A petite woman standing in the middle of some rough villagers, her fine voice giving instructions about what was to be done. The sun is barely over the horizon. Her sleeves covering up to the fingertips, with lots of confidence she points at where the soil is supposed to be moved to. I am mesmerized by her determination. As one of her first tasks at ICF Cambodia Channa was asked to help me with translation on the construction site – which is not much more than a hole and some heaps of soil back in 2015. Surely, if someone told her some weeks ago she’d end up on construction, she would’ve playfully slapped that person.
“In fact, I always wanted to become a florist, a broadcaster on TV or an ambassador for the country. My dreams were inspired by movies and my relatives who pushed me towards a career that would make some serious money, hopefully. My strict parents raised me and my three brothers with the main focus on education. Besides going to school there was no reason to leave the house. Not even playing with the neighbors was really allowed.
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Born about 30 years ago in the province of Siem Reap, Chamroeun grew up with five siblings around rice fields, cows and water buffaloes. His parents were farmers at first, then worked on construction and at the market after they had sold their land. More than anything, they were survival artists. Within his many relatives, there are stories of human trafficking and such despair that one relative even was left for adoption into France and just recently “found” again – thanks to prayer and Facebook.
I know Chamroeun as an especially loyal, enduring person. From working in my team – a long time ago – he has become my brother who has an outstanding gift of empathy. He knows me well, somehow he always knows where I’m at. Often, he sends me short encouraging text messages at the perfect time. Sometimes I wonder how that farming child turned into a highly successful caseworker.
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Or so I thought. Yesterday, I was supposed to leave Cambodia. Due to the Corona pandemic life seems to be postponed for about a month or two, the outreach is canceled. Not even 24h before my flight would have taken off, the borders of the Republic of the Philippines were closed for foreigners with immediate effect. Closing the chapter of my beautiful story in Cambodia was, therefore, put off, too.
Let’s start at the beginning: Almost six years ago I had moved to Cambodia, wanting to taste life in Asia and work as a volunteer at ICF Cambodia for a year. I was up for the challenge of learning a new language, getting to know another culture, and of course hoping to be able to impact other people’s lives. Little did I know that I would be learning heaps, fall in love with a people, a nation, a oh so foreign culture – simply គួរអោយស្រឡាញ់ – literally translated “you gotta love it”. I wanted to fit in and realized how inspiring the Cambodian culture is. A culture with values that I love, based on community rather than individualism. Quality time with people has become my favorite thing to do. I guess I had always been a people person, however, I really discovered this passion here.
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Illiterate. Uneducated. A nobody. “Survive” is his whole to-do-list. “Career”, “Bright Future”, “Great Potential” – words that have no meaning. Only exist in his wildest dreams – if at all. And probably meant to stay there.
He is 23 years old, husband, father of a baby boy. Smokes 2 packages a day. Construction worker since 10 years. An anniversary no-one celebrates. No-one notices.
He is poor. But he is not empty-handed.
In our construction season 2017 he was one of 50 seasonal workers. I only knew the outstandingly good and bad ones. He belonged to the first group. Weeks in, he surprised me more and more with his commitment. He was always giving a hand, volunteering for the difficult tasks and most importantly had a smile that rarely disappeared. No matter the heat. No matter the sweat. No matter the hard work.
It captured me.
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When I was 18, I reflected on my life. I realized that I was not living the life God designed me to live. Even though I had been a Christian for many years, I never shared about God to my friends. I was ashamed of my faith, afraid that people would laugh at me. It has happened before. I asked God to show me for what he wanted to use me. I felt like there is more purpose somewhere. SOMEWHERE OUT THERE.
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A wide land with nothing but one palm tree. A meadow in the middle of the outskirts, not much around it. Flooded in the rainy season. Withered in the dry season. Only a bumpy, sandy street would lead there. But there weren’t many reasons to go there. In fact, none.
OUR PROMISED LAND.
In January 2015 we started digging – not for gold. Digging in order to fill up other parts of the land. A common thing here in Cambodia. And as we were digging, we were challenged by lots of ground water which made us decide to build a lake. Water pumps would try to keep the water away. At one point, over a hundred people were putting rock after rock around the shoreline, building the so-called RipRap. Others were filling the holes with cement. Or driving soil around. Or fixing the water pump. Or the excavator. Machines are good, strong, fast – but also quickly broken. They even look like ancient monsters. However, we live in Cambodia. This is routine and we’re supposed to be relaxed even though we know, the rainy season won’t wait for us and the deadline is getting closer and closer.
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It’s not something we can take many credits for. Yes, we have given our very best and invested much in people, tailored inputs and improvements. However, we truly have been blessed by an enormous and quick growth of our Kids and Teens ministries – which surely nobody had seen coming with such incredible force.
This does also confirm the great need in Cambodia. The youngest generation is hungry. Not just hungry for physical food – no, it’s rather a hunger for a spiritual support. Encouragement. Hope. Love. Joy. They lack it, we share it, they take it. They want more. They want their family, their friends to have it. And therefore we grow.
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Some days ago, ICF Cambodia celebrated its second anniversary. On the 7th of September 2014 we had our Grand Opening in Siem Reap. Before that, ICF Cambodia already existed for about 1 year – already as a small kind of house church with celebrations on Sundays and a social arm reaching out to those in need. It simply wasn’t really official yet. We, or rather family Strupler & Co. (I started in July 2014) first wanted to pick leaders as well as get used to people and culture. From the beginning on, it grew faster than ever expected. Within a few months we had great and supportive leaders and to-become-leaders respectively on our side.
Looking back, there is uncountable stories from people who have changed immensely. Something which fascinates me again and again.
One girl was a cocktail waitress in a bar and is now our worship singer and preaches in the ONEIGHTY (youth) celebration.
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Cambodian kids smile. Not always maybe, but very often. Especially when they see some white faces. They love them, it might be because in the villages they live they don’t see them too often. Or because white faces often say hello and wave. A Cambodian wouldn’t do that. There is too many kids in this country – too exhausting. Nonetheless, there is more in a life of a child than white faces and a smile. It might be shown in their dark eyes. Rather sad facts. Malnutrition, child labour, child trafficking, death of a parent, … – you name it. And, even if it is – in comparison – only as “small” as the lack of love or attention or being neglected. It carves into their hearts and the older they get the deeper the cut will be.
There is treatment, though.
According to John F. Kennedy, former president of the USA, children are “the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”. Period. This is why we need to protect the smallest and weakest and give them back what the past of Cambodia – its war and genocide – had stolen years ago: Love. Recognition. Dignity. Belief in themselves. Attention. Faith. Encouragement. Hope. Childhood. An unending list.
You can’t buy these. But you can give them. That is, what we made to our mission at ICF Cambodia.
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A restart is a new beginning. When people surrender their life to God, it is a restart. They want to start a life completely with God and will start to walk through life with him as friend, father and counselor. This has only been made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a sign towards the seen and the unseen world, they get baptized in water – representing the old life, the old habits and sins washed away and starting entirely forgiven.
Exactly for this purpose, we held a Restart Festival on Easter Saturday. It took place under the roof on our Campus. About 400 people joined this special occasion. It was an evening celebration with a lot of worship. ND shared the four points which explain the Gospel in a very easy way: “God loves me. I have sinned. Jesus died for me. I need to decide to live with God.”
Later on, we had baptisms in our lake. It was beautiful to see, how over 30 people decided to follow God and were baptized with water. They not only received a brand new bible, but also personal prayer and blessings.
Let’s party! Within seconds after the baptisms, the roof turned into a spacious dance floor where we shook our bodies and celebrated the new believers as well as Jesus.
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It’s high time I spread some exciting news about our Campus!
First of all, we have changed the name. Please note, no ELEVATE CAMPUS anymore. Since the beginning of this year, we only have on name: ICF CAMBODIA – therefore we call what used to be the ELEVATE CAMPUS now ICF CAMPUS. This change enables us to work more transparent and straightforward within the community. Our goal is to spread the gospel while breaking the cycle of poverty. Same vision. Same tasks. Same goal. But only one name! Well, that might have not been too exciting yet. But it goes on……
We are happy and proud to announce that …
SIEM REAP has finally its FIRST PLAYGROUND !
This was only made possible thanks to a team from YWAM Perth. With a lot of creativity and energy they served us within the last few weeks. They accepted the challenge to build a playground, using not much more than tires, bolts and wood. It started with doing research, measuring and drawing plans after plans until they had finally figured out how to order the different obstacles. With lots of confidence and (almost) unlimited possibilities they dreamt of a mind-blowing experience for kids in every age. Filled with passion for the Khmer youth, they sweated, dug wholes into the ground and connected tire to tire.
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Khmer. The language of the kingdom of wonder – CAMBODIA. Khmer sometimes does make me wonder. But let’s begin with the facts about this rather interesting language: The Khmer language is mostly spoken in Cambodia and a tiny minority in south Vietnam as well as in Thailand at the border to Cambodia speak Khmer, too. That’s about 16 Mio. people all in all. Just as in Switzerland or other countries, they have lots of different dialects. And it’s not said, that everybody understands everybody. Finally, they use one official language with normal grammar rules for writing. There is no other language like Khmer – neither written nor spoken. At the same time, it has influenced and been influenced by Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese. All of these languages (and some more) are still being used in Cambodia by minor foreign groups. Since Cambodia was occupied by France, it also has some words in French.
An official transliteration system for the Latin alphabet doesn’t exist. No surprise, that everybody creates his own system. Khmers and foreigners alike are writing with the latin letters how ever they feel like. So don’t blame me when you learn following words with my description and then when you say them, nobody understands you 😉
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