If one walks along the Chroy Changvar commune at the outskirt of capital Phnom Penh, he will be able to spot scores of little wooden huts along the way. In one of the six-square-metre huts in the Second Village live Srey Phors and her elder cousin Sman Petymas.
Apart from rheumatoid arthritis which has deformed her fingers and toe joints, the 74-year-old granny has also lost her linguistic abilities from a stroke. Her immobility too is an obstacle for her. She can barely get by with her cousin and the two are largely dependent on relatives and neighbours to care for and provide them with their daily three meals.
In December 2011, volunteers of Phnom Penh and Singapore jointly held a relief distribution following the September floods in Chroy Changvar and the two were among the recipients. After the distribution exercise, several volunteers accompanied them back home to have a better understanding of their living condition. After assessing their dire situation, the volunteers immediately started a monthly distribution of 15 kilograms of rice and US$40 for the pair, allowing them to enjoy three meals a day and also taking some of the pressure off their neighbours.
Sreyna, 27, who stays opposite Srey Phors, got to know the latter when she was 17. To earn a living, Srey Phors used to do laundry for others and also sell snacks. She often gave Sreyna and her younger sister candies and both sisters adore her. For many years, Srey Phors receives deep respect from her fellow villagers for her generosity in helping the people around her. This explains why when Srey Phors needs help, her neighbours are more than willing to offer their helping hands. As for Sreyna, she would prepare meals for Srey Phors and Sman Petymas, bring to their hut and also see to their household needs.
Married with a son and daughter, Sreyna’s family is not well-off and life can be a bit of a stretch for her sometimes. “Before you came, it was hard for Granny (Srey Phors) to get by. Now with your regular assistance, Granny wouldn’t need to fret about her daily needs anymore.”
Even though the villagers lead a frugal life plagued with hardship, they exude a wonderful spirit of mutual care and concern for each other. Srey Phors has no children, but under the joint assistance and support from the villagers and Tzu Chi, Srey Phors and Sman Petymas no longer have to worry about their living needs.
Mitonach, who has been visiting the two seniors, said, “We have been helping Granny and her cousin for three months now and we kept dropping by to visit her. We hope Granny would live long with our help and care.”
A shoulder to lean on
77-year-old Mey Mary was not at home when the volunteers visited her. Neighbours told them that the senior has gone to a nearby clinic to get her medication and a villager with motorbike would be fetching her home.
Soon Mey Mary arrived. Seeing that she needed to use a red plastic chair to help her walk, the volunteers rushed forward to assist the senior. The granny could not stop smiling when she realized her guests were the Tzu Chi volunteers.
Granny Mey Mary has a small build and is grey-haired but from her delicate features one can tell that she must have been a beauty when she was young.
A while after she sat down in front of her hut, local volunteer Su Xiao Hong went forward to give her fluffy hair a comb. The senior was all smiles, hugging Huang Gui Zhi, an entrepreneur volunteer who hails from Malaysia. The volunteers present caringly asked about her health and her living condition. Granny Mey Mary replied that it used to be very cold during the night but since Tzu Chi volunteers provided her with blankets and sweaters last December, she no longer feels cold.
When asked if she is still taking alcohol, the senior shook her head vigorously, saying, “No, I don’t drink anymore!” “Really? Why is that so?” “Because you came here to see me, and I am very happy, there is no need for me to drink anymore!” Granny Mey Mary assured the volunteers.
Last year before the relief distribution, Granny Mey Mary was not at home when the volunteers came by to distribute the collection slip. The volunteers followed up thereafter and began caring for her. They realized the lonesome elder has experienced many ups and downs in life.
Granny’s great-grandfather came from Teochew, China and she is the third generation Chinese descendent. She attended four years of Chinese school, which explains her knowledge of Mandarin and also her possessing a Chinese name, Chen Mei Xiang. Her husband was a military officer before the Khmer Rouge years and they were one of the well-to-do families. When the Khmer Rouge came into power, her whole family was separated and she was forced to work as a hard labourer in the countryside.
After the Khmer Rouge fled the country, Mey Mary went back to Phnom Penh but was left with nothing. She heard that her husband had gone to France and has passed away there. She was never able to contact him. To sustain life, Mey Mary sold groceries to make a living and she would meet up with her children occasionally. Sadly, Mey Mary has forgotten how many children she has, but she still maintains contact with a son and a daughter with whom she has drifted apart.
After going through war and family separation, Mey Mary was very bitter and started drinking and would drink till she was drunk. Few years ago, she had a bad fall from being drunk and fractured her ilium and thigh bones. This caused her to lose the mobility to walk properly and she has to wind up her grocery business. Though her children provided for her daily needs, she was still barely surviving.
Her son-in-law even paid for her to attend meditation class, hoping that she would quit drinking. She did stop for a while, but she started drinking again eventually. After all, she has too much misery cooped inside her and drinking seemed to be the only way for her to seek relief.
Mey Mary’s hut is next to a river slope, hence she was severely affected by the flood last December. Even though the water has receded, whenever a car drives past, clouds of dust from the dried muddy road will follow.
Her hut is built half a metre off the ground on a terrain and is about six square metres. The walls are made of wooden planks and pieces of cloths, which could only block the sun and shield some rain but definitely not strong wind. Visible gaps could be seen in between the thin bamboo floor making the hut seemed an unsteady structure. There is a cement stove at the rear and on top of it sits a black kettle and a dripping tap at the side. The interior is slightly untidy.
The wheelchair that Tzu Chi gave her is kept inside the house to avoid being stolen. The granny told the visiting volunteers that the wheels are deflated and asked if she could have an inflator for the wheels the next time they visit, to which the volunteers gladly agreed.
To the volunteers’ puzzlement, Mey Mary’s children actually stay next to her in a big, comfortable brick house but they are not willing to have their mother stay with them.
Before leaving, the volunteers sang ‘One Family’ to cheer on the granny who was smiling cheek to cheek. The volunteers hope that their constant care will open her heart and treat them as her own family so they can fill her heart with warmth and comfort.
In-depth understanding of villagers’ plight
The local volunteers have started conducting visits in the Chroy Changvar commune since last year and are providing material supplies as well as spiritual care for the impoverished villagers. Gradually, more interested parties such as businessmen, white-collar professionals and medical students came forward to participate.
Brother David Liu, the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, has been bringing a team of volunteers from Singapore branch to Cambodia on a regular basis, hoping to share and pass on the principle and philosophy of Tzu Chi’s charity. Under the leadership of husband-wife Su Ying Long and Su Xiao Hong, the 100-odd strong team is now caring for 23 home cases.
After visiting Chroy Changvar’s Second Village that morning, the volunteers from Singapore and Phnom Penh visited the Third Village. The structure in the village is slightly different whereby houses are built on low-lying ponds with stilts supporting the house structure. After the flood, villagers use wooden boards and metal plates to form temporary walkway to connect each house. The walkway looks shaky but the villagers simply come and go with ease.
The water level at the rear of the village is still significantly high and the flood had brought huge volume of trash, which has caused unpleasant odour and degraded the living environment. In addition, villagers nearby used sand to surround their village compound, clogging up the water flow at the Third Village. The villagers are worried that if the current condition is not improved, the rainy season in August will aggravate the circumstances.
The sight of the adults worrying about their future and children in rags playing in the filthy environment made the village seemed all the more miserable.
There are still some areas in the village where waters have not receded. The volunteers were not able to walk in further to understand the villagers’ plight and to make situation worse, a fire had raged through part of the village a while ago. The head of the village, Kim Vannak, said, “We are very grateful to Tzu Chi for the relief distribution last year, which has helped to lessen the burden of our people. However the water from the flood has not subsided and many of us are falling sick due to unclean environment.”
Brother Liu thus suggested to the local volunteers to follow up closely with the situation at Chroy Changvar with the consensus from the heads of the villages. He advised the volunteers to meet up regularly to discuss how to improve the situation for each home and then seek advice from Master Cheng Yen. Hopefully this will improve the situation for the villagers and alleviate their hardships.