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The angel of Phnom Penh

One of the most challenging parts of my day here in Cambodia is deciding what actually makes it to this diary and what bits to leave out because our days here are absolutely jam packed with hard work and jaw-dropping experiences, but we are determined that readers share our journey with us as much as possible.

The messages of support and encouragement from family, friends and strangers are much appreciated by all the team - so do keep them coming.

Day 2 of our work here is almost over and I feel it would be fitting to share the back story of one of the most amazing, dignified, humble and quietly charismatic individuals I have ever had the honor of meeting. Nguav Chhiv, director of Les Restaurant des Enfants (LRDE) or "The Angel of Phnom Penh" as he is affectionately know was born in the provinces in 1948 to a farmer family.

He studied at the pagoda, the equivalent of our church schools, of his home province and did exceptionally well at school and qualified as a teacher. He worked in a primary school through the 70s right up until the Khmer Rouge took over the country.

Their leader, Pol Pot, remains one of history's worst communist despots. Put simply, this lunatic wanted to turn the Cambodia into a classless nation, and tried to accomplished this by systematically eliminating anyone with an education.

I've mentioned some of the horrific details in a previous post, so I won't be going into them again here, but when the terror started, young Ngauv destroyed his spectacles because they would have given himself away as an educated person.

Although absolutely fluent in French he would only speak in very simple Khmer to give the impression that he was unschooled, ignorant and simple. His farming skills came in useful and he was sent to labour in the rice paddies some times from as early as 4am right through to the following evening. Huge amounts of Cambodian rice was harvested and sent to China as payment for military weapons while the Cambodian workers starved to death.

Eating a snail would get you killed because you would be considered selfish and a parasite to the land. Ngauv remembers secretly eating weeds and discarded banana skins to stave off starvation - an offense, if caught, instantly punishable by death.

Put this into context - while I was gelling my curls and getting ready for a night out at Saddles and Ta' Giampula, this amazing man was surviving on a few spoonfuls of watery rice and stolen banana skins just to stay alive.

After the wars, Mr Chhiv went back to teaching and soon became headmaster of a small primary school attended by very poor, newly orphaned children, each one with a heartbreaking backstory and this motivated him to work for an international charity which he did until 2010.

On 1 February, 2010, Mr Ngauv Chhiv co-founded LRDE, a "victory kitchen" for street children with an Italian partner and the rest, as they say is history. Except it's not, because from a kitchen providing sustenance to street children and underprivileged communities, LRDE is today offering education packages for children, provisions for their families, and projects in different provinces beyond Phnom Penh.

Today the amazing Mr Chhiv, took us across the road to the aptly named Baby House where his organisation is currently providing food and medical support for 320 newborns and young mothers. Most of the mothers are living well below the poverty line, with many of them still in their teens, prostitutes, drug users or are HIV+.

Breast-feeding isn't an option because the mothers are too undernourished to produce milk. This, perhaps, is not a bad thing because in the cases of drug abuse or disease the less bodily fluid that crosses over to the baby the better. So LRDE provides tinned formula baby milk. Lots of it. And that costs.

The system of distribution is as simple as it is effective. The recipient mothers register their newborns at the Baby House and a file (a copy book) is opened for the baby - this includes photographs of the mother and child.

The mother is then given an open tin of baby milk with the date and name of the child written on the underneath in indelible ink. The reason the formula is opened is so that the mother, for whatever reason, would not be able to re-sell the milk for some money. The empty tin must be returned and accounted for if the mother is to get any more milk.

Babies are weighed and measured on a very regular basis and the details jotted down in the copy book so that the development of the baby is monitored.

As Alexandra, our team doctor, distributed medicines donated by DO Cambodia and explained how they must be administered, a young single mum, HIV+, is sitting on the floor, rocking her newborn. It's her warm smile and the expression of hope and trust that is heart wrenching.

I still struggle to wrap my head around the fact that we are here working with these people who suffer with dignity and humility at the same time. It's emotionally draining and I wish DO Cambodia could come up with something amazing to help a little more than we already are.

Exhausted, we headed back home only to find that a fuse blew in our bathroom so we have no electricity at the moment. This place really is beginning to feel a lot like home.

Alan Montanaro

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