My father decided to visit Cambodia in 2012 to learn more about the condition of Muslims in a land dominated by communists. And he wanted to see if there was something he or GiveLight could do in light of the atrocity of Khmer Rouge where millions of innocent were massacred, and the ongoing discrimination against minority Muslims.
As fate would have it, he found a hotel by the bank of Mekong River, run by a Muslim couple. Zul and Mariya Weasna were immediately taken by my father’s pleasant demeanor, eloquence, and the rare combination of gentleness and determination in him. He remained resolute in wanting to do something lasting to help the poor in Cambodia, especially the orphans.
The idea of philanthropic work was not of much interest to Zul and Mariya. They are busy, young professionals who run a hotel, plantations and other business ventures. They had been approached by many Malaysians to partner in building schools or mosques, but no project appealed to them. Upon meeting my father, however, and hearing about GiveLight’s global work, they became very interested in working with us. I soon began to receive emails and text messages about a possible partnership. What makes this story even better, I have unknowingly acquired a Cambodian family before even meeting them in person.
Early in 2013, the couple donated two acres of their rubber plantation (valued at $55,000) to build a new home for Cambodian orphans. To learn more about how this generosity unfolded, read Mariya’s account here.
Our Cambodia Home morphed from concept to reality much the same way as our first home in Aceh. The government granted the permit to build within a week (which was unheard of), and the construction was completed within seven months, under a budget of $80,000. It was my father’s vision and determination that turned both homes into reality.
After waiting for a year to visit, I landed in Phnom Penh with my beloved father on a humid, cloudy afternoon. Our hearts were filled with warm anticipation to meet the children and our generous Cambodian family. At the airport, a beautiful, petite woman rushed to welcome me with a long, warm embrace. I recognized the soul that resembled my own and the heart that was forever united by the same desire as mine – my Cambodian sister, Mariya. Zul greeted me with a kind and loving smile, which I later noted was a permanent feature on his face.
Stuck in traffic, we finalized our itinerary for the next few days as Zul navigated the crowded Phnom Pehn streets with ease, in his new and shiny Range Rover. I couldn’t wait to get to know each of the children and spend every waking hour with them.
The five of us – Zul, Mariya, Nahla (a US volunteer), my father, and I arrived at our Cambodian home mid afternoon, the following day, amidst a tropical monsoon downpour. It had not rained in six months and so much rain on the day of our arrival brought such joy to my heart as if God Himself was granting His approval by showering us with His Abundant Mercy with every drop.
My heart beat faster as we drove closer to the house in anticipation of my first meeting with 40 children who had occupied my mind since their move last Ramadan. The tall and slender trees that aligned perfectly in the expansive front yard were the first things I saw as we approached. More than five hundred of them standing firm like the chosen guardians of our home and children. As we parked our car, the children started to run toward us, not minding the heavy rain. We jumped out of the car with excitement despite being soaked.
Gathering in one of the big rooms, we began by having the children recite verses from the Qur’an. Twelve-year-old Qadir stood up immediately when I asked who memorized Ad-Duha (The Morning Light). Nervous, he tried to begin but could not bring himself to say a word. We suggested the others join him, and soon their beautiful voices floated in the air, speaking the Words of God with such good Arabic pronunciation. Encouraged, ten more took turns reciting chapters of the Qur’an. Those precious few minutes marked the beginning of our relationship. That I am the one blessed with this amazing work and am responsible for ensuring these children receive the best treatment, the best education, and most of all, know that they are loved, is truly humbling.
The children’s eyes sparkled with gratitude as they received their gifts from the U.S. — clothes, chocolates, brand new shoes sponsored by the generous kindergarteners from Skoke, Illinois, and of course, GiveLight t-shirts. We also showered them their Eid gifts consisting of more new outfits with hope that they will be motivated to do their best in Ramadan.
When the rain subsided, we rushed to play outside. Nahlah brought jump-ropes, balloons, badminton sets, and other fun objects that excited the children.They played and ran joyfully among the trees, and we watched them with our hearts full.
The next morning I awoke before dawn and heard the call to prayer from a small mosque in front of our home. It filled my heart with a sense of peace and purpose. Haroon – the gentle, 25-year-old Qur’an teacher woke each child to perform ablution, and together they stood in straight lines to say their dawn prayers. Immediately after, we all sat together to recite Qur’an some more. As we finished our worship, I asked the children to stand up and share their future dreams. I noted, with great happiness, that each child, even the smallest one, stood up with confidence to say what they wanted to be. I heard “doctor, engineer, teacher, dentist…” echo throughout the room. To each dream, we repeated, “Ameen.”
After breakfast, Nahlah and I did five different activities with them – Jenga, watercolors, paper-crafts, coloring books, and puzzles. The kids were so engrossed in each activity that hours passed before they were ready to stop. Outside, we played soccer, raced, and passed balloons. After lunch, Nahlah handed out parting gifts – small cars and playdoh. Thrilled, the children began playing with their gifts right away until they were told the gifts were theirs to play with for a long time. Then, it was time for school.
My day with the children reinforced what I already knew. Here I am, in a remote village of Cambodia, where electricity and running water have not yet reached. I sit in a dark room and feel a thousand points of light penetrating my heart. I am here, because it is my dream to take these children out of the darkness of poverty into the light of knowledge. It is knowledge – knowledge of the world and of the Divine – that will open doors of prosperity for them, realize their future dreams of becoming whatever they aspire to, and lead them into an eternal Light.
Kampong Cham, June 16th 2014
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