It drives me crazy that the Royal Bank ATM in Phnom Penh always dispenses $100 bills when I make cash withdrawals. $100 bills in Cambodia are an absolute headache. First, if the bill has any flaws at all, a dog eared edge, severe creasing or God forbid, a tear, no one will take it. And who is going to make change for it? My tuk tuk driver?
It’s my last morning in Phnom Penh and my heart already hurts over leaving the kids. The plan is to take them on a little shopping trip and then have lunch at the Khmer Thai restaurant, a place that has become our go to lunch spot during these outings. It takes me longer than expected to pack up my hotel and I hustle over to pick up Lina to head to CCF to get the other children. When I get to Aziza’s, I dash inside hoping for a quick getaway and stop short just inside the doors at the sight of Lina playing on the floor with two little boys. It has been a little over two years since I have seen them but the family resemblance is unmistakable. They are her little brothers. Lina happily runs over for a kiss, excited to tell me her mother Yorn has turned up for a visit.
Things just got a lot more complicated.
Yorn and I share complex history. When I was filming Small Voices, I was often deeply moved by the parents who suffered and sacrificed everyday to try and provide a better future for their children. Yorn was the exception to that rule. Her two young children, Charam and Lina, were her primary source of income, sent out into the streets every day to beg from tourists. She made it clear she had no intention of letting Charam go to school when it meant she would be stuck taking care of Lina and having to beg on her own. Although eventually she was persuaded to let him go, she was not above yanking him out occasionally to try and extort money from me to allow him to return. With Charam in school, Lina ran about the city with little supervision. Visits from me would often result in tense conversations about how Lina obtained any number of bruises, cuts and burns.
The tipping point came when I got a desperate email from Charam saying Lina was missing and asking me what to do about it. He had gone home to visit and Yorn informed him some ‘man’ walked off with her. Sitting in my house in the dark, thousands of miles away, reading the pleas of Charam and being completely powerless to do anything to help either of them was one of the most devastating moments in my life. The CCF staff saw the email and immediately sent out search teams. By the grace of God, she was found 2 days later wandering the Central Market miles from the riverfront.
I booked a ticket to Cambodia ready to beg on my hands and knees for one of the local NGO schools to take her, waiting lists or not. Aziza’s Place, despite their limited funding and lack of a bed for her, when they heard Lina’s story, refused to allow Lina to spend another minute on the street with Yorn. Armed with one of their Cambodian staff, we went to Yorn and demanded Lina be turned over to us.
By now Yorn had two additional babies, Charan and Chara, to care for and she let Lina go without a fight. Babies were a better draw for begging anyway. I was at my limit emotionally, financially and physically with the 7 children, Charam and Lina included, that I loved as my own and could not take on the responsibility for the two little boys left with Yorn on the sidewalk that day. It was a bitter reality that left permanent scars on my heart.
With Lina and Charam now both safely off the streets, my dealings with Yorn became almost non existent. True to her nature, she never visited her son and hardly ever showed up to see Lina. When she did, she often had ulterior motives. Charam would occasionally write to me of his little brothers and I would often find myself distracted by the thoughts of them barefoot and begging on the streets of Phnom Penh.
The chapter took another turn in August of 2011. Yorn was caught up by a ‘recruitment’ company whose business is exploiting poor women with promises of employment in other countries as domestic servants. In truth, they are human traffickers selling women into domestic slavery. Lured by the promise of easy money and a better life, Yorn found herself at one of the many recruitment training facilities in Cambodia waiting to be sent to Malaysia. Working with Aziza’s staff on the advice of another NGO that specialized in these type of situations, we attempted to ‘buy’ Yorn back. Those negotiations fell through and it was only due to the sudden interest in the wellbeing of these women by the Cambodian government (spurred on no doubt but the expose on CNN) that all visas being issued for these “workers” were suspended and Yorn was back out on the streets. As imperfect as that solution may be, it was better than the alternative.
Just yesterday Lina had been telling me that she had not seen her mother in a very long time. And then she turns up right as I arrive to pick up Lina. God’s ways are inscrutable sometimes, I thought as she promptly told me how difficult it was to have her kids in school and not home earning money. She will never know that I offered the recruiter $800 to buy her freedom and dismisses the memory of the drink cart I bought her to encourage her to earn money on her own, only to have her sell it for $50 a few days later. She only sees me as the “wealthy” white woman who only gives her money to two of her children, leaving her to a life of hardship. She whispers a few words in Lina’s ear before we go and within moments of driving off in the Tuk Tuk, my sweet girl is distracted and upset. I ask her what is wrong and she asks me if I will buy her poor mother and little brothers a house. My heart breaks. Lina is back in her role as her mother’s beggar and I am back in the position of having to deny help, if not for Yorn, then for Charan and Chara.
Later, as I watch my tribe of kids happily tearing their way through the Russian Market, each with $20 to buy clothing and toys, I am distracted by thoughts of those little boys. Is it indulgent and wasteful to give my kids that kind of spending money when a fraction of that could buy food for a week for Charan and Chara?
Charam finishes buying a new pair of jeans and a pair of shoes. He picks out a toy car for his little brothers and then carefully tucks the remainder of his money into his wallet. Lina has told him Yorn is around and he lets me know he plans on visiting her later that weekend. He is also distracted. The responsibilities Yorn placed upon him as the oldest son did not dissipate when he went away to school. I know exactly where the rest of that money is going. Lina hands him the dollar I gave her the day before and he tucks that away as well. My Western guilt rises up and I slip him an extra $50 knowing I am only helping to contribute to the vicious cycle that Yorn exists in.
Two children in school. Two on the streets. It is Sophie’s choice.