How We Began (In Memory of Sumnang)

Sum NamgWhile visiting Siem Reap in 2009, Heather Connell met four year old Sumnang – an orphan living with cerebral palsy – and became involved in his care.

After discovering that, despite the fact his parents were dead, he would have to leave the orphanage and be returned to his village at age six, she began searching for alternatives.

The concept for Safe Haven was born out of that fruitless search and the subsequent revelation of the difficulties that children with severe disabilities and their families face every day in Cambodia.

Discrimination along with a lack of understanding, and lack of access to information, support and resources create many barriers to accessing health and medical care in Cambodia. Too often, these barriers prevent Cambodia children living with disabilities from reaching their fullest potential.

Sumnang tragically passed away on 1 September 2010, however his memory lives on and continues to inspire Safe Haven’s valuable work today.

In Memory Of Sumnang

By Heather Connell, Founder of Safe Haven

At 2am Friday morning, after a day filled with kisses, playing and being grouchy over eating his lunch, and hours after I kissed him goodbye after tucking him into his crib, my beloved, precious four year old Sumnang spiked a fever, suffered a grand mal seizure and died en route to the hospital.

My Cambodian son, the inspiration for Safe Haven, the boy who stole my heart a year and a half ago when I first wandered into the Sisters Of Charity Orphanage – it does not seem possible that I have just placed jasmine and incense over his white draped shroud and watched them cremate him.

We sat together first, in the tiny chapel of the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, where they had lovingly wrapped him in white linen, covered him with yellow flowers and surrounded him with candles. His sweet little face was peaceful. The nuns, the Cambodian staff, Virginia, Pierre, Chitra, my friend Lauren (daughter of Hasan, the man who first introduced me to Sumnang) and I sat in vigil around him while we waited for a local monk to agree to escort him to the place of cremation.

For three hours we sat in silence, in stunned disbelief. Only yesterday, Lauren and I had talked about the possibilities for Sumnang to really make progress once Safe Haven had opened and he could have therapy and care full time. Yesterday, I held in my arms while we played a Khmer version of “ring around the rosy”. Yesterday, I coaxed him to finish his bananas even though he was giving me his grumpy face about eating. Yesterday, I kissed him good night and told him “See you tomorrow.”

SumnangBy God’s grace, I was here when Sumnang died. Not just in Cambodia, but in Siem Reap.

I was supposed to travel three hours out to the village of Smach this morning, where I would have been unreachable by phone. But last night I had caught a bit of a stomach bug – likely from some bad water – and had canceled the trip. I think now, if I hadn’t, I would not have been here to participate in lovingly saying goodbye to this extraordinary little boy.

When the monk arrived, we all stood and gathered around Sumnang while the nuns kissed his head and then tightly wrapped the white linens around his body. He was lifted and brought to a waiting jeep and laid across the laps of three of the nuns. The rest of us followed the jeep to the pagoda where the cremation took place. We laid out Sumnang on a mat and uncovered his face, placing jasmine, incense and candles around his body. The sisters led everyone in prayer and we each planted incense in the sand-filled vessel at his head while offering up our own prayer. Then they carefully recovered his face, picked him up and carried him to the cremation chamber.

We left to go to the market to buy an urn and fresh coconuts. The milk from the coconuts was to be used to purify his bones. After an hour, we stood in solemn silence while workers pulled his cremated body from the pyre. The nuns came forward to carefully pick out the fragments of his bones and place them in a bowl. I stepped forward with the coconut and poured the sweet liquid into the bowl and we carefully washed the bones. My shirt was a mess of sweat, tears and coconut milk.

A monk lines a pan with a large piece of cheesecloth and Sumnang’s bones are gently laid out to dry in the sun. We stand in silence in the heat of the sun on the steps of the pagoda for two hours, watching them dry. Then Virginia, myself and two of the nuns gently lift the corners of the cheesecloth and raise it up out of the pan. We fan the bones and the grief pours through me because all I can think about are how knobby his little knees were.

Heather Connell and Sum NamgThe fragments of the bone are carefully placed in the urn while we sit together in reverent silence. The urn is then tied shut with a braided rope and wrapped in a thin white linen cloth. The sisters lead us in the Lord’s Prayer both in Khmer and English. We silently leave the pagoda.

Sumnang was four years old and had an identical twin brother who was adopted by an Australian woman. They were due to visit in two weeks so the brothers could spend some time together. Although his twin was born healthy, Sumnang suffered from Cerebral Palsy and his low muscle tone kept him from being able to move on his own. He was unable to talk but loved to communicate. He loved to be outside and after lunch; I would often walk around the orphanage yard with him and sing to him while he grew sleepy in the sun. He laughed with his whole body and hated orange juice and mangoes. Although he was trapped in his body, the intelligence in his eyes could not be hidden. The first time I set eyes on him and he locked his big brown gaze with mine, I fell in love. Each time I would have to leave Cambodia, I would whisper in his ear and promise him I would see him soon. In two days I will leave Cambodia and be unable to whisper in my beloved Sumnang’s ear that I will see him soon.

From now on, I will see him everywhere.

- Heather Connell, Founder of Safe Haven