Earlier this year (back when international travel was not only allowed, it was also quite common!), I had the privilege of meeting Ook Meng, a hard-working 77-year old farmer who has dedicated the latter years of his life to serving his community. I met Ook Meng on a trip to Cambodia. It was my first time visiting Baptist World Aid projects in the field, and I was greatly moved by the kindness and generosity with which he welcomed me and the group I was travelling with into his home. Over the next couple of hours, Ook Meng humbly shared his story with us. And now, I have the honour of passing his story on to you.
Ook Meng is an elderly farmer who lives with a disability that impacts his legs and walking. He lives in a rural province of Cambodia which was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. Today, he is an active community leader and plays an important role in improving the lives of those who live in poverty around him.
But this wasn’t always his story…
A few decades ago, when the Khmer Rouge rose to power, Ook Meng was put in an impossible situation. He was faced with no choice but to join and fight for the revolution. If he had refused, he and his family would have been killed. But the consequence of making that decision has followed him ever since. Ook Meng was visibly remorseful as he told me about his past, asking for forgiveness for the actions which have caused him a lifetime of trauma and regret.
The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia from 1975-1979, bringing mass destruction and wiping out approximately one quarter of its population. In fact, it is rare to meet elderly people like Ook Meng in Cambodia, as many people his age were killed during this violent period of the nation’s history. But while Cambodia is a country that still bears visible scars from this time of civil war and genocide, it is also a country that, to me, is characterised by resilience and hope.
Ook Meng himself is an example of this.
Today, Ook Meng works incredibly hard to farm fish and grow various crops to support his family. The pride on his face as he held up his biggest cabbage as an example of what he has been able to achieve, was a truly beautiful thing to witness. Over the last nine or so years, Ook Meng has participated in training sessions run by Baptist World Aid’s local Christian partner and with your support. At these sessions he learnt techniques to improve the effectiveness of his farm and to increase his yield. For instance, now Ook Meng plants a variety of crops which means multiple harvests each year. And that means more veggies to eat and sell for Ook Meng and his family! But best of all, he now has knowledge which can continue to be passed on to others in the community.
Ook Meng’s great hope for his farm is that it doesn’t only benefit his family, but also his wider community. And that’s why he opens up his home each month to host a community fellowship meal – something he replicated on my visit; sharing a bunch of bananas with our group to open and eat together while seated around his table.
And it was during this moment that one of the pastors I was travelling with had the opportunity to pray for Ook Meng and his community. In response, Ook Meng stood up himself… and prayed a blessing over our group. His genuine love and hope – made clear by this action – brought every single person at his table to tears. It is a moment I will never forget.
While I can’t know exactly what life is like now for people like Ook Meng and his community given the global pandemic, I do realise there will be long-lasting implications.
COVID-19 has already had (and is set to continue to have) a substantial economic impact on Cambodia. This will mean families like Ook Meng’s losing jobs, a drop in income because of the closure of markets, and increase school dropout because rural children do not have reliable internet or mobile devices.
My heart breaks to think of the ongoing impact that this pandemic will have on the people I met at the start of 2020… but my trip has also given me faith that Ook Meng, his family, and his whole community will be able to face these challenges. Because, if there is one thing that I’m certain of, it’s this: they are not alone.
All of Baptist World Aid’s project work is carried out by local Christian partner organisations on the ground. And during my time in Cambodia, I was repeatedly struck by how caring and relational the field staff are. They know everyone by name… and it was obvious that they have a strong connection with the community. In all their actions, the local field staff are always encouraging – often reminding those we visited that they should be proud of all that they have achieved for themselves.
Not only do Baptist World Aid’s local Christian partners offer practical skills training and support to families living in poverty, they also offer love and compassion. They are a witness of God’s love in these communities… and I’m sure that their kindness and friendship will be more important than ever in the months to come.
If you’d like to support the work of our Christian partners, so they can support families like Ook Meng’s to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, please donate now: www.baptistworldaid.org.au/covid-19-global-emergency