Friends International

UK journalist Marissa Carruthers recently visited Friends-International programs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This short article by her, in which she describes the impact of our work, first appeared on the Friends-International blog.

'I can remember during my first trip to Cambodia the pangs of guilt I felt as I walked along the riverfront past malnourished women cradling malnourished babies wrapped in swaddles of filthy blankets.Bare-footed kids flocked to my feet, their dirt-caked faces baring adorable grins; their shrieks of laughter, the innocence in their eyes all tugging on the heart-strings of passing tourists.

I remember how tempting it was to give in to the big brown eyes of the ever-so-cute Cambodian girl who was begging me to buy a book from the heavy basket she was carrying on her shoulder. In perfect English she said she needed the money for school before offering to play a game of rock, paper, scissors. If she won, I bought a book. If she didn’t, I didn’t have to.

I politely declined and watched as she skipped through the restaurant, charming each table along the way. A few took her up on her offer of a game and I watched every single one lose to this pint-sized professional who was raking in a load of cash I knew she would never see.

I’d read about the sinister side to child beggars and street sellers and was determined not to fall victim to it but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. There’s always one that steals your heart with their story, wit and charm. Maybe she really will use the money to pay for school, right?

Wrong, and after spending a week with Friends-International and seeing first-hand the fantastic work carried out in Cambodia to try and break the prevalent poverty cycle it’s safe to say I will never part with my money like this again.

Focusing on the Mith Samlanh arm of Friends International, I saw how it is possible to give hope to some of the many marginalised Cambodian kids who in many cases are forced to work on the streets by their poverty-stricken families.For me, the beauty of this project is that it’s in it for the long haul. Cambodia’s problems are never going to be solved overnight and it recognises there’s certainly no quick-fix, band aid solution.

Understanding the importance of providing children with an education and keeping them off the streets, where they often get caught up in crime and drugs, the NGO works with more than 2,000 children, teenagers and young adults each day to get them back into education or train them up in the skills needed to get a job.

During my time with Friends-International, I was truly touched to see so many success stories in the making as the NGO works to equip children and young people with the education and vocational training they deserve; to provide them with a future so they don’t have to rely on making their means on the streets.

Joining the outreach team on one of their visits to a community crippled by poverty on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, children swarmed to the bus we arrived on, excited to play with the toys and read the books on board – a rare joy.

A doctor was also on hand to tend to any medical issues members of the community suffer from and social workers were there talk to teenagers and children about any problems they may have. Those identified as being in need with be referred to the project’s education and training centre in Phnom Penh – another place I visited.

The brightly decorated buildings are alive with the sound of laughter, chatter and hard work as young men and women are taught trades that will help secure them a job in the likes of sewing, hairdressing, mechanics, engineering, cooking and welding. Many visitors to the city will be familiar with the NGO’s Romdeng restaurant, where the student chefs and waiting staff who are trained at the centre put their skills into practice before moving on to the Friends the Restaurant and then onto permanent jobs in hotels, restaurants and bars across Cambodia.

Another inspirational project I was able to see is the Home-Based Production. I visited a small community in Phnom Penh that is home to those affected by HIV and Aids. Isolated from the rest of society, Friends-International has shown them how to make a series of products such as bags, purses, wallets, which are then sold in the Friends shops providing the families with a regular income.

For me, my time with Friends-International was an emotional one. Coming face-to-face with the poverty and struggles of so many people who live in this country was difficult but to see the hard work and effort of Friends-International and speaking to the people who really have been thrown a life-line was heart-warming and over-whelming. Keep up the good work!'