Brangelinas need not apply: A Cambodian orphanage is leading the march against 'voluntourism'

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In Cambodia, 'orphanage tourism' has become the norm. Michael Bywater reports on his personal connection to a new approach which favours reuniting children with their families over foreign adoptions.

Before Christmas, a few weeks after being returned to the White House, Barack Obama made history as the first US President to visit Burma and Cambodia.

In Phnom Penh, it was a quiet kind of history. Mr Obama's meeting with Cambodian premier Hun Sen – a man who, according to Human Rights Watch, has presided over two decades of violence, assassination and the elevation and rewarding of his hired goons – was, it's said, a rather chilly affair. Nor was it followed by the usual trumpet-blowing of third-world panjandrums when the world's most powerful comes to call.

As for the people of Cambodia, even for those who'd heard Obama's first-term rhetoric, it was business as usual. I, like so many Westerners, love south-east Asia. But it's a goggling, imbecile sort of love for yet another region of the world where trouble is a way of life.

Plenty of places are in trouble. We are in trouble. But nobody can care about everywhere, and Cambodia's the place I care about. And one person made me care about it: my daughter.

Global economics, except for a few, strange, chilly people, mean little until translated into human lives. We are most easily moved by the most vulnerable of those lives, the palpably innocent victims of our adult carelessness and our endless failure to find it in ourselves to be, however we construct it, righteous. The children.

When we talk of "the children" we mean "the future". What we forget is that, for them, the future is now. What they will be is corrupted and diminished by what we are. Lack of care, lack of resources, the collapse of the extended family, failure of education: these things tap on the shoulder of children like the bony finger of death, whispering, in defiance of Mr Obama, "No you can't".

Which is why we need people who can still say, "Yes we can" and go on to deliver on their promise.

My daughter Benedicta (known in the family as Ditta) went out to Cambodia four years ago as a volunteer worker in orphanages there. She was alarmed by what she saw: essentially, what Al Jazeera last year described as "voluntourism".

She – they – were well-meaning. But the orphanages which eased the comfortable guilt of Western gap-year volunteers were too often seen locally as cash-cows for their commercial operators, too often dismissive of child-protection policies.

Al Jazeera told of "children forced to form an endless series of new relationships with strangers" and the psychological damage which resulted.

Donors had no idea where their money was actually going. Orphanages which failed to produce the necessary bribes were abruptly shut down. Their former inhabitants ended up on the streets. Some were, or became, mentally ill. Some just conveniently died.

"Orphanage tourism" remains rife. A sentimental, modern equivalent of visiting the Bedlam lunatics at best, and at worst – pick your 'orphan' for a nice day out – a form of baby-trafficking. Not all prostitution is about sex.

The usual response is a pleasing moral outrage. "Something must be done," we cry, then return to our Western lives, feeling ourselves somehow good, and cleansed.

Not so Ditta. In Cambodia, this kind and clever young woman who had never quite found her passion in life suddenly found it while talking to one orphanage manager, Laing Pheakdey (pronounced 'Peckaday'). She had discovered her co-conspirator, and her mission.

"It was," she says, "a bit like a coup de foudre. We were thinking the same things. We knew that it could be done better, done so that everything was about the children."

Then she came home to England and, I thought in the dismissive and underestimating way of parents throughout history, that would be that.

And, like parents throughout history, I was mistaken.

That was January 2009. Three months later, without any prior experience, she had set up a British-registered charity, the Safe Haven Children's Trust. By the autumn of the following year, she and Pheakdey had opened the Mlop Children's Home in the countryside near Phnom Penh, 25 minutes away by tuk-tuk. Pheakdey runs it day to day. Ditta divides her time between fundraising in the UK and working at Mlop.

Seventy-odd children have passed through their hands. Mlop offers day-care, educational activities, residential care for the children of economically distraught families unable to cope.

Mlop is a paradox: a children's home dedicated to keeping children out. Their priorities are clear. Prevent children being abandoned if possible. Reintegrating them with their family or extended family. Local adoption; long-term fostering in their home country; international adoption if that isn't possible; and, only then, life in an orphanage.

Pheakdey travels all over Cambodia to find children's families and reunite them. Children like little Vesna, Chea, Soksam, Bella. They could tell you how it feels to be back home.

Not that legitimate adoption is in itself a bad thing. "It's fine when other means have been tried and failed. It's illegal, dodgy adoptions that are bad," says Ditta. "The trafficking of cute children, buying them from their families, orphanages taking huge 'donations' for expedited adoptions, children even being literally stolen for sale to, almost invariably, overseas adopters."

Right now, at Mlop, there are 11 children in crisis care or longer-term residential care. Six are due to go back to their families in the spring. All have been given back their future, and Mlop offers a long-term commitment not just to them, but to their families. A new craft-work project trains women to work at home making jewellery, tote bags from recycled materials and scarves of Cambodian silk, wood-carvings: not tourist tat, but elegant artisanal work to be sold overseas and the proceeds to pay the women's wages. So it's no longer a case of starve with the children or abandon them and go out to work. Mothers can work at home, with regular pay, and care for the babies.

Only a couple of months in, the project – managed by Pheakdey's new wife Phalla – has so far had a 100 per cent success rate, preventing two abandonments, and soon to see two more children reunited, one with the mother, one with its grandmother. These are women who have no family or state support and are often homeless. "Dodgy orphanages and child traffickers offer them money to buy their children. It's a horrifically hard life. But we have already been able to help. And it's not just us helping them. They, without realising it, help me so much. So much."

Ditta didn't have it easy. But, as she says, "I was lucky enough to have good contacts at home; and that's thanks to Maria" – her godmother, the theatre designer Maria Bjornson, who died tragically young and left her a little money – "so I was f able to get by while I set this up. Pheakdey and I formed an extraordinary partnership. He knows everyone in Cambodia. He has huge integrity. He's amazing with the staff and children, and a miracle-worker when it comes to re-integrating the children with their families.

"And there was I with access to these things which he didn't have – information, organisation, potential donors, the whole charitable structure here. I felt that if I didn't do something I'd regret it until I was dead. I couldn't go back into complacent nine-to-five living. Hence the tattoo."

The tattoo is on her wrist. Pheakdey designed it for her after her first trip. It represents the Khmer word for 'perspective'. On the other wrist, in English, is 'Hope'. A photograph I treasure is one which tells the truth, which enacts what it says: the tiny hand of a Cambodian baby, the size of her thumb, nestled in her own hand, above the 'Hope' tattoo.

It has been, at times, a rocky road. When she and Pheakdey founded Mlop, expectations of care were low. Many of the children weren't orphans at all, institutionalised as a cash crop until they were 18. There were some orphanages trying to do a good job, but parents in poverty were taught that orphanages were "better" for their children.

The child "neglect" which lay behind it was, she says, the fruit of "poverty, corruption, hopelessness, of almost an entire generation wiped out, and the ones who weren't wiped out basically living in a nationwide concentration camp. So parenting was no longer naturally passed down through the generations. Add drugs, violence, lack of education and knowledge, lack of support structures, lack of state support, the inability to work if you have a baby because there's nowhere for them to go if you don't have family to help…"

And setting things up in Cambodia was beset with difficulty. "Corruption was hard to deal with, particularly as we had a no-bribe policy. There was a lack of transparency. Government departments saw me as a walking ATM. Thank God for Pheakdey! We had to learn how to work together fast when dealing with a labyrinth of muddle from government. The police threatened to shut us down just to try and get bribe money.

"A lot of people believed I was acting on a whim and wouldn't follow through so I had to really earn trust. That was hard, at home, and particularly in Cambodia.

"Corruption affects children because of the dodgy orphanages, profit-making enterprises that thrive off selling kids or the money that comes from orphanage tourism. Also, because of the hilariously low wages and culture of corruption, even the free schools frequently charge bribes to attend, as do supposedly free hospitals.

"Cambodia drives me up the wall but I love it. It is too hot, too dirty, too dusty, too inefficient, too corrupt, too far away… But it has captured my heart. The people are extraordinary, the country is beautiful, and something about its muddle makes me feel sane."

I could try to describe Phnom Penh myself; but I'll let her do it.

"The city sounds like beeping (cars, motorbikes), squeaking (people pushing recycling carts), shouting, tinny music (weddings, funerals, etc) and a buzz of activity, albeit with a lot of random napping in hammocks, in recycling carts, on cycles, etc. It smells likes rubbish and pollution and heat and sewage and dust and food. The street food is delicious. There are tourists but they come for the Killing Fields, the Genocide Museum, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and, of course, the orphanages. Or they head for Siem Reap: Angkor Wat and, of course, more orphanages."

That last: not if she has her way. "Early care is so important and we're learning more about the neurological impact of neglect, the importance of all those things we always knew were important but not quite why: love, affection, play, nutrition, family, kindness.

"I want to develop our model. I want to continue training our daycare teachers and then use them to train up people within the communities to form satellite day-care/pre-schools which would mean we could reach far more kids. I want to work more on prevention of abandonment. I want to get rid of this orphanage tourism. I want to help raise awareness about baby trafficking. I want to raise awareness of the huge importance of early childhood development. I want to help set up a nationwide foster-care network and help develop the Cambodian process for domestic adoptions. Ideally, in the long run, I want it to be so successful that I am out of a job…"

Someone once said, "ye have the poor always with you". For most of us, that prompts a resigned shrug: so what can we do, then? But for a few, it provokes a rolling-up of sleeves: so what shall we do now? It's a good lesson to learn, and a humbling one to be taught by your own child.

Safe Haven Children's Trust is at safehavencambodia.org

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