Down a long and bumpy road, outside of Bek Chen, Cambodia, is a long driveway and a small sign that marks “Place of Rescue”. At the end of the drive, is a lovely house on stilts, with a large verandah and beautiful flowers surrounding it and it’s there that we find Marie Ens. Marie is one of those women who should make Barbara Walters’ list of most fascinating people but probably never will while there are the Miley Cirus and Kardashians of the world to watch. It’s only one of the many injustices in our lives that we become immune to.
Marie is 79 and she first served in Cambodia with her husband and small children in the 1960′s. She is feisty and determined, a fierce advocate for the children of Cambodia. Over the years, she has been evacuated from Cambodia several times in the face of the Pol Pot regime and the Vietnam War. She returned to Cambodia late in life and plans to live out her days right where she’s at. In a little home on the edge of a piece of property that has become sanctuary and home to children who most likely, without this place, would be orphaned and on the streets, hungry and exploited.
When we arrived on the property, we were greeted as old friends, each of us. Marie has an uncanny ability to remember names and faces though she travels and meets countless people over time. We sit down with her and hear the story of how she came to be in this place, living out her life, pouring into the committee that she has in place to run the NGO. She believes in Cambodia and with the exception of the English teachers, has only Cambodian leadership in place. She used to be counted as the only non-Cambodian on staff but she recently was given her full Cambodian citizenship – an honour that absolutely delights her. She can’t hide how proud she is to be a Cambodian.
Sitting with Marie and hearing her passion for the people of Cambodia, it’s hard to imagine how we live our lives without such drive and passion for something meaningful. It’s the very thing that energizes her and allows her to live so fully. It’s enviable.
We head onto the property for a tour and the first thing we see is a couple of rows of houses where families who have HIV/AIDS are able to live together and receive treatment and support. It’s an incredible ministry because it allows families to stay together and for children to have access to school and support, instead of having to go out and figure out ways to provide income for their families. If families lose both parents, the children are integrated into the homes at the orphanage and continue to live in stability with familiarity around them. They are already known and loved and so the grieving process is not complicated by the uncertainty of new surroundings, unstable living conditions or loss of basic necessities.
A row of homes where families with HIV/AIDS live
Place of Rescue has lovely homes, in groups of 10 around an inner grassy courtyard, lined with trees and flowers. Each home has a housemother who is responsible for the family of children entrusted to her. Children from pre-school to high school age live together as a family. Having dinner in the homes, we see first hand how it really is a family environment…a beautiful departure from the institutional approach to orphan care. Finding the right women to be housemothers remains a huge challenge for Marie and her team…it’s not easy to find women who are willing to live with a household of children that are not their own, but to love them as if they were. The housemothers have strong faith, compassion and love to give. When you meet these mothers, you realize that they really do love the life they are living, it’s not just a job to them. And thankfully so, because they are in it for the long haul, raising children to become successful adults is no easy task.
We’re greeted by these two little guys…always happy to see Marie or Makyeay (grandma)
as they call her.
As we walk around, we also meet some of the children, returning from school. When children are 11 at Place of Rescue, they are each given their own bicycle. It doesn’t matter that they are used bicycles and well worn, each 11 year old is excited to participate in this rite of passage. No longer do they have to walk to the nearby school, but they are able to bicycle. For the children that go to school off the property, it is a rule that they must double another smaller child on their bicycle. No bicycle goes through the gate with just a single rider. It’s lovely to see the older children caring for the younger ones in this simple way…it’s just part of the fabric of life here at Place of Rescue.
Three sweet girls that now live together with 7 others and a house mother atPlace of Rescue were proud to show us their home.
We meet several girls and as we leave their home, we hear the stories of their rescue. Children who were orphaned and left alone. Children whose own mothers tried to drown them out of some form of desperation or mental illness. Children who were being exploited by family members and unable to attend school or even eat daily…brought to Place of Rescue and placed into family style homes.
We had dinner with this beautiful household of girls from age 3 to 13.
As we shared dinner with the girls, we learned bits and pieces about their lives beforethey came to Place of Rescue.
This family of girls and their housemother (far left) were so sweet.
One of the beautiful components of Place of Rescue is their commitment to Cambodia as a country and a culture. Children are raised by Cambodian house mothers, taught by Cambodian teachers (with the only exception being English teachers) and taught Cambodian traditions and dances so that they can integrate back into Cambodian society as adults. This is definitely not an easy mandate to uphold but the community ownership component of it is the kind of benchmark that many NGO’s fail to recognize and it becomes their undoing. Instead of “importing” housemothers and teachers, volunteers from other more developed countries…which could be financially advantageous to an NGO, Place of Rescue sets a high standard and doesn’t compromise the care or teaching given to the children. This is one of the reasons that I love the model of care that they are providing for these kids. It’s evident in the community that Place of Rescue is a community of loving homes. Children here are very fortunate, even in light of their harrowing stories of early life. They are loved, they are cared for and they are being given the chance to grow into educated, compassionate, confident adults that really and truly can change the Kingdom of Cambodia for the better.
After dinner, we gathered everyone together and the kids sang and danced for us.Children are taught traditional Cambodian dances in an effort to preserve their culture
so that one day, they will integrate as seamlessly as possible into Cambodian life.
The boys and girls practice their dances and love to performfor their peers and any visitors.