Early in the morning at 6.30am on 7th October 2017, a bus carrying Tzu Chi volunteers set out from a hotel near Phnom Penh Airport. After about half an hour’s drive, the bus turned into a side road, and the Dangkor Landfill loomed into sight. Upon disembarking, the volunteers were immediately greeted by an unpleasant stench that hung in the air; everyone quickly covered their noses in a bid to keep out the foul smell from invading their nose.
Dangkor Landfill is the only landfill in Phnom Penh, and is the dump site for the trash of over two million people living in the city. The landfill spans an area of around 30 hectares, with over 400 trips by garbage trucks plying to and fro daily to offload their trash. The total amount of trash dumped in the landfill each day can reach as much as 2,300 tons. Access to the landfill is under strict control, and it is not easy for outsiders to gain entry into its premises.
The previous relief aid distribution was held in an open space about 200 metres away from the landfill. Feeling for the slum dwellers, who had to travel the distance back to their homes with the heavy aid supplies, Tzu Chi Cambodia sought the assistance of their local partner, the Union of Youth Federation of Cambodia, in applying for a permit to enter the landfill for a relief aid distribution. It was only after many rounds of negotiations with the landfill management, that Tzu Chi was granted the permit.
This round of relief aid distribution also included a small-scale free clinic. The clinic was collectively served by eight medical professionals from TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) Singapore* and a group of Cambodian doctors. The medical teams provided free dental and internal medicine services to the local residents.
A Heartwarming Rice Distribution
After the distribution site was set up, the long-awaited residents entered the venue according to the colour codes of their aid vouchers. After registration, they were guided into a waiting area inside, and each household was given a reusable bag and a personal hygiene set, which included soap, toothpaste, toothpaste, and skin cream.
More than 600 people sat on the uneven and muddy ground, waiting under the scorching sun. Despite the trying conditions, there was no commotion onsite, and the residents showed no signs of displeasure, but instead sat quietly, patiently waiting for their turn to receive their share of rice.
Before distributing the rice, Tzu Chi volunteers took the opportunity to explain to the residents that each sack of rice was laden with much love and blessing. Besides educating the residents on the importance of protecting the environment, the volunteers also touched their hearts with the story of the “Bamboo Bank Era”. The story was about how Tzu Chi Taiwan started with a group of 30 humble housewives each saving 50 NT cents into a bamboo coin bank daily to help the needy.
The impoverished locals thus learned how charity could start from daily small acts of kindness and how small amounts of donations accumulated over a period of time could be used to help others in need. By donating a little spare change or even used plastic bottles, they, too, could show their love for others.
“I am so happy to receive the rice, and I am really touched,” said Mon Kang, an aid recipient. This was Mon Kang’s second encounter with Tzu Chi’s relief rice distribution.
Mon Kang’s husband has diabetes, and they have two sons who are studying in the university. The whole family is dependent on her meagre earnings from scavenging. Her daily income is only about USD7 to USD8, and her family has problems making ends meet every month. Thankfully, her sensible sons work as tutors during their spare time to help supplement the family income.
“I don’t want my children to scavenge garbage. They will have no knowledge if they don’t go to school. Going to school is the only way to ensure that they have a good future.”
Sometimes, Mon Kang would be cut by broken glass while scavenging, and her hands are full of scars as a result. Although scavenging is a hard living, she perseveres because of the will to live.
Relieving the Pain and Suffering of the Sick
Some of the residents proceeded to queue up at the free clinic after collecting their rice. The Internal Medicine site was suddenly filled with the ear-deafening cries of a child. The little boy was the first patient of the clinic, and the open wound on his right arm was bleeding and oozing pus. A medical worker was attending to him with antiseptic swabs. The young child, obviously in much pain, was struggling and screaming, while the surrounding volunteers tried to soothe him.
His mother is Hun Reaksmey, 36. She has eight children, and both she and her husband scavenge for a living. Her greatest hope is for her children to go out and study or work and not become scavengers like their parents. She had brought her youngest child to the free clinic to seek treatment as he was breaking out in red spots all over the body, and parts of his skin were festering. She said her son’s skin condition could be due to the frequent use of polluted water from the landfill to wash and shower.
“It will no longer hurt,” said a TIMA dentist to his patient, Phan Ra.
Phan Ra had endured his toothache for two years because he could not afford to see a dentist, and the pain was causing him a headache. On this occasion, the dentist extracted his decayed tooth, which finally relieved him of the excruciating pain.
Phan Ra, who is 37 years old, scavenges together with his wife. The couple has three children, two of whom are attending school, while one is still a pre-schooler. He said that if he worked very hard on a particular day, he could make as much as USD8.
“I don’t have much aspiration, and am illiterate. I only hope to put my children through school,” he said with blood-soaked cotton in his mouth and tears brimming in his eyes.
The person in-charge of Tzu Chi Cambodia, Xie Ming Jun, observed that many of the residents who scavenged for a living not only endured numerous cuts while working, but also suffered from diabetes and high-blood pressure because of their diets. The unhygienic living environment also led to many skin ailments and lung problems. Hence, the landfill management hoped that Tzu Chi would continue to hold free clinics for the residents in the future.
Prevention is Better than Cure
Apart from providing free dental services, the dental team also advocated on the importance of oral hygiene. The volunteers gathered the 200-plus children who came with their parents at an open space in front of the office of the landfill, and gave them a live demonstration of proper tooth-brushing to maintain oral hygiene and prevent tooth decay.
“Up and down like this……brush each side six times. Once the front is done, go to the back…”
A volunteer taught the kids the steps to brushing teeth, before getting them to mimic his actions to a light-hearted tooth-brushing song.
“Do you know it already?”
The children innocently said aloud that they knew how to brush their teeth. But the actual fact was most of them weren’t really paying attention, and perhaps some of them were even unfamiliar with the concept of brushing teeth. They were simply sitting under the hot sun watching a busy group of strangers bustle into their life before making their way back. What was worth mentioning was that the children still clasped their palms to express their thanks while accepting their free toothbrushes from the volunteers.
This round of relief distribution benefited 1,538 households, while the free clinic benefited a total of 183 patients. After the distribution event, the manager in charge of the Dangkor Landfill, Mr Keo Channarith, expressed his heartfelt thoughts: what he had witnessed was not simply the acts of giving, but more importantly was the love that the volunteers gave the locals. While the Tzu Chi volunteers were distributing the rice, they also inspired and encouraged the impoverished scavengers to donate what little they had into plastic bottles, so that they, too, could learn to help others in need. This had left a deep impression in him.
Second Relief Rice Distribution in Pou Senchey District
On 8th October 2017, Tzu Chi Cambodia organised its second large-scale relief rice distribution in Pou Senchey District located in Phnom Penh City. On this day, local residents came in droves to the aid distribution site, and it wasn’t long when the place was jam-packed with a multitude of people.
There was an increase in the number of beneficiaries for this rice distribution exercise, which would benefit almost 2,300 households. The list of registered beneficiary residents was compiled through the hard toil of volunteers. They spent a whole week from early morning till night riding on motorbikes to conduct door- to-door assessments, so as to ensure that those who came to collect the relief goods were the people really in need of aid. Their dedication and hard work won the praises of the district chief, Mr Hem Darith.
Gracing the occasion as an invited guest, Mr Hem Darith urged everyone to learn from Tzu Chi’s spirit of helping one another in his opening speech. He said that Tzu Chi did more than just providing aid; the volunteers would also sow the seeds of love and charity in people. He strongly supported the spirit of the “Bamboo Bank Era” shared by the volunteers. Since he collected a bamboo coin bank from Tzu Chi at the rice distribution last year, he started to deposit money into the container. On this day, he had gladly brought it back to donate his savings to Tzu Chi.
The rice distribution event required at least 90 volunteers. But due to the limited number of local volunteers, volunteers from other districts had come to assist. Tzu Chi even needed to encourage the local residents to come forward and help out.
The emcee of the event asked the residents onsite: “Who brought plastic bottles?”
Amazingly, everyone held up a bottle in their hand.
“Please do not dispose of these plastic bottles anywhere, because they will pollute our environment. We can collect and sell them, and use the money for charity. Does everyone agree?”
Once again, there was overwhelming response from every raised hand. Meanwhile, the volunteers who were standing by the side used plastic bags to collect all the plastic bottles from everyone, and in a short while, every bag was full of plastic bottles. Not only that, the emcee also encouraged everyone to give a little to help those who were in greater need, promoting the spirit of the “Bamboo Bank Era” as well as environmental protection through recycling.
This year’s relief rice distribution included an invitation to local residents to sign up as volunteers to help carry the heavy sacks of rice. From her past experiences taking part in relief distribution, senior Tzu Chi volunteer Hu Mei Ling discovered that there were many people who were keen to help out. As such, on this occasion, she decided to recruit more volunteers from the community, because she believed that the local volunteers could prove to be timely and effective.
Beneficiaries are Inspired to Serve as Volunteers
Mr Kol Voutha, a human resource manager in a garment factory, had brought along his wife, as well as six other colleagues to serve as volunteers at the event. In each Tzu Chi relief distribution, Mr Voutha would surely invite his colleagues to serve alongside. This day, the 60-year-old man not only helped to collect trash onsite, but also took on the back-breaking task of carrying heavy rice sacks.
One of the aid recipients, Ms Choeurng Srey Mom, took the initiative to put on a Tzu Chi volunteer vest and jumped right into action to help with carrying rice. It was indeed a strain on the body of this petite young girl to bear a 20kg sack of rice on her shoulder. But she could be seen constantly beaming bright smiles in spite of the heavy load.
“Although it is very tiring, I am truly happy, because I can help my people. I will surely come and help out if there is another relief distribution activity!” said Choeurng. “What really left a deep impression in me was Tzu Chi’s message that those who didn’t have money could also contribute their strength, because I am willing to contribute my strength.”
Although she comes from an impoverished background, there has always been a seed of charity planted in Ms Choeurng’s heart. She had always wanted to serve as a volunteer in the past, but was not able to find a suitable platform for her to contribute. Thus, she grabbed this opportunity to serve, no matter how hard the work was.
The efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers in helping the impoverished local folks deeply touched the heart of Mr Pan Bunnoeung. “I want to help those who are worse off than me,” he said.
He works as a security guard, with a monthly salary of around USD130. But his monthly expenses come up to about USD300 to USD400. “Sometimes, I will work a few part-time jobs when the money is not enough.”
Although he often could not even make ends meet himself, he was still determined to help in any way he could. He shared that although he was poor, he felt blessed to have a healthy body that enabled him to work and serve as a volunteer.
There were as many as 108 people who left their contact numbers to join the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers on this day, and this unexpected positive outcome really gladdened the heart of Hu Mei Ling. There are many residents in Phnom Penh who are stricken with AIDS. She hoped that the new local volunteers could work together and help with compiling the lists of needy residents, and join her in home visits to understand each household’s real needs.
Tzu Chi’s first office in Cambodia would soon be set up in Pou Senchey District, and its future activities would be organised by the locals. Through the establishment of a local volunteer community, Tzu Chi hopes that its volunteers can go deeper into the heart of the community and reach out to more people who are in suffering by providing them with continued care and aid.
*Note: In the spirit of “Great Love Without Borders”, the volunteer team from Tzu Chi Merit Organization (Singapore) utilised their personal leave from work and participated in this humanitarian mission at their own expense.