In 1994, just after UNTAC left the country, having supervised the elections, three expatriates arrived, separately, in Phnom Penh: Sebastien Marot, Barbara Adams and Mark Turgesen.
The three were shocked by what they saw: dozens of children sleeping around the markets, left to fend for themselves, while luxury and 4 wheel drive cars were driving past.
All three decided to feed the children on the streets. This is where and how they met; realizing that the three of them were feeding the children and that, therefore, the children received over six meals a day, they became aware that they were actually supporting the children's life-style and were keeping them on the street.
They were faced with two options: either discontinuing their action and forget the children's needs or establish a constructive initiative. Mark, Barbara and Sebastien decided to open a small drop-in center with a school attached and called it Mith Samlanh (which means "friends" in the Cambodian language). On the first night they received 17 street children. Over the next few years, the project was sustained by personal funds of the three in order to maintain the efforts to keep the children off the street.
Currently, under the direction of the Director, Ms. Mâp Somaya (Ly Sophat) and with the support and collaboration from a dedicated Khmer staff, expatriate advisors, donors and friends, Mith Samlanh is now providing extensive and comprehensive services to an average of 1,800 children per day.
Extract from the introduction to the "Best Of Friends – The Restaurant" Cookbook
It is not easy to write about this since so much has happened: from the early days of the small organisation to the work carried out today with street children in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and other countries in the world.
It was 1994 when three of us, Barbara Adams, Mark Turgesen and I, started Mith Samlanh (or "Friends" in English). I arrived with Barbara from Paris on my way to Japan and we decided to stay in Cambodia for a few weeks. It is difficult to describe Cambodia at that time: the rare electricity, the regular gunshots, the roads with holes so deep one could drown in them during the rainy season. War was in the jungle and mines were everywhere – they actually de-mined the corner of my street one month after my arrival. Most of all there was extreme poverty for everyone and overwhelming wealth and power for a few.
One night coming out late from a restaurant at the Central Market run by an eccentric Singaporean, I stumbled over a row of more than 20 children sleeping on cardboard on the footpath. I remember seeing a big black expensive car drive by, and this really upset me.
I had seen street children before in Asia, but this time it really hit me: how could it be possible that in a country with so many organisations and so much donor money, children, the future of Cambodia, could be ignored like that? Wasn't this unjust and actually undermining all the efforts of development of Cambodia?
We started bringing food to the children: bread with ham, bananas and clean water. This is when we met Mark who, like us, was upset. He was cooking rice in his hotel room and distributing it to the children. We met and sat down faced with an important issue: with the three of us and various others providing food, the children received up to eight meals a day... Of course they were happy to stay on the streets! What we were doing was actually harmful. We then had to make a decision. Either we just stopped, ignored it all and I left for Japan, or we had to do something constructive. After some discussions, and because we were young, full of hope and certainly a little crazy, we decided to go for the constructive approach. I remember not being able to sleep for three nights as I realised the decision would influence the next few years of my life – little did I know how much change it would actually bring.
Because Mark and Barbara had jobs, they asked me to be in charge of running the organisation. With the help of some Cambodian friends, we met with the children in the evenings and started talking and identifying what they wanted and needed. I used my savings and contributions from Mark and Barbara to rent and furnish a small house by the Russian Market with a large common room, two dormitories, showers, a kitchen and a small classroom. On August 1, 1994, with a team of three Cambodians, some of whom still work with Mith Samlanh now, we opened the center. I remember being outside the house seeing the first 17 children arrive on cyclos. This first night was chaotic: suddenly our vision came to life. There was laughter and fun. There was music and dancing. I was happy but stressed. Eventually I went home, hoping that the first night with the Cambodian team would go smoothly. I spent my days and evenings at the centre, played soccer in the living room, encouraged the children to join the classroom, went on outings and stressed over money.
After 10 days, all the children had left except for one. This is when the team and I learnt our first and most important lesson: our mistake was that we thought we knew what was best for the children and wanted to provide what we thought they needed. We had bought mattresses; they wanted to sleep on the tiles, because they were cooler. We had prepared a classroom; the young people did not care about literacy, they wanted a job. We learnt to listen to the children and from then on, they have been guiding our work.
We adapted to them, instead of expecting them to adapt to us. We changed the system, developed our work on the streets and accepted children for the day time only, encouraging them to return home. Their numbers started growing – fast.
For two years we struggled. I worked at night, took part-time jobs and received small private donations to fund the operation. One Friday night I was too depressed and decided that it was time to call it quits. No money was coming in and the team and I were exhausted from overwork. The next Monday, I received a phone call from Save the Children Australia announcing the impossible: Ausaid, the Australian government's aid agency, offered to fund Friends for three years.
The rest is history. Sebastien Marot
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