I Left my Heart in Cambodia

by Nahlah Kolkailah

Two weeks shy away from Ramadan. I know deep in my heart it is an immensely blessed time; that it is meant to be in this precise way. I do not even think twice about booking my ticket, knowing it is a clear sign — how everything has fallen into place with great ease.  How long has it been since I have wanted to do this? I am too excited to remember.

I cannot waste a second. I ask my seven-year-old son to imagine his room blank and empty: “What would you be most excited to learn about, to play with?” He inspires me to place myself in these children’s imaginations. Together, we fill two large suitcases with books, art supplies, toys, and outdoor activity items. He snuggles up to me that night and asks me why I am going to these children while leaving him behind? My eyes tear up as I hold him close, and I tell him that he is blessed, that God-willing his mama can come back to him… but these children, well these precious children don’t have a mama to begin with. He tells me he wants me to go, but only if I promise: “Mama, you have to take me with you next time, I already love them too.”

Whenever we make a decision, we reflect deeply upon everything that leads to such decisive moments. I had parted with my son, family and friends, knowing that I will not see them for a while, knowing that there are many uncertain factors to come. With a ten-hour layover in the middle of Asia, I had 37 hours to reflect. And reflect I did.

Extreme hardship is not something most of us are accustomed to. However, at certain junctures in our lives, we reach a point where we become aware of a suffering, and can no longer tolerate to do the minimum.  In that sense, I needed to feel and experience at least a fraction of what these children are going through in order to become more cognizant of how to better serve them.

The magnitude of how this happened is beyond words so let me explain to you the context. Imagine the air so humid and heavy, that when you step into it you feel that time has momentarily stopped. Indeed, perhaps the body does internally halt to adjust to the environment. I have been in extreme climates before, but never with the element of not knowing when relief would come. My mind adjusts to the mentality: Let go of your comforts. This means that anxieties about a lack of wireless signal to connect to people are replaced by the to adapt to severe heat and thirst. The body begs to be washed with cool water but instead I feel the hot, heavy moisture clinging to me instead. Relief is in a sip of anything; in the sudden light breeze turning the sweat into a chill, even if for a split second; or in a nap that allows my body to blissfully escape and hopefully recharge. It is incredible how strong the mind is. A few hours of a new experience and it can adjust, adapt and embrace. I wake up the next day knowing within my heart I very much want to be here; that there is a peace in being able to do something beyond yourself, beyond your limitations (whatever they may be) — not for yourself but for someone else.

It is a slow bumpy six-hour ride from Phnom Penh to the orphanage outside of Kampong Cham. I am so eager to meet the children I cannot wait any longer. Slow cars, more bumps, and hot red-brown dust rising to cover the windows at every turn. Tick tock. I feel my blood quickening. STOP. We turn into a breathtaking forest of rubber trees aligned in parallel rows, creating the perfect entrance.  If I had not been there myself, I would not have believed what came next. Right as we pull up to the home, an explosive gush from the clouds drenches every inch around us with cool, blessed rain. The rain doesn’t just fall from above. It viciously downpours in extended, hard streams. So much so, that we are initially unable to exit the car to reach the children. Oh, the children. I would give anything to show you the sight. Forty little children, between the age of 5 years and 12 years, leaning on the wall, soaking wet from the rain, their innocent faces full of anticipation — a mix of excitement and hope. Would you believe me if I told you I have never in my life seen such peaceful expressions?

We shake the much needed rain off and are finally able to embrace the children. Some of them have a curiosity that urges them to come forward, others are too shy and observe from the corner. Who are these foreigners? What will they do with us? What have they brought with them? Sweet little faces, full of light and potential. I draw one onto my lap, and as I hug him, I feel his little heart thumping so hard it may be ready to jump out of his chest. I think to myself how it would feel to not be able to hug often, to not sense another’s loving touch when needed, to not be able to run to the comfort of one’s mother. I hold back my tears and place a kiss on his cheek instead.

As I make my way around the room I can’t resist hugging them and letting them feel my heart outpour into theirs. Sister Dian chooses the best way to break the ice. The children begin to proudly recite the Quranic verses they know. Several are gifted with mighty and melodic voices that send shivers down our spines. I already see how hard working and dedicated these children are and immediately have a deep respect for them. As they ease up, the adults encourage them to state their aspirations and career goals: future doctors, teachers and engineers. It is incredibly inspiring to see the ambition in their eyes, how assured they are that they can and will achieve their higher goals.

The children are so enthralled by what the suitcases may hold that I decide to fulfill their eagerness by creating activity stations so that all 40 of them can partake at once. The children cannot hide their curiosity. They peak at me through the windows while I unwrap each item and group the work materials around the room.  Language is not a barrier when they exchange sweet, shy smiles with me, and I signal to them: Not yet, almost ready. Another admirable quality I find in them: Incredible patience and humility. I cannot wait to see their reactions, and I rush to not keep them waiting longer.

I will never forget the awe and excitement I see in the children’s eyes as they pile into the workroom. The girls immediately gravitate towards the watercolor painting, books, and puzzle stations. They reveal meticulous talent for arts and problem solving skills. Some are so drawn to the work that they choose to sit for hours and not rotate stations. The boys are enthralled by the word puzzles, memory games and craft stations. They are lost in their artwork as they formalize their thoughts and sentiments on paper before they so proudly show it off and display it around the room. I think to myself how privileged most of us are to be exposed to information that expands our minds and empowers us, that helps us discover and express our talents and passions each day. Oh, how we take such opportunities for granted. I spot the dedicated Quran teacher hovering over the puzzle tasks with them, in deep thought and thoroughly enjoying helping them complete their projects, and my heart is filled with joy. Why, a spiritual teacher with a magical Quranic voice can have fun, too!

We take them outside, beside the rubber trees for another surprise. Such a basic item available at so many other children’s disposal while these children may have never seen or touched one before: Balloons. Such whimsical delight in their discovering eyes and joyous giggles as they watch the array of colors float up above, serenely bouncing them back and forth to each other. I step back from their blissful play for a moment, and it strikes me how these children, as opposed to the ones in Western societies, have a genuine appreciation and sense of gratitude for simple pleasures.

Their immense discipline captivates me on several other occasions. Despite their hungry stomachs, at meal times they are courteous enough to let the younger or hungrier children eat first. At prayer times, they are conservative with the water they work so hard to transport back and forth for ablution. They wake up at prompt hours to offer their morning prayers and supplications. How many of us have mastered this? They share less space and amenities with many of their brothers and sisters, yet are full of sincere gratitude.

The epitome of this realization hits me the first time I distribute toys for each of them to keep. As I hand them little keepsakes, they smile at me as they examine them, play with them for a few minutes, and then politely return them to me.  My heart is moved and then saddened as I realize our children have so many toys they become bored with, forget about, and do not know how to get rid of, while these children are so unaccustomed to having their own possessions that they think they are obligated to return them. I shake my head, gesturing that these toys are for them to keep. Their startle turns into quiet elation and they nod in thankfulness. Some do not know there is enough to go around, and when they see another child empty handed, they willingly hand their gift to a brother or sister; sacrificing their momentary joy out of compassion for another. It is incredibly heartwarming.

It is the same unwavering appreciation and respect these children express when Sister Dian, her father and the orphan home parents distribute new Eid clothes and shoes from the “Soul to Sole” campaign. The children do not waste a moment exchanging the old for the clean and crisp new.

They feel alive; a sense of normalcy to have that gleeful childhood delight in new possessions. It astounds me in that moment, the magnitude of impact in owning just one new pair of pants or slippers. To be able to enjoy dessert for Eid — even ice cream— is a luxury. Yes, donating money is an enormous blessing and incredible feat of generosity that makes such a grand difference in each child’s life. But seeing these children’s world, experiencing what brings happiness to their heart—what specifically may plant and nurture the seeds of achievement in their life—now that is invaluable. A gift I wish for so many to bestow upon themselves.

On one of the days, I remember the heat and elevation catching up to me as my body starts to reprimand me. I find a private spot that might also bring a light breeze. I must have dozed off because I wake up not knowing how I have become one with the prayer rug. I feel guilty for missing what is it an hour or two with the children. I am told that someone checked in on me, was concerned, and brought me a coconut to sip. I am incredibly touched. How far did someone walk in this heat to bring me one? As I am slowly hydrated, my senses come back to me, and I sit with Sister Dian and peacefully watch the children. To say that the girls are thoroughly enjoying their jump ropes or that the boys are elated with their Frisbee and ball games is a grave understatement.

My thoughts take me far, far away. These children have grown up in severe poverty; some with no mother or father, nothing to call their own. They would be blessed if they could secure the privileges of education and basic living needs; the comfort of beds, food, clean clothes, and a seat in a classroom. Yet these children are able to whole-heartedly submerge themselves into simple joys. They are grateful for each moment. Their peaceful faces are accepting and knowing that they will strive to achieve the same if not more than any other privileged person would. How many of us can say that about ourselves, that we experience such fulfilled gratitude each day?

We do not even think about the luxury of electricity — not to watch our widescreen or have our morning coffee ready on time — but to be able to light a lamp in order to see where the faucet is, and for that faucet to actually produce both clean and warm water; to have heat or cool air and comfort our bodies in order to function; to know that when our long stressful day ends, there is something cushioned rather than solid to rest our bodies on. To me, seeing their lit faces despite their struggles is as awe-inspiring as picturing a tree missing its roots — not knowing where or how it was planted yet miraculous growing to produce not only lush green leaves, but blossoming the sweetest most exotic, bright fruit one has ever laid eyes upon. And that makes the outcome that much more cherished.

Indeed, these are the precious qualities I saw in the children over and over. I may have gone there to teach, to offer my services to them, but these children and their environment were the most giving of all. It was not only evident in the extreme and utter generosity and selflessness of the mothers and fathers who built and developed the Noordeen home, taught and fed the children, and looked after them each day; it was also in the profound generosity of these children’s hearts and spirits. These are not children who expect anything. These are children who revel in every ounce of love and care you show them.

Perhaps this is why on the last day, when I held that same frightened boy from day one, I felt his heart beating softly under my palm — no longer viciously pounding; serene knowing someone had come to be with him because he mattered.  This made it more agonizing for me to see the once-distant girl in the corner now hold on tightly to my arm before the goodbyes, knowing we have to leave, and resolving to pull out the keepsake while assuring me that she will remember me by it.  As I felt each finger of mine separate from the grasp of the last child, I could not hold back the tears. The boy I connected with the most stood afar, with his arms crossed, taking in the scene. He had that look of unfathomable boldness and resilience that is locked in my mind. Why you might ask? This boy never stopped smiling. Not once had I looked at him and not seen his beautiful smile. That is how I will always remember these children.

As we pulled out of the driveway, the children chased the car to chant their last goodbyes. Tears may have been blinding our eyes, but as the road got narrower and their images got smaller, their presence in my heart grew. And I realized, this is not enough. There is so much more so many of us can do, not just for one child, but for so many of these children. All I wanted to do is count the days until I can do this again, with my son as I had promised.

These children are blessed and surrounded by signs of God’s mercy, and to be in their presence was an immense blessing and honor that I am forever grateful for. I pray God endlessly rewards all those who make the work and opportunities of GiveLight possible.

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