My first day at Friends. I’ll never forget it.

A story from Ghislain, Phnom Penh.

Friends is turning 15… while I’ve only been working here for 2 years. That doesn’t make me the best person to tell you all the stories but I still feel like it’s a good time to look back at my first days here. Like all of us in the team, I started with an orientation period. That’s a full week on the field with the social workers, going through our projects to try to get a feel of the situation of the people we work with – as well as an understanding of how Friends works. I remember this week as sometimes exciting, sometimes difficult, very emotional, and always interesting. I wasn’t expecting the street children of Phnom Penh to have an easy life, but you can’t really understand what it’s like before you actually see it. I experienced it the hard way. That was my first day with Friends, in the field:

I was with the outreach team, being driven on a motorcycle through the streets of Phnom Penh. They meet the street children and youth to provide them social counseling, life skills education, basic medical services, and to tell them about the other services that they can access. That’s the basics of how we work: we start where the children are, dealing with their daily problems and needs.

At about 10am, we receive a phone call. A young girl who was supported by Friends died the night before. Her name was Sokha* and she was 20.

A few years ago Sokha had left her province where she was staying at her uncle’s home. He was an alcoholic and was sometimes violent. She thought she’d find a job in Phnom Penh. She worked as a scavenger and had a couple of other small jobs. Probably not the life she was dreaming of when she came. She started using drugs, sniffing glue at first but later on using harder substances such as methamphetamines and even heroin. She spent her last few weeks in a hospital. She had AIDS.

So I’m sitting on the social worker’s motorcycle, trying to understand what’s happening while we’re driving to the pagoda. When we arrive there are only 2 people standing next to Sokha’s body: her best friend and her husband. Sokha got married a couple of months ago. Quickly a few more Friends staff members arrive. At least these people won’t be alone facing this, and Friends is also financially supporting them to give Sokha a decent ceremony. We’re about 10 of us walking around her body while the Achar (Buddhist priest) is chanting prayers. She looks beautiful and I’m thinking that she probably hasn’t been that peaceful for a long time. The contrast with the face of her friend, distorted by tears and grief, is shocking.  We’re in March, it’s very hot and there’s no wind at all. I find it hard to breathe. Later on the chanting stops and Sokha’s husband pushes her body into the crematorium, lights it on fire and closes the door. He looks surprisingly calm.

A few minutes later everybody’s gone. The only visible sign of what just took place it the thick dark smoke coming out of the chimney.

It’s about lunch time and we drive back to the center.

I really was not sure about sharing that. I’ve seen so many positive and inspiring stories since. But that’s how it started for me and I still remember Sokha and her serene face. Unfortunately I guess it’s part of our work – but it also part of what keeps us going.

*Her name has been changed for this story.

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