The Sreypich Mission

It was back in August 2006, during an insane stage of business traveling, when I found myself in Phnom Penh for one day. I have a passion for photography, and since I was on a tight business schedule, I woke up at 6AM for a quick breakfast and a short picture hunting adventure.

The first destination was the Royal Palace, where I noticed lots of kids at the main entrance, some of them were selling water, others were simply begging. The palace looked magnificent from outside, but it was still closed at such early time. Luckily, work schedule finished earlier than expected, which allowerd some spare time for more sightseeing. At around 5PM, I was back there. This time the palace was open, and there was Sreypich.

As I walked from the taxi to the main entrance, among a bunch of kids, she approached me waving a bottle of local water while screaming "one dollar Sir, one dollar please". Instead, I proposed "one picture, one dollar", to which she agreed and posed. That was the first picture I took of Sreypich.

Right after a quick walk inside the Royal Palace, I rushed to the next place. On my way out, Sreypich was waiting for me at the exit door. She approached me, pointed at the Green Tea Mirinda that I was drinking, and said "Please Sir, nam nam!" while pointing at her belly with the other hand. I agreed, shot a quick video while saying Goodbye and left for the next place: Wat Ounalom.

At Wat Ounalom there is a small bookshop, and there was Sambath. As the only foreigner in this place, I was getting a lot of attention. I approached Sambath and asked for Khmer books for kids, since I like bringing foreign books to my children. To my surprise, Sambath was the first person in the city who I could communicate with. His English was way above the average. I took a few more pictures and jumped back into my taxi. That was the end of the journey in Phnom Penh.

While waiting for my flight back, I walked into a bookshop at the gate. There were tons of books with beautiful pictures of Angkor Wat, a place that was impossible to reach in a one day trip. "Next time", I thought to myself. Despite these beautiful books, the one that really caught my eye was "First they killed my father", by Loung Ung. When I saw that picture of Loung holding that chalk board with her name at the refugee camp, something strange happened. Perhaps it was because I have read about the book when it was first published, but I'm not sure. By the time I arrived to London, I have read the whole book and I couldn't stop thinking about Sreypich. As I was reading Loung's story, I imagined Sreypich going through the whole experience. While I knew that Pol Pot was long gone, I was certain that Sreypich's future was in serious danger. Even though the killing fields are now just a touristic attraction, I know that Sreypich was menaced by poverty and child abuse, which is a real problem in the region.

A few days after my trip, I started thinking about Sreypich again. I was just thinking how inexpensive in my currency would it cost to get Sreypich out of the streets. I went over my pictures again and spotted a phone number at the bookshop in Wat Ounalom, where I remember I have had a chat with a young student who worked there. Sure enough, I called.

Sambath picked up and it didn't take much effort for him to realize that it was me. With some difficulty, I managed to get his email address right and we started a written dialog. I explained my idea and Sambath offered help immediately. Following my instructions, he went to the Royal Palace at 5PM. That was when Sambath met Sreypich. Undoubtedly, the timing was right. Sambath came right back to me with the news. Sreypich and her parents were being kicked out of the small shack they were sharing with a number of other families, because they failed to pay the rent. To make things worse, her mother was pregnant.

That was when I started my mission, which would have been impossible without Sambath's help. It only took little money, and the priceless support from Sambath to have the family relocated to a safer place close to a school. Sreypich signed up and started attending class right away. In the afternoon, she started attending English classes too. In addition, I supported Sambath's English classes, which were mandatory for the second part of his career. Even though Sambath had other jobs besides the book shop, it would have been impossible for him to afford his career on his own.

A few months later, I visited Phnom Penh. I saw Sreypich transformed into an elementary school student. She was nicely dressed in the school uniform and seemed perfectly adapted to the class. It was simply beautiful to be there. It felt like a big family reunion after long years. The big surprise was when we arrived to her house. It was only four walls with no furniture, except for a rudimentary bed, but this time it was their own four walls. Sreypich's mother had a little baby girl in her arms. When I asked her name, she said she was waiting for me to choose a name. This was totally unexpected. Her name is Sophia, which by coincidence has a beautiful meaning in Khmer.

During that trip, I took Sreypich and her father to Angkor Wat. It was an amazing discovery for all of us, as they have never been there before either. It's been now almost two years at the time of writing this article, and the whole family is doing just great. The mission is not finished, and it has not always been easy. Sometimes it involves much more than just wiring money every month, but the results are more than rewarding.