children keeps the money flowing.
It's this money that spawns vicious cycles of abuse and violence. Standing up against this ill tide takes strength, determination and perseverance. Few take up this challenge, but it is the few that do that I want to highlight. In the center of the village sits a former brothel turned community center in which hundreds of children attend a kids' club. Many of these children have already been victimized, but at least for a time at the kids' club, they are safe and able to learn and receive encouragement to play and act like children. Just a little further inside the center, members of the community line up to receive free medical care. It's free, professional and effective – albeit minimal.
An NGO called Agape funds this center, but the man who runs it is a pastor whose passion is contagious and fearlessness is unmatched. He's imperturbable yet spunky. With a positive attitude and enviable mixture of bravery and charm he leads a church in the midst of the darkness and depravity that envelops it. And its not just any church, it's a church that's thriving and whose 177 adult members, who make on average $1.25 a day, when told of the suffering and hardship of those in Haiti, donated a staggering $52 to assist in the relief effort. In addition to the center and the church, the pastor has organized the opening of a gym next door to appeal to some of the purveyors of children, known in the village simply as gangsters. In addition, on the other side of the center, a few doors down, is a building under construction that will later this year house three floors of classrooms dedicated to educating the children. This new building standing tall amidst the chaos and confusion in the village sends a strong message to the community offering a new direction, a new future, a new hope.
The importance of the message cannot be understated. One of the homes sandwiched between the center and the new school has been frequented the past few months by foreign pedophiles making arrangements with the mom for one of her young girls. On occasion, the pastor will confront the pedophiles directly, informing them that he will call the police if they stay. Reactions have ranged from success (the pedophile leaving) to physical threats (more common). The most important point: he's there; he's fighting; and he's trusting that God will give him strength and protection. This man can certainly use our prayers.
To be continued…