The streets of Phnom Penh were filled with children. All day, kids from ages 3-15 roamed the local markets targeting tourists and asking for money–so you can imagine that as two pale, freckled women wandering aimlessly in the center of Cambodia, Jordan and I were stopped every few feet. And since saying no to a begging, underweight child holding out his or her tiny little hands is impossible, Jordan and I ended up giving away a good amount of money. We had no problem doing so, and easily justified that they needed it more than we did, until we read UN-sponsored warnings advising tourists not to give to begging children. The problem, the warning said, is that the children are ordered by corrupt adults (sometimes a parent, sometimes an abductor) to beg for money and are forced to give 100% of the money back to the adult and are often abused because the money (regardless of how much) is never enough. So instead of feeling as though we were helping, Jordan and I ended up feeling horribly guilty for contributing to what seemed like solution-less problem and a never-ending cycle.
What to do? Jordan and I turned to Jan, our reliable tuk-tuk driver to get a local perspective on the situation. Jan agreed with the UN warning. Instead, he suggested that we bring the begging children to a food stand and let them pick out a meal, so we know that we are helping the child and not giving money into the massive drug trafficking or brothel industry.
In less than an hour, Jordan and I were able to take Jan’s advice. We were at a local market buying our breakfast for the next day when a child tapped me on the shoulder and held out his hands for money. Feeling worldly, helpful and “in the know”, I motioned to the food and told him to pick whatever he wanted. He ordered a pound of cherries and immediately opened the bag and wolfed them down. He was starving. I let him pick something else, ordered my food, and turned toward the tuk-tuk. When I turned around, there were 5 more children standing there holding out the world’s cutest hands. So of course, we bought the rest of them dinner.
What to do? We can’t afford to buy every child a meal. And even if we could, a meal is still only a temporary solution. What about the next meal? And the next day?
Mith Samlanh is the closest thing we found to a solution. It is a a local organization in Phnom Penh run by former street youth and their teachers. It focuses primarily on getting children off the street and teaching them practical skills to prepare them for employment. The focus of the training is “building self-esteem, self respect, high standards of hygiene, and of course, hospitality skills.”
Once the children graduate from the program, they are allowed to work in the sister restaurant, Friends, as a host, server or cook. When the training is complete, the staff helps the graduates find jobs in the area. All profits from the restaurants are reinvested into Mith Samlanh’s projects for former street children.
The restaurant is able to stay afloat because the majority of the food is donated by local farms, and the restaurant accepts donations from around the world. Aside from monetary donations, Mith Samlanh sells photographs, bricks and sidewalk space where supporters can pay for an engraved shout-out.
Everyone at Friends was outgoing, open and friendly, and it really showed the value of community and what we are capable of doing when we work together. From its brightly painted center behind Friends the Restaurant, Mith Samlanh offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children each day, and has recently been awarded as the first and only NGO in Cambodia to receive the “Best Practice Award” by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia for compliance with all standards in the code of ethical principles and minimum standards.