My first few days in Siem Reap,Cambodia knocked me off kilter. Poverty is in your face: children are at your feet, men without limbs are dragging themselves along the street, women are begging you to purchase their wares so they can feed their family, and babies are crying. The clothes are dirty, the words are powerful, and the culmination of all these things can be overwhelming, you are immediately stricken with the need: help. I must help these people. How can I help? First, let’s start with how you shouldn’t be helping.
There is no shortage of orphanages in Siem Reap willing to let you in to take photos of the children, show you the dirty facilities, and take your dollars with a grateful smile. You leave feeling good about yourself, and certain that you’ve helped. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Any orphanage that allows you to waltz in without doing a proper screening clearly has no child protection policy in place, and is not putting the needs of the children first. Moreover, some of the children in the orphanage aren’t orphans. They are “rented” by their parent(s) to the orphanage, kept purposefully dirty, and out of school to make money. By visiting places like this, you are contributing to a vicious cycle that harms these children infinitely more than the money helps them.
Milking the Cash Cow
Children in the street will often be carrying a child on their hip saying “help me lady, please, I don’t want money, I only want milk. Milk, please just buy us milk, here at this shop”. They will take you to a local store who sells milk for anywhere between $3-15 dollars a liter and they will thank you for the milk. You leave feeling great. What happens when you walk away? The children return the milk to the store, get a percentage of the cash (of course the shop keeps some) and they hand it over to their parents who are resting at home while their children bring home the bacon. Again, validating a life of begging and scamming for the children, who will have not learned better by the time they are old enough to have their own children.
So what CAN you do to help when you are visiting Siem Reap?
If you’re hoping to volunteer, I recommend getting in touch with ConCERT. Internationally recognized as a responsible tourism organization, ConCERT is helping you help by getting you involved with projects that they have vetted to be transparent, reliable, and honest. From landmine removal, vocational training, and the care of children to combating human sex trafficking, ConCERT has the connections to place you in a volunteer organization you can trust.
If you’re on a whirlwind tour of Siem Reap and have no time to volunteer, there is still a way for you to help the community, and it’s something you probably do three times a day: eat. What is Brandy telling me? Eating can help kids? This is marvelous. Yes, it is and so is the place to do it: HAVEN, Siem Reap, Cambodia.