A Cambodian Diary

Posted on March 1, 2002

How do you express your thanks to God for his faithfulness? That's the question Fairview Presbyterian Church tackled in the fall of 1998 as we prepared to mark our 100th anniversary as a congregation. Our theme was "Celebrating God's Faithfulness," and we were looking for a means of acknowledging all our Lord has done for us over the past century.

Early on there was a decision to do a missions project. We looked at a variety of projects through PWS&D but settled on a project through the Ratanak Foundation. Ratanak has been working in Cambodia for about ten years to help rebuild the health infrastructure and to restore hope to a country so devastated by civil war, the Vietnam War spilling over its borders and ten years of isolation from the rest of the world.

We wanted to do something significant so we talked to Brian McConaghy of the Ratanak Foundation and told him that we were hoping to do a project with a cost of between $5,000 and $10,000. He told us that the most significant problem facing Cambodia today is AIDS — apparently introduced to Cambodia by UN troops stationed there in the early '90s to oversee the elections. One organization was working on a plan to build an AIDS Hospice. The Session at Fairview discussed the idea and eagerly presented it to the congregation.

Paul, Marieke and Grant
The three members of the team sent by Fairview Church, Vancouver
to Cambodia to see Sunshine House, the church's centennial project.

Only the Lord could have known what was going to happen. The project was introduced at our 100th Anniversary evening service in March of 1998 and wrapped up in June of the same year. The $5,000 to $10,000 we'd hoped to raise became $22,000. We had been thinking way too small for what God had in store for us and for the way in which Fairview became a part of this project. There was nothing but good news about what was happening until we learned that the project was not going to go ahead.

CAMA services in Cambodia — the organization through which the Ratanak Foundation was going to do this work — cancelled the project because it would have been far too expensive to have so small an impact on such a huge problem. We were left with two to four times what we'd hoped to raise and we had nothing to do with it. The Session decided that whatever happened the project should be in Cambodia and it should be related to AIDS. Brian McConaghy looked at a number of different possibilities but nothing worked out.

We prayed that the Lord would show us what he would have us do. We knew that God's fingerprints were all over this project from our end so we prayed that he would reveal to us what he wanted us to do. In God's grace Brian came across an organization from Perth, Australia, that had a vision to build an orphanage for children whose parents died of AIDS. They had raised sufficient money to buy the land but had no more money for the building. Brian did a lot of checking and confirming of this project — he didn't want us disappointed again. Everything looked almost too good to be true. The cost of the orphanage building would be $15,000 (US) or $22,000 (CDN, at the time). Awareness Cambodia — the organization in Perth — had a vision that just captured the hearts of Fairview. Not only would this project address the major healthcare issue in Cambodia today but it would do so in such a positive manner. The children in this orphanage would not only survive the loss of their parents but would thrive under its care. We jumped at the opportunity of doing this project.

Construction of Sunshine House began in the spring of 2000 and the first of the children moved in that September. We were excited to see pictures of the kids — "our kids" — early in 2001 but our excitement only grew as we realized that we were going to get to know these kids.

During the course of the project Brian had indicated that he would love to take a small group from Fairview to see the orphanage. Early in 2001 we began to pray and think and explore the possibilities of sending a small mission team to Cambodia with Brian. It was decided that we would send up to four members along with Brian on a trip to Cambodia in November. Brian said that I had to be one of the members because he knows me and because I had gone with him to Cambodia in 1995. The Session created a "job description" for the mission team and distributed it in the congregation asking interested people to write a brief note outlining why they wanted to go — this was going to be no holiday. The Session did an interviewing process and decided on a mission team of three: Paul Dylla (an elder at Fairview), Marieke Schindell (Praise Team member and Sunday School teacher) and me, Grant Wilson (the pastor).

In preparation for the trip we read books and articles; we watched videos and met together with Brian. Little did we know that this preparation paled in significance to what we would get in Cambodia itself. We left Vancouver on November 9 and after spending 24 hours flew on to Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia. The plan was for us to spend a week in Phnom Penh and the surrounding area to prepare us for going to the orphanage. At first, I think the three of us saw this as too much of a delay in getting to do what we wanted to do. We soon learned that that week was probably the most important part of the whole trip because it taught us the context. It taught us why Sunshine House was so important. It taught us what happens to orphaned children who have no Sunshine House…

Tuesday, November 13, 2001


Today we visited Tuol Sleng and the Cheong Ek killing fields. Tuol Sleng … was a high school that was converted to a detention and torture centre during the Pol Pot years. 22,000 Cambodians were tortured here, their bodies dumped about 15 km south of the city in Cheong Ek.

Tuol Sleng was a school, and I stared visualizing what it must have been like when the classroom was filled with laughing children. This place will never have the happy sounds of children enjoying life to the fullest.


What I am about to write will disturb you … but there is no way that I would explain what I experienced without being frank, as what I saw disturbed me greatly.

Twenty-two-year-old blood stains on the ceiling. Metal bed frames warped from beatings that the prisoner lying on top of the bed would have endured. Shackles on bed posts. Numbers painted on the wall where rows of people would have lain, waiting for the end of the horror, listening to the screams of those who were close to it. A crude gallows. Photo after photo after photo of alleged spies, or alleged rebels. The prisoners were as young as ten years old. Babies were killed too, in front of their parents.

Later in the day we visited Cheong Ek. This houses 186 former mass graves. I knew it would be another emotional experience, but once again, I wasn't ready. The first thing that greets you is the sputa, which is a large glass tower that holds a vast number of skulls. Skulls of those found in these graves. The rest of the site was fairly uneventful at first glance. Just huge craters in the ground. The craters used to be the graves, but they were full of bodies then. Now they are empty and overgrown. Then I tripped over a piece of cloth that was sticking out of the ground. The cloth I tripped over was rags of the clothing a prisoner was buried in. Soon I saw cloth everywhere. And then I noticed teeth. Just lying on the ground, or poking through the surface; molars, incisors, baby teeth, old teeth. Then I saw buttons and zippers. And the bones.

I don't know what I expected of today, but what I learned from the experience is not something that is easily found … by the grace of God.


Yesterday (in Hong Kong) was a lot of fun. Today was not. Don't get me wrong. There were times when we laughed and times when we joked around but today was not fun. At Tuol Sleng and Cheong Ek we saw the evidence of utter evil. From the rooms in which people were tortured to the holding cells to the place where thousands of people were killed and buried in the mass graves today was the day we were witnesses to evil.

Today was no fun but it was important that we see and experience these things. It was important for us to be disturbed and to cry. It was important for us to gain some understanding of this country's recent history because it is the reason we built Sunshine House.

Cambodia is trying to recover from atrocities even we can barely begin to understand. Sunshine House is one way we have been able to help in that recovery and that "redeeming the Land." The rest of this week we will see the ways in which Christians from around the world are working here to bring Christ's healing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2001


Today we went to the Boat of Hope — a floating medical clinic run by Asian Outreach Cambodia and funded by the Ratanak Project. How can I describe our day? The best way I can think of is to tell you about what happened on our way back. We were on the boat with the Khmer staff, a group on a short term mission (like us) from Australia and the South African Project Director and we sang over the sound of the engine and the wind, "In Jesus Christ we are one family." I looked around at this diverse group as we crossed the Mekong River and we were one family in Jesus Christ.


We met the Boat of Hope team on the other side of the Mekong River, having taken a ferry trip across. After quick introductions and a bit of chit chat, we hopped on the boat and rode down-river to the first clinic. Actually, we weren't close to the clinic and had to board a small convoy of pony-pulled carts. It was a ride like nothing Disney World ever conceived of.

We didn't see the reaction of the villagers when the team approached the clinic, however they were buzzing about like bees around a newfound cache of pollen. Grant, Marieke and I dove in to offer our limited skills to the endeavour. After recording the weight of a number of patients, I was offered the chance to learn to take blood pressure. Dr. Dylla was born!


When our group got to the clinic (later than everyone else as our horse cart had a mishap) we all quickly assumed various duties. I fulfilled a childhood dream and worked in the pharmacy. For about four hours I counted and distributed medication. Then we had a siesta and it was off to another clinic for three more hours.

In all, the day was rewarding. It made me realize that this is something that needs doing. These people are dying from diseases that are easily avoided. They are dying because they have no choice. It is only organizations like Boat of Hope that make life a little brighter for these people and give them a choice.

Thursday, November 15, 2001


Leslie, from Awareness Cambodia, picked us up at 8:15 am to take us to Preah Ket Mealea — the Military Hospital. When we got there and I took a look at the place, I could understand the "Military" part, since it caters primarily to military personnel and their families, but I have issue with the word "Hospital." In the Western world this compound would long have been razed to the ground for sanitary reasons.

Patients in the AIDS block are often abandoned by their families and die a slow death alone. Some families stick together, with the mothers worrying what will happen to their orphaned children once both parents have died. Orphans are not treated well by surviving relatives, often being regarded as family slaves rather than nephews or nieces. I honestly can't think of anyone I know who would willingly spend a full twenty-four hours in this place: cooking, eating, sleeping, living and raising their children here.

Yet out of this place come some of the children who are at Sunshine House. And into this place go Leslie, Pushpa, Linda and Sokon, sharing God's love and compassion, bringing hope to the dying, the forgotten. It is thanks to the generous giving of our congregation that the children at Sunshine House will have hope, and a life worth living.


The first patient we saw is dead even as I write this note. He died of AIDS midmorning shortly after we saw him. It was hard to look at him and see the suffering but even in this the hope of Christ arose in that the man had recently become a Christian because of the loving and compassionate care of a group of Christian widows under the guidance of Marie Ens. We also saw two women, both of whom are HIV positive, and both of whom asked that their children go to Sunshine House that they should get the best of care. It was so powerfully difficult to listen to Phalla talk about giving up her daughter because she knew it was the only way Socna could get the care she wanted for her. Phalla has a brother but would not leave her daughter with him because, at best, the child would become a household servant and, at worst, she would be sold into prostitution. She wanted Socna to be raised in a Christian environment and to be educated and cared for and loved — so she chose Sunshine House.

I saw this same hospital six years ago when I was in Cambodia — it has not improved at all. In fact in many ways the buildings are worse. One change I did note though — there was more hope. This small group of Christian widows are doing a powerful work and patients are finding hope in hopeless lives in Jesus Christ.


It was hard to imagine anyone living in this kind of place, let alone children.Instead of the care facility that a hospital is supposed to be, this was a place of death. Where hospitals are supposed to be bright and clean, this one was dark and so dirty. Instead of the friendly community neighbourhoods are supposed to be, the slums were a living hell. Where roads are paved and children laughing, this had narrow streets of rocks, dirt and garbage, and the children were wary of strangers and their eyes looked old.

And in the middle of all this, Christian love prevailed. For example, in the hospital one Christian man we saw died today of AIDS. Before he died, all the Christian patients in the hospital were gathered together in his room to hold a service for him, and be with him when he died. As well, one amputee there for treatment is teaching himself English and is taking computer classes in the evening in town. This week his family came to Christ through his witness.

Friday, November 16, 2001


What I saw yesterday were people who were taking Jesus' example seriously. By caring and giving to those rejected by society, they were making a difference. I could see this on the faces of the children in the three schools we visited in the Vietnamese slums. They had hope and joy. Their laughter was fuller and their eyes were brighter, and I can only attribute this to the fact that they knew that they were loved … by people and especially by God.

The conditions they live in won't improve in leaps and bounds as a result of this new-found knowledge. But their lives will.

I am so sad for the hundreds of children we saw yesterday for which this has not happened. Last night our team grieved over this fact, angry that God was not making a bigger impact, crying that the only difference between the child sniffing glue and a well-dressed happy child in school was Jesus.


As you may have noticed from yesterday's posts it was one of the hardest days of all of our lives. Today we spent a fair amount of time still trying to process what we saw, what it means and where God is in all of this. We talked more and we prayed more and we cried more. It was and still is a real struggle. We came here to represent Fairview Presbyterian Church and to come back to tell of what we've seen and experienced. We will do that to the best of our abilities but truly all of our efforts will be insufficient. We have all been overwhelmed, including Brian. Part of me thinks this is too much for anyone to witness but then the people we saw are living that existence.

We know that you've been praying for us. We know that because we trust you and because we have seen the results of your prayers in our time here. We thank you but I also ask you to continue to pray for us as we try and understand all that we've seen. Help with your prayers as we meet Socna and Chumnang for the first time on Sunday morning — about 6:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon Vancouver time. Seeing these children of such loving mothers will be a bitter joy to us.

I had been slipping into despair because of the intensity and magnitude of the problems we've seen here. And then it hit me — hope. For a time — about 36 hours — I think I had lost hope, or at least misplaced it. The struggle had overwhelmed me and I wasn't sure how to find hope again. And then it hit me, I think I understand hope now — or at least I have a much better grasp of it. I read Paul's and Marieke's postings and saw the contrast and paradox of the kids in the slums. There was the kid sniffing glue out on the street because he was utterly hopeless living in an utterly hopeless situation. And then there were the kids in the schools who sang and laughed and looked well and happy and healthy. They lived in the same slum with the same despair all about them. The only difference was that Jesus Christ had touched their lives and they had experienced the love of Christ offered in his people here working in the slums.

Saturday, November 17, 2001


Leslie Hewitt told the story of the day she went see one of the patients at Preah Ket Mealea — the Military Hospital. Sitting on the table in the very small room was the mother's daughter, about eleven years old, nicely dressed, hair washed, fingers manicured and wearing makeup.

Leslie was surprised to see such a beautiful girl in such a dilapidated place. She inquired about the

occasion, hoping to say some encouraging words. The little girl didn't look into Leslie's eyes when she said something indiscernible.

The next week, when Leslie was back at the hospital, she found the mother, but the little girl was not there.

Leslie came to the stark realization that the day she saw the mother's daughter all dressed up was the day that she was being sold, most likely into prostitution.

If the Sunshine House orphanage didn't exist, more children like the girl in the story would end up in the same place. This is what makes Sunshine House so valuable, so relevant.


Some of you may be wondering why it is taking us so long to get to Sunshine House — after all, we've been gone for a week now. Couldn't we have taken a day to get rested after the long flight and then get right out to the orphanage? Well we could have if we just wanted to have a nice visit with some sweet kids. But Brian's goal — and our goal — is to understand the context of Sunshine House as fully as possible.

To gain that understanding we had to learn something of the Cambodian context and culture. After landing in Phnom Penh on Monday we hit the streets to get to know the city and see the people and become surrounded in this new and very foreign culture. Tuesday saw us learning the hard lessons of this country's recent past in the Killing Fields. Then it was off to the Boat of Hope to see a rural area and some of the medical work funded by the Ratanak Foundation. Then came the hard day at the military hospital and the slums. Yesterday saw us at a small cafe that helps rehabilitate "girls at risk." Today, for the most part, was a much-needed day off with just a visit to a local market and lots of rest.

Amazingly, just about everything we've done has been preparing us for our time at Sunshine House. Trust me, this will not be just a nice visit with sweet kids. We have met the soon-to-die parents of two of the kids there; we've seen what happens to uncared-for orphans and we will be there for a new arrival. We will see kids whose lives have been saved and who have the opportunity to have happy, healthy and productive lives in no small part because of you, Fairview. You have made a profound difference — and believe me when I say profound — in the lives of the kids at the orphanage.

Ironically we will be out of touch over the next few days. The orphanage is definitely not web-equipped.


We are all really excited about going to Sunshine House. We cannot wait to meet these kids, whom we know so much more about now. It is thrilling to see that they can be taken away from a life of pain and poverty to live in a safe and caring Christian environment. Anyway, I end this with in a bittersweet mood … I am thrilled to go to Sunshine House and yet it means that we cannot write to you, our friends. Writing is therapeutic in some ways. It has certainly been emotional, even painful, but it is great.

Monday, November 19, 2001

Brian McConaghy

I figure, since the team is not here to defend itself, I will give you a quick thumbnail sketch of how each one has been doing. (I would not be doing this if the report card were not good!)

Grant has been here before and so much of what he has been exposed to is not new. I think it is fair to say that this trip has been much more "up close and personal" than the last one. We have gotten to know individual people, many with gut-wrenching life stories. I think this has been hard on the pastor in Grant. There is so much here you just can't fix and so much that simply much be accepted as you make the best of very, very bad situations. Grant has impressed me with his ability to be objective and see the big picture.

Marieke is tough! She has a heart for the third world. The rougher the road, hotter the weather, dustier the air, harder the work the more she seems to love it. She has a wonderful way of being tender and sensitive yet resilient. Sometimes, even through tears, she has fired me a look that seems to say "hit me with more." Her desire to learn about this culture and these people has driven her to accept every challenge. She has had no trouble travelling with us three older guys … let's just say she can hold her own. To those of you who know her this will not come as a surprise!

Paul has not been to a country like Cambodia before. He is a thoughtful, contemplative sort of guy. I always figured Paul could cope with such a trip and he has done much better than just cope. On several occasions I have turned around to help him with something to find him off working it out himself with the Khmer. Paul has thrown himself at this trip despite the culture shock and I think he is the richer for it.

These three have been a delight to travel with. They have been eager to learn and eager to try and communicate Cambodia to you despite being totally exhausted at times. I mentioned from the Fairview pulpit the week before we left that this would be no holiday. The team can vouch for that now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2001


Where do I begin? In this one message I will try to convey to you a hint of what we experienced at Sunshine House.

The first person I was introduced to was Socna, Phalla's daughter — the woman we met in the Soldier's Hospital in Phnom Penh. As you may remember from the post that day that meeting impacted me greatly. I love my family (Grace, Curtis and Jeffrey) with a deep and abiding passion. To meet this woman whose love for her daughter was so great that she gave up everything for her touched me deeply. So there I was at Sunshine House with eight-year-old Socna attached to my left hip — my arm around her shoulder and her arm around my waist. Somehow God was using me to convey Phalla's love and hugs to her daughter.

The kids were so open to us — so willing to try and communicate. At the drop of a hat a little one would be up on my lap or grab my leg or try to climb Phnom Grant (Grant Mountain). It was non-stop connection with the kids. One afternoon we tried to take some down time to write in our journals — that's really hard to do with little faces constantly peering up over my book.

How can I sum up my time at Sunshine House? I wrote last week of the struggle to try and find hope in Cambodia — I found hope at Sunshine House. It all seemed to come together in that place with those people — the kids and staff. Remember hope is not having it all.

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)

Hope is not having it all, hope is trusting God where we are in his promises to us. Hope is why Socna could smile at my hugs; hope is why the kids with HIV smile and laugh and giggle; hope is why it was such a joy for us to be at Sunshine House.


Writing in my journal today was a real trial because it is hard to focus when your vision is all blurred by tears, and not just wimpy little tears, but sobbing. Oh Fairview … what can I say? In the last three days my emotions have been a whirlwind of up and down. Up, because Sunshine House is such a great place for these kids to be … it is keeping beautiful girls from being sold, it is keeping tiny ones from being abandoned, and it is saving them all in a safe, loving environment. And at times my emotions were down, down, down, and it was because I cannot imagine the pain these children have endured … the pain of a parent dying, or being close to death. When two of the people I love the most are my folks, I can't imagine what life would be like without them. And these kids know. And their pain is real. As well, four of the kids there are HIV positive themselves. It makes me cry to think that they will never grow up, will never be able to fulfill their dreams, and the little life they have left will be one of pain and sickness.

One little girl was HIV positive and she was tiny. And she was a terror. But a good terror! She was so cute, and so affectionate. Her name was Srey Mao, and for whatever reason, she and I just clicked. When we were painting, she would come and sit by us. When I was eating, she would finish her own meal, and then come and sit next to me. Pushpa told me that Srey Mao is often concerned that she doesn't look beautiful. So daily I would pick her up and hug her and whisper, "Srey Mao, sa'aat?" (Sa'aat means beautiful in Khmer) and she would respond, "sa'aat," which meant she concurred. She was a precious little girl, and it totally broke my heart to leave her. When she found out that we were leaving this morning, she said nothing, but sat there, all tiny in the chair, and then slowly started to silently weep. I picked her up, and held her, and wiped away her tears, but I was weeping too. One thing I know about Srey Mao and her little brother Thon is that when their parents died their grandmother took them in. She got remarried and the new husband didn't want kids. So she called a mission and asked if they could take her grandchildren into Phnom Penh and abandon them there. To imagine little Srey Mao and Thon on the streets of Phnom Penh causes me to shiver.


There are many challenges still ahead. The children are all growing older, and will be dealing with the issues that come with being teenagers. They also don't have any role models for family life. The gap from the oldest to the youngest is getting larger as the children get older and new babies are brought into the Sunshine House family. Finding staff capable of working in this environment is difficult, considering the strict criteria that need to be in place to make this a safe nurturing place.

It is reassuring knowing that God is in control here. Just as he brought a number of congregations together from different places in this world to establish this beautiful sanctuary, so will he provide for the future.

Thursday, November 22, 2001


Friends … soon we will be back with you. And even though I took forward to this, my heart hurts at the thought of leaving. Somehow, in two short weeks, I have developed a strong love for this country and its people. I have had emotions about things and events that I would never have thought twice about before. And I have wept more in this time than I think I ever have. Night after night found me helplessly wondering at the situations I saw and knowing I could do little about them in the given time. And although it has been a painful trip, it has been a necessary one. I am changed. This trip has helped me realize things about myself and about others and about the world.

What you've just read were our thoughts and reflections as we were experiencing them. Each evening, except while we were actually at Sunshine House, the three of us plus Brian sat down and typed up what we had seen and what we were thinking about. These were all pulled together and placed on a website (www.ratanak.ca/fairview) for our family and friends and congregation and others to follow our experiences. On this trip we laughed a lot and we cried a lot. We laughed with joyful children and we cried tears of joy over them. We also cried bitter tears over the most hopeless situations any of us will ever see. We used our own sign language to communicate with "our kids." We showed them the love of Jesus and they loved us in return. We all left part of our hearts there. We came to love these kids though we were with them for only about four days. There was Chumran, the outgoing 13-year-old who will be a fine leader some day, Vanny (14) and her sister Vannah (12) who danced wonderfully, Lida (11) who sobbed deeply when we left, Ratana (8) the class clown, Socna (7) whose mother is dying of AIDS and Srey Mao (5) who probably won't see her seventh birthday because she is HIV positive and there is no treatment in Cambodia. These are just a few of the kids we came to know and love. We've all been asked if it was a good trip. It was a good trip — it was a joyful trip and it was a very painful trip and that is why it was good. We truly understand the incredible impact of this mission project in Cambodia. We understand the profound difference we can make in a distant and hurting land. And we understand something more about the hope that we find in Jesus Christ.

We saw people — children — in the slums of Phnom Penh who are utterly without hope. And we saw children who are filled with hope even though their parents are dead because of the love of Jesus lived in the lives of his people.

This mission project has been a great experience for this church family. It has been a part of the fabric of Fairview for almost three years now and will continue to be so for some time to come. It is an awesome thing to be a part of when God's people take a step in faith and follow his leading to unexpected places. I would encourage every congregation to look at the possibilities of entering into some kind of substantial mission project like this. It will change the lives of the people involved — including yours.