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The children of the street

Last night was an eye-opener. Of course I knew that some of the children we work with live on the street - that's why they're called street children - but to actually see where and how they are living really does wrench at your heart.

One of our colleagues, Sreymom Chea, had mentioned that some of the older girls who we know from our work at LRDE are working at night and asked me whether I would like to see them.

Of course I totally misunderstood her because "young girls working at night" has connotations that would shock even the most hardened amongst us. Thankfully it was my misunderstanding and we were taken to a local restaurant - the equivalent of our own kazin - where a smartly dressed Sreyleak greeted us with a wide smile and a low bow.

Sreyleak is one of the success stories of a DO Cambodia sponsorship and, just like so many of her western counterparts, she studies by day and holds down a part time job in the evenings.

The food we ate was interesting and included sun-dried fish which tasted like white bait, and deep fried frog which tasted like deep fried frog.

After a desert of lychees which looked suspiciously like eyeballs, Sreymom suggested we take a walk along the wide promenade to see first hand where the street children live.

Meters beyond a flashy Vegas-style hotel with shiny SUV's and BMW's lining up in front, street vendors, young lovers, beggars, junkies and low lives gather. And children. Always children.

Hawk-eyed, Sreymom spotted a group of kids who come to LRDE during the day for their meal. They were begging for handouts but when they saw us they immediately hid their faces. Somehow, on some obscure level, there is an inherent shame in doing what they do.

On principle we never give money to child beggars because we'd only be feeding a bigger monster and giving the message that begging is a sustainable way of life.

Instead we give out little toys, pretending to pull them out of their ears or from behind their heads because they are children after all and toys and magic works wonders, in fact the ice with these children melted immediately and they held our hands and led us deeper into the underbelly of Phnom Penh.

We turned up one of the side roads from the main promenade and walked towards an abandoned and dark garage front. To say the place was filthy would be a gross understatement; everything about the place was rotten - including the small piles of clothes that the children would use for bedding.

Sreymom took the time to explain to the parents how important it is that the children attend LRDE everyday and that the LRDE tuk-tuk will come by in the morning to pick the children up. This way they can monitor the children and offer some sort of shelter and safety.

It merits a mention here that the LRDE tuk-tuk was provided by DO Cambodia through the generosity of InLingua. A second tuk-tuk this time for the SFODA orphanage was purchased by the Helen O'Grady Academy.

Back toward the river and as we approached the edge of the promenade, close to one of the bridges, we noticed that there were clothes laid out to dry. A closer look revealed entire families living there in the filth and squalor but nothing was more shocking than a visibly exhausted young girl, apparently just 15, who had given birth a couple of days earlier.

Mother and child sat on an old beach bed with a bright light shining on the baby. The bright bulb was attracting insects including a cockroach which, phobias momentarily forgotten, we swatted away.

Feeling somewhat numb in this surreal part of the world, we walked on towards the lights, whispering to each other even though we didn't need to. How do people end up this way? How can governments allow this? What's wrong with the system? How did it get to this? How we wish we could take them all home. How can we help?

We walked towards the back of something called the Mekong Karaoke Lounge and could see that there were some children horsing around but the moment they spotted us they came running towards us including 6-year old Jihai who took a flying leap, threw his arms around my neck and planted a big kiss on my cheek. He-llo A-llin! He-llo A-llin!

The group of seven or eight young barefoot children, holding our hands, accompanied us back to our waiting car which was across a very busy main road and waited at the corner to wave us off with big happy smiles.

As we turned the car around to return the way we came, I could see the children winding their way through the oncoming traffic - no doubt to continue begging for handouts into the night.

Alan Montanaro

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