A HEARTFUL PROJECT in Cambodia
In Cambodia's second largest city, Battambang lies the headquarters of an astonishing project. Through permanently open doors can be found the beating heart of an organization which offers aid to those less fortunate in Cambodia. It caters mostly to people with disabilities, with the sole objective of helping them thrive in a country that has struggled through years of brutal dictatorship, followed by war and the genocide of more than two million people.
The man behind all of this is a Spaniard from Gijón, Msgr. Enrique Figaredo S.J., known by everybody as Kike, who as part of his early Jesuit studies beginning in the 1980’s, testified to the horrific accounts of thousands of refugees on the Thai border. He was touched forever, and had the opportunity to return in the early 1990s to found Banteay Prieb (Fortress of the Dove) along with four other Jesuits in the capital, Phnom Penh. The team's main goal was to support people with disabilities by providing them with wheelchairs - a specific model with broad wheels that Kike and his team designed for the Cambodian rough terrains - and to train them so they could learn a trade and find employment.
In 2000 Kike was appointed Apostolic Prefect of Battambang, head of the Church in the northwest of Cambodia. Following on from the first project in Banteay Prieb, Kike realized that a lot more needed to be done, and so decided to expand the operation, and the seeds were thus sewn for multiple labor-intensive programs.
Father Arrupe's Center assists over 600 families through the 'Outreach' program, helping children with disabilities in impoverished rural areas by supporting their individual development and integration into the community. By financing the children's education and keeping them away from work in rice fields, the project eventually helps them to find jobs as adults. 'La Paloma' is the home where some of the children live.
Also the OBRUM program, undertakes to rebuild schools in impoverished or precarious locations. The program has reached out to 2,300 children countrywide, and by working with the government, recruits experienced teachers, and involves the local community which, in turn, takes pride in the school's wellbeing; an incentive for families to keep their children in education. Another home in Tahen, 15km away from Battambang, houses children from difficult family situations where they are able to take refuge and share their dreams with others of the same age.
Also Anatha, a program created by volunteers, helps disadvantaged families put their children in school. They have managed to also create a garment workshop, where people with disabilities make clothes. An IT project to teach computer sciences.
Additionally, the organization manages a restaurant, kindergarten, health center, farms and summer camps. How the organization manages to keep everything running is a miracle. The employees' drive and enthusiasm is contagious because they really make a positive impact on the community. The team continues to develop other projects, associating itself with other NGOs, and supporting cross-faith collaborations, such as those established with buddhist groups.
What Kike has built, with the help of friends and volunteers, is made possible by the charity of individual donors. Some entrepreneurs get deeply involved, like the Spanish businessman who decided to build a garment factory with them, employing as many as 30% of workers with some kind of disability. Such actions set an example for other local companies and encourage them to follow a similar model.
But beyond the immeasurable financial aid lives the spirit of the volunteers who dedicate a minimum of a year of their lives unpaid to these projects. That was what truly made me shudder when I got the chance to visit. The workers' job satisfaction comes from seeing children smile, and their close connection with the people they help is what seems to make their intentions so powerful. Their devotion to the cause, in exchange for no more than a room and board in conditions that are far from comfortable, astounds me. I was lucky to visit the facility in mid-December, and to see my 4-year-old child interact with a group of kids, each of whom has just on leg. She tells me, "You see, Mom, they are happy, we are all laughing together, and they are all okay!” I cry inside, smile back at her and say,“You are so right." A child's innocence in a situation like this is so pure and untainted, and we are always reminded that everything is revealed when seen through the eyes of truth.
Additional photography by: Nicanor Figaredo