Bittersweet Tears In Cambodia 

|| Story and photos by Sean Sprague

Maryknoll Sister nurtures seedlings of hope in Cambodia

Tears run down Los Mari’s cheeks, but not because she is poor, homeless and HIV-positive. These are bittersweet tears in gratitude for the gift that has come her way through Maryknoll Sister Leonor Montiel and the Maryknoll Seedling of Hope livelihood program: a secondhand houseboat.

Los Mari is a member of Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority. Traditionally living in small houseboats, the Cham Muslims make their living by fishing on the Bassac River. Los Mari caught HIV from her first husband, who later died. As she became sick and struggled to care for her three children, she rapidly spiraled into depression before she started taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVS) through a free government program. She married again, to a good but penniless man who was not HIV-positive. She gave birth to twins. Her poverty, HIV status, homelessness and having five children made Los Mari a prime candidate for help from Seedling of Hope, a program of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers that helps Cambodians affected by aids.

Sister Len, as she prefers to be called, works in the program. She explains how aids began to ravage Cambodia just as the country was recovering from the genocide of the communist Khmer Rouge, who ruled the nation in the late 1970s.

“At first people couldn’t imagine anything worse than the genocide which they had already been through during Khmer Rouge times, so it was hard telling people to be careful about catching HIV,” she says. By the late 1990s, with deaths from the infection rising rapidly, people started paying attention and the government and non-profit organizations started awareness programs, she says.

“As awareness of the dangers grew, the prevalence rate went down,” she notes, “and Cambodia is now considered one of the world’s success stories in this regard.” In the early days of the epidemic, in the 1990s, ARVS were not freely available so catching HIV was basically a death sentence. To address this problem, Maryknoll Father James Noonan and a team of missioners started Seedling of Hope. Their main work was to provide hospice care for the dying and homes in Phnom Penh for the orphans left behind by the disease.

Maryknoll’s Seedling of Hope program helps adults and children like these villagers affected by HIV/AIDS to have happier, healthier lives.

“Seedling of Hope has provided a ‘womb to tomb’ service, although there is less of the tomb these days, thanks to ARVS!” Sister Len says. “It was started in late 1995 at a time when people were literally being thrown out of their homes and on to the street if they were HIV-positive. People didn’t know how to care for somebody with HIV and they were also afraid they would contract it themselves.”

Sister Montiel says Seedling was one of the first organizations in Cambodia to introduce home-based care, teaching people in their homes and in hospitals how to care for those living, or at that time dying, with HIV. “Awareness was raised and the possibility of a loving, dignified and compassionate death became an option,” she says.

With the almost universal use of ARVS in Cambodia, aids is no longer a death sentence and people live for many years with HIV, says the missioner from the Philippines. Although the stigma has decreased, poverty and ignorance continue to exacerbate the epidemic.

“The shift now is how to live with HIV,” Sister Len says. “For children, we have educational programs; for adults, we have a socioeconomic integration program.” Thus Los Mari, living with aids, came to the attention of Seedling.

Maryknoll paid for her to buy and refurbish an old, 30-foot boat, which needed its hull repaired. A roof was built over its middle portion so the family can cook, eat, sleep and fish like their neighbors.

The program takes into account the psychological and physical state of the client, the missioner says. They are restored, often from being physical and emotional wrecks, to healthy, happy people with a future. “We work on helping them to build their inner strength and to learn to value themselves again,” she says.

Sister Len Montiel visits Los Mari, her husband and their young twins (above), who now live on a houseboat, and Tou Sreynang (facing page), who now has a job as a seamstress, all thanks to help from Maryknoll’s Seedling of Hope program.

“Maryknoll has a good reputation here,” Sister Len says. “We assure that whatever needs to be delivered to the client gets to them, and our treatment is very good.” She credits the community volunteers who work with Maryknoll and Seedling for much of its success.

“We could not find and serve all these people living in remote places without the help of the communities and their volunteers,” she says. “We are on very good terms with the local authorities and community leaders, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, such as teachers, health workers, friends and neighbors. Now if something happens to the HIV-positive clients, they can count on a community
member to get in touch with us.”

Sister Len says goodbye to Los Mari, and crosses the Bassac River in a precarious ferry consisting of boards strapped across a couple of pontoons that carry up to three vehicles at a time. On the other bank, Sister Len and her team of social workers visit a few more families being helped by Seedling. They check that clients are taking their ARVS, provide a food subsidy and cover the costs of sending the children to school. Most valuable of all, they let people know they care.

Featured Image: The Cham Muslims in Cambodia live on small houseboats and make their living fishing on the Bassac River.

Sean Sprague is a freelance photojournalist living in Wales. He is a frequent contributor to MARYKNOLL.

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About the author

Sean Sprague

Sean Sprague, a freelance photographer and writer living in Wales, U.K., is a frequent contributor to Maryknoll Magazine. Sean travels the world for a wide spectrum of development organizations, the UN and religious societies.