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Jesuit center gives new future to Cambodia’s disabled

About 25 kilometers from downtown Phnom Penh, a small group of students are gathered around motorbikes, scooters and bicycles. Some quietly pay attention to a teacher who reveals the secrets of a scooter’s engine. Others are busy repairing an old motorcycle.The scene in this classroom may seem ordinary, but it’s far from that. All students here are physically disabled — some because they were victims of polio, others because they were in a traffic accident on Cambodia’s increasingly dangerous roads. At Banteay Prieb, which can be translated from Khmer as “Center of the Dove,” they are given access to a new future.Founded by the Cambodian government in cooperation with Jesuit Service Cambodia, Banteay Prieb was set up in 1991 when Cambodia had just started to recover from decades of war and trauma.The training center was meant to teach disabled soldiers and landmine victims new skills so that they could, for example, find a new future as a mechanic or a seamstress. But now that landmine victims and wounded soldiers have become a rarity in the country, the center is helping those who were disabled by accidents or the grim poliovirus.”When you become disabled, you lose opportunities and it’s easy to get isolated in your house,” says Father Oh-chang Kwon, a Jesuit priest from South Korea and the coordinator of Banteay Prieb. “Here we teach disabled people how to live together. We offer them new opportunities.”

The work of Banteay Prieb is highly necessary. Reliable data about the number of disabled people in Cambodia is hard to find, but in late 2013 UNICEF estimated that the number of Cambodians with “very significant difficulties” could be more than 320,000. Services offered to help them are limited, with the government largely relying on NGOs.Banteay Prieb helps about 110 Cambodians per year, almost all aged 18-40. In a one-year stay they learn how to live in a community and are taught a profession. Some learn to repair motorbikes, scooters and bicycles, others learn how to repair cellphones or how to fix electronic equipment. But there are also classes for make-up and sewing clothes. The center even has a workshop that produces 1,000 wheelchairs per year that are distributed all over the country.

Banteay Prieb also has a small farm where Svay Chon Sophin teaches students how to grow crops and raise cattle.”During the first seven months of the school year, all students come here for half a day per week to learn about agriculture,” he says during a class in which he teaches a small group of young men how to feed chickens. “We have one farm where they can learn and one farm where we make some business. We usually sell the meat we get from there on the market, but we recently also slaughtered a pig to feed the students.”While the students seem eager to learn about chicken food and fertilizers, being disabled in Cambodia can be a real burden. Healthcare services are very limited for disabled people, which means many rely on families who are often poor and uneducated.Being disabled in this Southeast Asian country also leads to discrimination, with many Cambodians believing that they have been punished for something bad they have done in their previous life. Shame and isolation are common. Families often hide the disabled from the outside world. Sometimes they abandon them entirely.”People who were in an accident often feel ashamed for what happened,” Father Oh-chang says. “We want them to have self-esteem again and to tell them: ‘OK, you were in an accident, but you can have confidence again.’ And I think it works. We give them self-respect. It changes their lives. Of course, their life is still tough after they graduate from here, but at least they can try again.”Student Phun Vichet knows all about it. The 26-year-old was in a horrible traffic accident last September. He lost his right leg and now moves around with crutches.”Before the accident I had a girlfriend, but she cut of all connections with me when she discovered I was disabled. At first she didn’t believe it. But after I sent her a picture of how I had lost my leg, she disappeared from my life entirely,” he says.Phun Vichet is now learning how to repair electronic equipment. “When I first got home with only one leg, I was worried I couldn’t do anything anymore. Now I hope that in the future I will have my own business and my own family.”

Giving people like Phun Vichet the chance to dream again is exactly what Banteay Prieb is aiming for. Since 1991 about 2,000 students have graduated from the center. According to Father Oh-chang, it’s the biggest training center for the disabled in Cambodia. With its farm and a shop where Banteay Prieb products are being sold, the center is partly self-sustaining, but it needs outside support to continue its work.”Funding is difficult and we are always trying to find donors,” Father Oh-chang says. “I often worry about it but I trust in God. For the last 27 years God has provided.”The Jesuit priest is pleased that he can help the disabled people of Cambodia, even though most of them are Buddhist and have no knowledge of Christianity.”Of all the students that were here in the past 27 years, maybe only 10 of them were baptized Catholic, but it’s not our goal to convert them,” Father Oh-chang explains. “We are doing what we do for Christ. We find the marginalized and we contribute.”For people like Phun Vichet, it’s all they need. “I’m happy to be here because I’m learning a new job and I’m making new friends,” he says with confidence.

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