I remember, as a youngster, seeing a picture in one of our Sunday school books of Jesus sitting on a hillside surrounded by happy children. I always found comfort in that picture because it told me that there is always someone who will care for me and protect me. It assured me that, to Jesus, I was a priority.
The memory of that picture returned to me several weeks ago when a close Khmer friend introduced me to some of the street children he works with here in Phnom Penh. My friend, Sokthea, has spent much of his time and energy to meet with these children and let them know that someone cares about them.
The children, ages 8 to 12, live in one of the many slums of Phnom Penh and most of them make their living pulling two-wheeled carts around the city looking for trash they can collect and then sell to recycling centers in order to earn enough money for their evening meal. What we discard so casually is the hope for a simple meal for these children.
One young girl’s story was especially touching to me. I will call her Nuon. She is a little over 10 years of age. Nuon’s parents both died several years ago and now she lives with her sickly grandmother. In the past they would both go down to the city center to beg from the people resting along the river in the cool of the evening. Nuon’s grandmother is unable to walk and has difficulty speaking or remembering things.
Sokthea related how Nuon and her grandmother came to see him one day while he was playing with some of the other street children. The grandmother begged him to accept Nuon into the small school Sokthea and friends operate in the slum. “Please take her,” grandmother repeated. “I want her to stop begging and if she gets some education it can help her have a better life.” Nuon was, of course, accepted into the school where she could also receive a simple but nutritious noon meal giving her a much-needed health boost.
Now Nuon’s grandmother goes to the riverside alone to beg. She is carried there by a friend with a motorcycle who picks her up again at night to return her home.
I asked Nuon what she hopes to do in the future. Without hesitation she responded that she wants to be a doctor. As a doctor she can help people who are poor like she is. The little school she now attends gives her the hope that, just maybe, she might have a chance to reach that dream.
“And what if Sokthea’s school has to close down? What will you do then?” Nuon looked down and was silent for a short time. Then she said, “I will go to the river with my grandmother to beg again.”
The sad reality is that this small school and the work Sokthea and his friends are doing with the street children is coming to an end. There is no money for the project. A frantic search for funds has brought in a small amount but not enough to keep the school running and also to provide the small noon meal for these children. All of the children will soon be back on the streets collecting trash in order to survive and they will have to put their dreams of being a doctor or a teacher into some small corner of their minds where they strive to keep hope alive. Their childhood, which is a basic right for all children, will be lost as they are forced to live and work as adults long before they are ready.
Why is there always enough money to make war, buy a new television or have a pizza party, but never enough money to take care of our children? I close my eyes and once again see the picture from my childhood of Jesus and the children. But this time I see him holding Nuon and the other street children telling them that they are a priority for him. He is looking at us with sad eyes and asking “why?” Why do we allow our children to live like this, working long hours every day off of the trash we throw away? Why do we give a begging child a few coins and then go on to our meeting or our evening dinner instead of asking the child about his or her life? Some of these children walk up to 9 miles every morning, pulling their cart into the city to collect the trash. They make the return 9 miles late at night. With education and people who really care like Sokthea and his friends, these children could have an opportunity to grow up and serve our communities in very positive ways. Why is there no money for this? Why does society shoo them away?
We make wars. We buy our new flat screen televisions. We have our pizza parties. There is always enough money for this. Why is there not enough money to take care of our children?
One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: “Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.” Matthew 19:13-15 (The Message)