“No one provided help to us after our home was flooded. Only Tzu Chi turned up to help,” said Yuos Nead and Chan Touch who were in high spirits as they brought along their two children to collect the relief items. They stay in the First Village and had long have difficulties in making ends meet. The floodwaters made life even more difficult for their family. Fortunately, the aid items can now sustain the family for about two weeks.
On the morning of 4 December, Tzu Chi conducted its first-ever large-scale distribution in the Third Village of Chroy Changvar commune in the eastern part of Phnom Penh. This was Tzu Chi’s first aid distribution effort in Phnom Penh, having previously distributed aid in the country's Battambang Province 17 years ago.
With the end of the rainy season in August and September, the weather in Cambodia has turned hot and dry with daytime temperatures reaching a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius. Volunteers in the advance team, who arrived several days earlier, had difficulty acclimatizing to the hot weather. Fortunately, the weather on the morning of the aid distribution had turned for the better with cloud cover and cooling winds providing comfortable relief from the heat.
The aid distribution banner was hoisted on top of two large trucks filled with rice sacks, which were parked in front of the guest sitting area. The Buddhist and Tzu Chi flags were seen fluttering in the wind, adding a tinge of festive spirit to the day.
Villagers of all ages from across the Chroy Changvar commune arrived at the distribution area in Third Village with their aid collection slips early in the morning. Volunteers assisted to seat the villagers according to their village as commune chief Pick SaRourn and the five village chiefs arrive for the event.
The floodwaters may be ruthless, but Love remains
While interacting with the villagers at the waiting area, Brother David Liu, the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, told the Cambodians, “The Tzu Chi volunteers are here to spread love to you, and we hope you can pass the love forward in future.”
As the tune of the song 'Give Love' rang in the air, local volunteer and businessman Brother Su Ying Long explained the meaning of the lyrics to the villagers in the Khmer language. Brother Liu then led all present to follow the volunteers and the local youth sign language team to hand-sign to the song. Despite not understanding Mandarin, the villagers waved and clapped along, creating a jovial atmosphere.
“The heavens are kind to grant us cool weather today,” said Chief Pick SaRourn in his welcome speech to mark the commencement of the aid distribution.
“The flood situation was especially serious this year, with about 1500 households being affected. The government has assisted to drain floodwaters in low-lying areas since September but this has yet to be completed due to the severity of the floods. We are very grateful to Tzu Chi for holding this relief distribution for our people. Mr Su Ying Long has even visited all the affected families with the chief of our Third Village. We hope that this aid relief distribution can provide some comfort for our affected people.”
Brother Liu then conveyed the greetings and well-wishes from Tzu Chi's founder, Master Cheng Yen: “The floods have caused villagers to suffer inconvenience and loss. Having heard the flood’s impact on the livelihoods here, Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan directed us volunteers to start planning for this relief operation. The floodwaters may be ruthless, but love is abundant in our society. We sincerely hope that you can return to your normal lives soon.”
The aid distribution officially commenced with 10 Tzu Chi volunteers respectfully handing over rice sacks to representatives of the villagers. The volunteers subsequently guided the villagers to collect their aid items with their collection slips.
Having collected their relief items, which include 15 kilograms of rice, five litres of bottled vegetable oil, one kilogram each of sugar and salt and one bottle of pain relief ointment, the villagers proceeded to the entrance of the distribution site. Waiting there were many motorcycles, some belonging to the villagers themselves, while others were rented by the villagers to transport their relief supplies. The villagers rode home happily with the food items, which were sufficient to sustain their households for the next few weeks.
The elderly and movement-impaired were also specially assisted by volunteers. The scene of them holding the volunteers' hands exuded a warm and familial feeling.
Timely aid from a Buddhist NGO
In a small tent near the distribution site, 24-year-old Chorn Ny was seen sitting on a makeshift bed within the tent’s mosquito net with a baby lying on her lap. The young lady was essentially covered from head-to-toe wearing a cotton cap and long-sleeve jacket with socks, which was rather peculiar considering the hot weather.
Chorn Ny had given birth to her daughter just four days ago, and was still in her confinement period. Her husband, Ngean Makara, is a cement mason who does odd jobs and earns a monthly income of just US$75. The couple moved here from their flooded stilt house two months ago while she was still pregnant. Even now, after having given birth to her baby girl, the floodwaters at their home have yet to recede.
It is extremely inconvenient for the couple to stay in this small tent, which has no water and electric supply. Chorn Ny has to wait for her husband to return at night with water from the river before she can bathe their child.
Ngean Makara is constantly worried about whether he can afford the next meal for his family due to his low income. The floods have added to their troubles, forcing them to rely on help from neighbours or take loans to survive.
It was heartbreaking to see the dry skin on the newborn baby as Chorn Ny was not producing enough breast milk to feed her baby. The volunteers reminded her to drink more water so as to produce sufficient milk for feeding. The rice they received at the distribution should be able to sustain the family for the next two weeks. To provide Chorn Ny with better nutrition, the volunteers gave the bread and sweets they had brought along to the young mother before bidding goodbye to the family.
Elderly cousins living in solitude
With the assistance of her neighbours, an elderly woman with a walking cane in her hand arrived to join the queue for relief aid. The volunteers immediately brought forward a chair for the senior to sit down. When the volunteers led the crowd to hand-sign a song, the senior nodded approvingly, her eyes welling with tears.
Sery Phors, who stays in the Second Village, suffered a stroke and is unable to speak. She lives with her cousin, Sman Petymas, near the Tonle Sap lake and the neighbourhood is home to a Muslim majority. When the floodwaters inundated their home, the cousin-pair sought refuge in their neighbour’s home opposite their own house. While the waters have receded now, a layer of sediment covers their village.
The two live together in a neatly arranged wooden shack about six square metres in size. There are several households living close by and their houses are relatively well-maintained. A few years ago, Sery Phors came down with stroke and was unable to care for herself. Sman Petymas took it upon herself to care for her. The government assists by providing them with 15 kilograms of rice each month. Their neighbours also provide them with small fish and vegetables and assists with the cooking.
It was lunchtime when the volunteers visited their home. Sman Petymas went to their neighbours to collect lunch and the two cousins went on to have their lunch on a small table in front of the shack. The scene of Sman Petymas helping Sery Phors (who has difficulty using her fingers due to arthritis) with her food demonstrated the close relationship between them.
Looking at the relief supplies received, tears again welled up in the two seniors' eyes as they placed their hand on their chest – a Cambodian gesture to express appreciation – to the Tzu Chi volunteers and wished them the best of health.
Coming together for a united cause
This was the first time that Tzu Chi volunteers in Cambodia have undertaken such a large-scale effort. Over the last two months, business couple Su Ying Long and Su Xiao Hong has had to manage both their business and volunteering obligations.
Brother Su, who has asthma problem, has been especially busy preparing for the aid distribution over the past month. On the very day of the distribution, he served as both the master of ceremony and interpreter, and also coordinated many matters, which required plenty of effort and perseverance.
“It is unbelievable that the operation had concluded successfully and that I managed to pull through as all those toiling have far exceeded my health capacity,” said Brother Su emotionally, with face now red from all the time under the sun.
Sharing his sentiments was his beloved wife and fellow volunteer, Su Xiao Hong. “I thought I could not pull myself through this aid distribution. Luckily, I had Sister Huang Gui Zhi (a fellow Malaysian entrepreneur) to assist me, which assured me greatly. I was also encouraged to see many young volunteers joining us this time.”
A total of 145 personnel worked in unison towards this effort, including 29 volunteers from Singapore and Malaysia, 30 Cambodian volunteers, 70 enterprise employees as well as 16 Tzu Chi care recipients.
Care recipient Chen Shu Jie from the First Village gathered 13 of his friends to help in the distribution as a gesture of appreciation for the monthly aid provided to him. “Although I have no money, I have a heart. I can help my fellow villagers,” said an earnest Chen.
Brother Yoshikazu Shaku, the overall coordinator of the operation, left Cambodia over 30 years ago and was determined to give back to his home country. He now travels frequently between Singapore, Japan and Cambodia due to work and volunteering commitments but he had no complaints of that at all.
Reflecting on his role in the distribution, he shared his realization. “The greatest challenge during the coordination was overcoming the language barrier but having the correct attitude and tone was even more important.”
This first-ever large-scale aid distribution effort in Phnom Penh was a new milestone for Tzu Chi’s humanitarian efforts in Cambodia. Even though the items distributed were limited, the love that was spread was limitless. It was heartening to see increased numbers of local volunteers, including participation of volunteers from the entrepreneurial sector. We hope to see continual growth of this force for the good.