At one stage I counted ten young street children injecting heroin in the alley around me. Monks slowly walked by on their morning alms. For a Westerner it was an unexpected juxtaposition.

We had arrived on motos some time earlier carrying small sporting bags packed with clean syringes, sterilised water, medical supplies, condoms, empty oil bottles, BBQ tongs and food packages soaked in sugar. One by one, children appeared from flimsy doorways and alley corners. Some brought cane baskets filled with used syringes. Others arrived empty handed, took medical kits, food and began injecting not even a metre away.

Some of the young children spoke with the outreach teams about their problems or asked for specific medical treatment. Others wanted to just share a joke and converse with somebody outside of their world. The children, always polite and courteous, seemed fully aware the outreach team was there to help. Several children took rubber gloves, empty oil containers, BBQ tongs and begin clearing used syringes.

That afternoon I was exposed to many confronting images but none more horrific than the sight of a young male who had two seriously infected wounds on his left calf. Each wound was roughly sixty millimetres in diameter and five deep. The areas surrounding the wound were black and when the outreach doctor squirted a clear solution it sent each wound bubbling in a pool of white foam. The doc applied mercurochrome and bandaged the wounds. The patient did not flinch. I asked the doc if the patient should be in hospital to which he replied in broken English “He not want to go. We do best we can and come back next week to apply more treatment.”

As bleak and hopeless as the situation seemed, it wasn’t. Instead, the Friends International drug program is based on harm reduction and education. Our staff have trusting relationships with the street youth, allowing them to engage more intimately then other figures of authority. Youth who show strength of will and desire to escape their situation get encouragement and assistance to attend drug rehabilitation courses outside the city. If they respond positively they are then offered positions in Friends workshops to learn English and trades such as cooking, mechanics, welding, electronics, business and hairdressing. At the completion of the courses they are monitored and supported in securing employment. It is a holistic solution approach to a large problem.

Each day of the orientation week was an absolutely amazing experience. If I could turn back time as Cher wished and transported you with me for only five minutes then I think we’d all be much wiser and compassionate people. There are many other moments I won’t forget and if you will allow me to become a sickening narcissist I’d like to ask if I can describe one of these moments in detail. Yes? OK…

We sat with a father soon after he arrived home with his daughter from school break. On this particular day I was travelling with the outreach team investigating unattended Mith Samlanh cases. Mith Samlanh is the local branch of Friends-International which houses the trade and language classes. It is has a pulsating atmosphere. Imagine hundreds of young, energetic children in open aired classes.

The father motioned for me to sit beside him on a bamboo table. He called for his daughter and handed her several small notes, as she hurriedly run up a narrow dusty path to buy bread for dinner.

The family’s house was built on stilts and reached over a large lake. Here, away from town it was quiet. Chickens pecked and scratched at the ground while in the neighbouring house an elderly woman gutted small fish taken from the lake. There was a large pot on the boil over an open fire. She fed the fish heads to an obedient duck which, I was told, would be eaten once fattened. A farsighted woman chopped wood further down the path. She scurried to her feet in a fright when a log she was chopping broke open revealing a large ant population. The man beside me giggled and slapped me on the shoulder.

We spoke about the struggles of living in the area and sending his daughter to school. He said he was lucky. His neighbours could not afford to send their children to school. This was the reason we were here. The team questioned the neighbouring mother as to why her sons were not at Mith Samlanh. The mother explained, quite simply, that she needed help preparing fruit and wood to sell at the market. The harsh reality was that if the children did not work then the family did not eat.

At what point would a parent wish to impede their child’s progress? Now I know.

This particular case was quite straight forward — work to survive. There were others throughout the week that were painful to grasp. Many times I shook my head in disbelief at the reasons. Some were of fear of losing their child to a world they did not understand. Others were more sinister, if the child could work the parents didn’t have to.

There are many complicated layers to this country and its marginalised children. For me, I am a lucky Westerner spoilt by things that many of these children will never have. At times I feel ashamed to be given an insight into their life and even more ashamed and embarrassed of the way I’ve acted when things haven’t gone my way living at home in Australia. I may be starting to sound like a World Vision veteran of ten years (which I never want to) but it’s a startling feeling that hits when lying awake in bed.

I feel like a silly selfish prick.

As an expat working behind a desk it can be ridiculously easy to forget the dangers, poverty and struggle of Phnom Penh street youth. As far as inductions go I couldn’t have asked for a more eye opening and valuable experience. If I was to return home now, for whatever reason, I’d be twice the person who left Australia just over a month ago.

Al Soultaris worked as a digital producer for Crikey before he abandoned us for his Cambodian adventures. You can see his handiwork in the beautiful Crikey Weekender email. He is spending a year working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as part of the AYAD program.

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