The two hours I spent under a thatched-roof bamboo cabana in Battambang, Cambodia after church this Sunday will remain with me to my last day as a priceless treasure. And not that I have any sort of death wish, nor have I been experiencing an unusually high number of fatal premonitions, but yeah. I could die now, having seen and accomplished more than any dude from Columbus, Ohio has a right to expect.
With my friend Dylan along for the ride to listen in and take photos, I met with Sengyou, the father of our Battambang 1 Children’s Home, his daughter Chhem and Chhem’s husband and baby girl. I’ve known Chhem since she was about 13 years old when, in 2004, she came to Asia’s Hope with her older sister, Samneang. Their father had abandoned them and their mother struggled with debilitating substance abuse.
When she was a child, I only knew Chhem’s story from her biographical file and from what our staff had told me throughout the years. On Sunday, I heard it from her own mouth. There are some parts too sensitive to share, but I wanted give you just enough to understand what it meant to Chhem to be adopted into the Asia’s Hope family when she was the age of my daughter, Xiudan.
“When my dad left us, I hated my life. I wanted to die.”
“How would I live? What would I eat? Who would protect me? My mom could not care for us because of her addiction. She didn’t provide anything at all for us. We were always hungry. We had to look after our mom, our grandmom and ourselves. At school, the other kids bullied me and called me bad names; they said I am an orphan and no one loves me. The teachers didn’t care because they knew the children were right.”
“At night, I would cry for hours because I was worried about my future. I hated myself and I was terrified. I did not know Jesus yet, but I prayed to ‘god’ to help me. And then I began to have the same dream again and again.”
“I saw a hand outstretched toward me. I felt it pick me up and hold me in its palm. A voice told me, ‘Don’t worry — I am holding you. Come with me.’ And after that I could fall asleep in peace. Not long after, we heard that a man had come to see us. He said, ‘We have a home for children whose parents can’t care for them. Your grandmother recommended we come and see you. Would you like to come? It’s your decision.’ Immediately I knew that this was the help promised by the voice I had heard.”
“When I met daddy, I was so happy. His face was so kind. And mommy was so nice. And the food at my new home was delicious. When I returned to school, I was so proud. When the kids picked on me, I stood up tall and said, ‘No! I am not an orphan. That is my daddy. You saw him bring me to school. I have a nice house and a mom too. You can’t talk like that to me.’
“Throughout my life, daddy and mommy have given me everything I need. Daddy guides me and taught me how to make good decisions. He and mommy have their own birth children, but I have never felt like I am second place. He really is my daddy and I really am his daughter. Every time I can, I come home to Battambang 1 and I walk with my daddy and mommy. They give me advice, they tell me encouragements. I try to encourage my younger brothers and sisters and I tell them, ‘You have to work hard. If you do, you can succeed like me.’”
“All through my life, people have tried to tell me I’m too young, my skin is too dark, I don’t have enough experience, I don’t have the right kind of family. But my life experience has given me the skills I need to succeed in every situation. Even at my current job at a local school, I have gotten promotions faster than everyone else. At first my co-workers were angry and resented me. But now that I am leaving to work for Asia’s Hope, they beg me to stay. My boss has asked, ‘Don’t you get paid enough money? You have your own house now. You are a team leader. What can I do to make you stay?’ But I know that the hand of God has guided me my whole life and that this is his will.”
In April, Chhem and Da will be moving their little family across the country to Phnom Penh where they will take a leadership role on our Prek Eng campus. I’ll share more later about the specifics of their role, but we’re still moving around some pieces and parts to effect the transition.
Guys, this woman is strong. She’s confident. She, like so many other Asia’s Hope graduates, is ready to lead. As she spoke, tears ran down my face and my heart beat almost visibly through my church. I may have actually swooned. I am so proud. I am so thankful. I am beyond confident that the next generation of leaders at Asia’s Hope will be even better than the current one — and that is saying a lot.
Please pray for Chhem and Da. Her narrative arc: tragedy > rescue > redemption > leadership is extraordinary. But it’s not unique, at least not at Asia’s Hope. I can point to dozens of young people in our care who are on the same path. God is doing something amazing here. He’s taking the lowest, most despised members of society — kids at the highest risk of being sexually and economically exploited of any demographic in the world — and he’s revoking their status as orphans and transforming them into kings and queens. I get it. That sounds super melodramatic. But you just have to see it, to spend an hour or two with Chhem. You’ll get it then.
I hope to get Chhem’s story on video some day. You’d be forgiven for suspecting that I’ve been highly selective in my editing to make her words fit our strategic communications agenda. But you’d be wrong. “This is my family” isn’t just a slogan. It’s something our kids know and feel to the depths of their being. It’s our promise, and it’s the hope that sustains and propels them. Thank you for making it possible. We have a lot of work left to do and we need your help. God bless you.