Tag: Cambodia

An orphanage that changed its vision

Written by on October 3, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field with 3 Comments

Can an orphanage transform into something better? The story of Asian Hope will inform and inspire you. Discover what it took for the director of a children’s home to ask hard questions and risk changing direction. 

asianhope2I am an international adoptive parent. I understand deeply the passion, drive, reward, and challenges of bringing a child out of an institution and into a loving life family.

I am also the leader of the humanitarian aid organization, Asian Hope, which was founded to open orphanages in order to give abandoned children a chance at stability, education and a new life.

I came into my position with the impression that orphanages (or children’s homes if we prefer a more gentle expression for the same thing) are a superior tool for rescuing, protecting, and launching vulnerable children into the future. I rationalized that in a best case scenario the orphanage would be a conduit to permanent placement with international families through adoption. Yet, the last six years have challenged and inspired my way of thinking like never before.

Asian Hope began with the premise that we could provide the best possible environment for orphaned and abandoned children to grow up. We even fantasized that our model might be the ideal one: a young, Christian missionary family taking in a group of vulnerable children to raise as their own within the Cambodian culture and remaining committed to them for the long term. We could give them the best of everything including nutritious meals, quality clothing, appropriate housing, medical care, nightly devotions, Christian schooling, parental modeling, and the opportunity to go to college. We did this for 30 Cambodian children and youth ranging in age from 3 to 15 years old. As I type this it all still sounds wonderful and gratifying.

I first came to visit Asian Hope in June 2003 as part of a short-term Christian mission trip. I vividly remember 3-year old Kinsrey hanging onto my neck as I carried her around her orphanage. I wanted to bring her back to the US and give her the home she so desperately needed.

During the 3 week trip my wife and I played with the kids, went on outreach activities to other communities and orphanages, and volunteered at the international schools owned by Asian Hope. The organization and the American family living with the children were well regarded in the community. I was even challenged by the founder to leave my life and job in America to come with my family and open a second “children’s home”!

There was a romantic, missionary appeal to the idea that touched me and my wife. But instead we pursued international adoption and brought our daughter home from China in 2005. At that point, we realized being house parents to 20 or 30 vulnerable kids was not in our abilities, but we confidently believed that we would serve overseas in the future. That day came in 2008 when I accepted the CEO position at Asian Hope and our family of five moved to Phnom Penh.

Impressions can be deceiving.

Asian Hope almost didn’t make it to that day. In 2005 the founding family who had lived with the 30 children was no longer with the organization.

Over time it was apparent that the ability of the children to create strong and lasting relational bonds had been severely handicapped. They were no longer fully literate in their own language, but they were not native English speakers either. Many of the children believed that their culture was inferior to Western culture, and some were terrified to interact in public with their own countrymen.

In fact, just recently one of the kids who had transitioned into self-sufficiency expressed to me that they have all become “third culture kids.” They no longer fit with their home culture and they don’t fit with the American culture they have been exposed to. They are kept just outside of belonging due to the “odd” ways they walk, talk, dress, and think. They miss cultural clues necessary for communication. They lack a relationship network among their people and are fairly confined to the expatriate community. They don’t have a family network to guide them and provide context and contacts. They feel alone.

When I arrived and began to see what was happening, I went on a search for answers. I needed a game plan to repair, improve, and ultimately justify my orphanage paradigm. What I found shook my beliefs to their core. What the Asian Hope kids were enduring was not uncommon, even among the children of local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. This was and is the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family.


It took nearly three years of honest investigation and reflection to reach this conclusion. We considered opening another children’s home exactly the same as before but with only 5 to 10 children. We considered finding a poorly run traditional orphanage and taking it over (because we were certain we could do better). We even considered starting a consulting service to go into private and government orphanages to help them “do it right” or “do it better.”

We learned that these ideas were (and are) not the wishes of the Cambodian government, which is encouraging family-based care. And in all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.

Of course, there are true orphans out there who have no living parents, and there are truly abandoned, vulnerable kids as well. There are children sold from their families into child labor or even worse, prostitution. What do we do about that? What is Asian Hope’s role if not to intervene on their behalf?

Our DNA and our original intent has always been to protect, educate, and empower vulnerable children through the love of Jesus.

We decided that (1) we cannot run from who we are and our calling to vulnerable children, (2) we must recognize who and what God created Asian Hope to be as a tremendously resourced education provider, and (3) we cannot be afraid to tackle the hardest, most complex issues in God’s way even if it seems impossible. We concluded that God’s vision for Asian Hope was working to keep children in families and restoring struggling families to health – even if that is much more difficult to do.

Consequently, we committed to finishing our work with the original 30 children and then shutting down our orphanage programs by the end of 2013. We committed to developing the capacity and resources of our international schools to reach as many Cambodian children as possible with the highest quality of education. And we committed to creating a new ministry model: we use Catch-up Schools to positively impact vulnerable children in their daily lives, and we empower their families to stay together and thrive.

asianhope-empowerIt isn’t simple or easy working in poor communities with real families. It is complex, draining, stressful, and messy work. But we believe it is what best supports the human development needs of children. Sopha is a boy whose family has experienced tragedy and hardship. All of his aunts and uncles and his grandfather were lost during the Khmer Rouge. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger brother and sister. Sopha is a beacon of hope for his family. Without the services provided by Asian Hope in his community he would be a prime candidate for placement in an orphanage – or child labor.


We know what we are good at and what we need others to do.

We collaborate with organizations that support kinship care (placing children with extended family), offer emergency respite services, and arrange foster care. We sometimes turn to other organizations to intervene in cases of human-trafficking or domestic violence. We also need those that can help a family start anew financially, or that can address a health crisis threatening to push a family into tragic decisions.


But unlike before, when we moved children away from their closest living family members and communities, we have moved ourselves instead! We are present daily in our target communities. Our staff members interact with local leaders and see the needs first-hand – an effective safeguard against romantic do-good fantasies. We are better positioned to respond quickly and appropriately. As with Sopha, when a need arises we mobilize resources on behalf of children and their families.

We started with a vision of a home. Today we have an inspiring story to tell of children, families, and communities growing healthier and stronger together.

No easy answers

Written by on July 8, 2014 in The Blog with 2 Comments
The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

Yesterday I read about a Cambodian “mother” in Koh Kong who chained up a four-year-old girl in her care for eight hours a day while she went to work.  She said it was to protect the girl from drowning or wandering away while she was at work. The girl had been handed over to the woman years ago by her biological mother as collateral for a loan.

When informed of the woman’s arrest, her years of chaining the girl to a post, and the 4-year-old’s move to a children’s shelter, the girl’s biological mother, who lives in Preah Vihear province, said she could not take back and care for her daughter…

The article is about child abuse in Cambodia and an overall lack of concern and awareness. That the girl had been signed over as collateral on a loan wasn’t even central to the story. Variations of that happen all the time, usually involving domestic work in return for food and lodging and, in the best cases, attending school. This was a worst case situation.

After reading about this girl, I turned to another troubling article in The Guardian, Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia’s shocking trade.  This article is about  rich and powerful men who prey on helpless girls.  It’s easy to label that evil and other choice words. But then there are the parents who sell their daughters, desperate for money, presented with a pot of gold. Enough money, some might imagine, to buy a new start for their families. Some don’t seem to comprehend the enormity of what they are doing.


Then I read an article criticizing the wave of orphanage closures starting last year in Cambodia, including efforts to reunify children from the closed orphanages with their natural families.

The author wrote about a Cambodian girl whose orphanage was closed.

Pisey is one of thousands of young people our research team has worked with around the world. She is 17 and working in a karaoke bar in Battambang, Cambodia. There she serves drinks and is required to exchange sex for money. She longs for her loving family.

Pisey had such a family a few years ago, but it wasn’t with her parents. Her mother and father were alcoholics who abused Pisey and her two younger sisters, leaving them to eat from a garbage pile. A social worker finally intervened and persuaded the parents to move them to a local orphanage. The orphanage provided what the girls had been missing: love and security with a consistent caregiver who lived with them, along with food, clean clothes and schooling. The girls found a loving family there.

Unfortunately, not long ago Cambodia began shutting down orphanages to reunite children with their biological families, so the three girls returned home. Pisey was not allowed to continue with school but rather had to begin earning money for her parents and her sisters’ school fees. Being young and without a degree, her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.

 The essentials ring true. Most children in orphanages are not orphans, but they do come from poor families, and many of their families have problems. When an orphanage is closed and the children and youth are sent home, there are obvious risks. The Cambodian government has had organizations working diligently in cases when orphanages are closed to guide and monitor the reintegration process, but it’s extremely challenging work. Many children are smoothly reintegrated, but not all.

But here are a few thoughts.

  1. Very few orphanages have been closed in Cambodia. An orphanage has to have significant and serious issues going on to earn that distinction. To say that Pisey had a loving family in an orphanage slated for closure is leaving out lots of information. It was likely a bad place.
  2. The author says Pisey was 17. Her choice to become a karaoke girl calls into question what was happening with her identity and character during those years in the orphanage. She may have been pressured by her family, or she may have balked at a regular job or wanted more money than she could normally earn.  It’s troubling what she did. Perhaps she succumbed to family pressure and the reintegration failed. Once again, we have the broad outlines of her story without the important details. “Her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.” Give me a break.
  3. It isn’t supposed to happen like this. Nobody wants to close an orphanage and take responsibility for all the children inside. That’s why only the very worst ones are forcibly closed. Closing an orphanage is a worst case scenario and nobody wins. Ideally, to reduce the overabundance of orphanages in Cambodia, responsible orphanages will voluntarily phase themselves out by not accepting new children and finishing the job with the ones in their care. The government has asked such orphanages to transform themselves into non-residential community and family-support centers.

All of these articles are about poverty and families making poor choices. There are no easy answers.

Cambodia has deep-rooted problems affecting children and their families. Orphanages are not easy answers.  Family-based care is not an easy answer either.  Reintegration. Restoring families. Prevention. Not easy. It’s going to take a lot of people working well together to put things right. That includes families and leaders in communities, organizations of all kinds, and government.

One thing is certain: things will get better only as Cambodian families and communities become stronger.


Living next to an orphanage

Written by on July 2, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments
The view from their shared roof

The view from their shared roof

Here’s a story about a family who arrived at their first home in Cambodia and discovered they would be living next to an orphanage.

The story caught my attention, and after a little poking around online, I realized the family lives not far from from me. I’ve often passed by and seen children and volunteers milling around outside and wondered what sort of place it was.

Our family of six first arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight, and some friends drove us to the house we had rented on our survey trip. It’s a row house – ten multi-story dwellings that are connected, side by side.

At daybreak, an orphanage moved in to the house next to us… I didn’t know anything about orphans or orphanages  in Cambodia, so I had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like to live next to an orphanage. I would soon learn.

Every orphanage is different, and the one in this story appears to be a bad one. But it’s not atypical of orphanages in Phnom Penh. It was chaotic. Staff were not always around. They had 40 children and the staff living in a space normally used by one extended Cambodian family. There was obvious potential for abuse. Nonetheless, it was frequented by (paying) volunteers  and doubtless funded by foreign donors.

The volunteers came and went with tearful farewells. They talked about feeling so loved by the kids, and often they promised to come back again.

Those declarations gave us pause. How can you promise such a thing?? What makes you sure that you can, or will, without a doubt, return? And doesn’t your statement about being loved betray your own emotional needs, rather than the reception of true love from children in a revolving-door orphanage??

There were overwhelming moments with seemingly nobody in charge. Kids and volunteers had to fend for themselves.

And then:

It wasn’t until Khmer New Year, though, that we realized that virtually none of the children next door were orphans. The entire orphanage closed down for the holiday, which is the most important holiday of the year. No one stayed at the house that week. Not a single soul. All the children went to their hometowns in the countryside, and many of them actually still had living parents. They were not orphans at all.

But it’s good for the kids, right? Gives them opportunities? Makes them better?

 Read the full post here and judge for yourself.

The boy by the side of the road

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

He saw a boy lying in the middle of the road. What he did next will surprise you and might even change the way you act next time you see a child in need.

Racing round the corner on my way to the meeting a little faster than usual, I thought of all the things I had to do that day. I was showing a visitor around town and I also had my own errands that needed completing. Not far to go, I thought to myself. We’re only a couple of minutes late and we’re nearly there. I’m sure they’ll wait. As we slowed to negotiate a pothole, I looked up ahead and saw that there in the middle of the road lay a little boy, about eleven years old. A car had slowed to edge past him and the boy seemed oblivious – either asleep or unconscious. It was your typical Good Samaritan situation, but I was certainly not in the mood for interruptions. After all, living in Cambodia I came across this type of situation reasonably often. He was probably just a glue-sniffer – wasted and sleeping it off. I sighed, pulled over and stopped. We shook the boy and quickly realised that he was intellectually disabled and didn’t seem able to speak. My friend, knowing we were late, suggested we give him some money and be on our way. But I knew that cash would not really help this boy. No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from.


I propped him up on the front of my bike and we took off for the meeting. On reaching our destination he seemed to come alive. Someone at the meeting gave him some fruit, which he accepted with a grunt and then proceeded to munch voraciously, most of the juice ending up on the upholstery. I apologised with embarrassment and tried in vain to keep him under control. After the meeting we returned to the spot where we had found the boy and asked again if anyone knew who he was. An old man with a cigarette balanced on his bottom lip informed me with a pout that the boy was just a crazy street kid — mentally deficient and not worth the trouble I was going to. My heart sank as I realised this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. I spent the afternoon making calls to every orphanage I could think of. None would take a mentally disabled child. It remained unspoken, but I knew they reserved their places for children who were easy to look after. In fact, in Cambodia, most orphanages are full of children who are not even orphans, merely poor. Cambodians shrewdly treat these well-meaning (often church-run) orphanages as a boarding school, where they can drop their kids off for a good education then reap the rewards when they leave as fully educated adults. I cursed the system as I slammed down the phone after yet another rejection. I knew that particular mission orphanage was only a third full, and yet they were unwilling to take him! Why didn’t they focus on the kids who really needed a place rather than the cute ones who looked good in the fundraising photos, or the lucrative babies who were easy to adopt out to rich Westerners? Finally, I found a drop-in centre for street kids that had a residential facility. The only problem was the kids were free to come and go if they wished. I knew he would run away if given half a chance as he had already tried to run away from me a couple of times. But what choice did I have? With my heart full of misgivings, I took him over to the centre and the staff there welcomed him kindly. “Give me a call if there are any problems,” I said as I left, feeling sure it wouldn’t be long before I heard from them. Sure enough, the next day they called, saying that at first light that morning he had taken off all his clothes and run away. They apologised profusely and I told them not to worry, spending the next couple of hours driving the streets looking for him in vain. Two weeks later a Cambodian friend called, “Craig, do you remember that boy you were with a couple of weeks ago?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well I think he’s in front of my house — and Craig…he’s not wearing any clothes!” This time I took him home and my wife gamely agreed to put him up till we could find a more permanent place for him to live. Over the next few days, we found out that he had been living on the streets for years, surviving without language by pointing at food and throwing a head-banging tantrum if the shopkeepers didn’t give it to him. We witnessed this ritual a couple of times when he accompanied us to the market and marvelled at how he survived using this cunning method despite his difficulty with speech. Soon we were able to arrange for him to go and live with a kind-hearted Cambodian foster family. He needed twenty-four-hour care and supervision. He couldn’t go to the toilet by himself or even dress or wash himself. Within weeks, he had learnt a handful of words, was looking much healthier and had begun to settle down.

My reward came every time I went to visit. He would see me coming from the street and come rushing out, shouting excitedly one of the few words he had learnt: “Papa, Papa” I look back now to the day I found him lying in the middle of the road and think about what I would have missed out on had I kept to my busy agenda and ‘important’ timetable. I would have missed out on helping this little boy who had no-one to call “Papa”.

Update: Craig adds that he contacted at least 20 residential facilities at the time without success. Today Vundy is still living with the family that took him in. He is 21 years old, a grown man, and very much part of the family.

Photo by Nearday