Paradise where abject poverty prevails

WHEN Martin McHenry went to Cambodia he fell in love. Not just with the place, which he describes as majestic, but with the people, particularly the children.

“The kids are great, so full of life and very mannerly and unspoiled,” says Martin, who was so impressed with the operations of a makeshift orphanage there that he put his Asian holiday to one side and stayed to help, painting and decorating the shelter for needy children.

The orphanage, in the coastal tourist town of Sihanoukville, in south east Cambodia, is known as Anita’s Home for Children and is run by Iranian Anita Akbari and her brother, Mohammed, or Mo Mo as he is better known.

Sihanoukville, surrounded by palm-fringed sandy beaches and pristine tropical islands, looks like paradise but abject poverty prevails, particularly among youngsters.

For Martin, Anita and Mo Mo’s devotion to the children was a revelation.

“I was travelling in Cambodia and Vietnam and watched how the kids on the beach sold fruit and vegetables to help support their families. The tragedy is that many of these children are orphaned or abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves and most of them were sleeping on the beach. Without the orphanage they would be prey to all sorts of unsavoury characters or paedophiles.”

Orphaned children are daily evidence of Cambodia’s recent dramatic history and the uneven development of a new economy and a political system unable to respond to basic needs.

The entire structure of many families was destroyed as a result of the massive killings and separations during the Khmer Rouge regime. The mortality rate of children under five is 138 per 1,000 children, among the highest rates in Asia. Almost 50% of Cambodian children are malnourished.

“They are not exactly starving,” says Martin, “but they need nurturing. They are also very vulnerable and security is the big thing there. Anita and Mo Mo have to lock the gates at night because there are all sort of predators around the area and the kids have to be taken off the beach at around 5pm.”

Many of the children are in bondage to their “owners” who hire them out for $100 a month. Quite a few are street beggars, more work all day selling fruit and jewellery if they are lucky. Those who aren’t spend their time picking up empty cans for a pittance.

“One day a little boy came to the beach that really touched Mo Mo’s heart,” Anita explains. One of those forced to scavenge for a living was a boy called Supbro. “He was only 12 but had been supporting his 77-year-old grandmother and little sister since his parents died.” Now Supbro has a home to go to and is learning English in school. Since then, the orphanage has offered refuge to dozens of children.

“The problem,” says Martin,” is that they have no funds and need all the help we can give them.”

Anita’s and Mo’s work is being helped by the fundraising efforts of Martin and his friends who have already collected over €5,000 for the orphanage.

* A benefit and auction night is being held at the Hi-B bar in Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork tomorrow night at 8pm. A painting by artist Bill Griffin will be auctioned on the night. Anyone unable to attend and who would like to make a donation is asked to contact Martin McHenry on 087-6536192.

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