PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Several years ago, it became clear that all was not well at an orphanage here called Canada House. Cambodia draws many people who want to help out in a troubled country, but in this case it seemed that good intentions were being overwhelmed by practical difficulties.
The founder of the orphanage, a Canadian, had left Cambodia and her return was in doubt. The man who ran the facility said he could not pay the rent. People in Phnom Penh familiar with the situation, including government officials, teachers, and diplomats, were uncertain about what to do.
Cambodia is a land of epic tragedies - of murderous rulers, lengthy civil wars, and widespread poverty. It is a place where a slow-motion crisis at an orphanage might have been overlooked.
It might have been, but it was not. In late 1995, a group of foreign women living in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, received the government's permission to take responsibility for the 32 children then in the institution. By early August of this year, these volunteers had placed all the children in adoptive families in a halfdozen countries.
"We've just said goodbye to all the kids," said June Cunningham, one of the women, in a recent interview here. "We're elated, but we're crying at the same time."
The rescue of Canada House shows what can happen when people get together and do the right thing. "This group of women was wonderful," says Margie de Monchy, a UNICEF official who watched events unfold. "Here were people who were willing to put in the effort. They cared and they were ready to come up with plans."
Naomi Bronstein, the orphanage founder, is no newcomer to the business of helping others, having worked on behalf of disadvantaged children since 1969. "What could I do?" she reflects now. "I always tried to do my best and unfortunately, my best wasn't good enough."
Advocate and helper of children
Mrs. Bronstein began helping children in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and opened the first Canada House in Cambodia in 1972. It has never been easy work.
In April 1975, as the war in Indochina drew to a close, a military transport plane took off from Saigon carrying orphans for whom Bronstein had arranged adoption in the West. The aircraft crashed just after takeoff, killing all but 100 of the 240 children, escorts, and military personnel on board. Bronstein was photographed pulling survivors from the wreckage, an image that appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
Despite such tragedies, she was able to bring about 650 abandoned children out of Southeast Asia by the time she and other foreigners fled the region at the end of the war. Some of these little refugees became part of her family; she and her husband have adopted seven children in addition to having five of their own.
As a result of these efforts, as well as other projects in Guatemala and in North America, Bronstein has received the Order of Canada, her country's highest civilian honor. This year Canada's Royal Bank is giving her a $250,000 Canadian (US$180,000) award in recognition of her humanitarian work.
Taking advantage of Cambodia's emergence from decades of civil war and isolation, Bronstein returned in 1989 to re-establish Canada House. The need was huge; according to UNICEF statistics for 1990, there were 192,000 orphans in Cambodia, with fewer than 2 percent in institutions.
Speaking by telephone from Quebec, she says she wanted to create a home for abandoned children and planned to establish a village where young and old Cambodians without families could live together. "My hope was to make it self-supporting."
But faced with illness and financial problems caused in part by a landlord who dramatically raised the rent on the orphanage's villa, Bronstein decided to return to Canada in 1993. During her lengthy recuperation from a number of ailments, Bronstein found it hard to raise funds. In contrast to the Vietnam War era, when people were stunned by the suffering they saw on their televisions, Bronstein encountered new attitudes: " 'Everybody's got a cause;' 'Money's tight;' 'Let's help people at home;' - I've heard it all," she says.
She took out loans and a new mortgage on her house and estimates that she sent nearly $25,000 Canadian to Canada House after she left. Nonetheless, the orphanage faltered in her absence. "It wasn't being run the way I would have, had I been able to be there full time," she says.
When this reporter visited in February 1995, all the children were in cloth diapers, even though some looked to be three or four years old. The staff seemed dedicated, but they had meager resources. The children were being fed communally, with one of the staff members spooning food out of a large bowl into dozens of hungry mouths.
The children clamored for affection. I remember holding a child on each hip when a little boy toddled over to me, looked up, and lifted his arms. He wanted to be held too.
I met with three women who were concerned about the orphanage. One had adopted a child from Canada House, another worked for a European aid agency, and the third was a teacher. These women were very respectful of Bronstein's work: "If it wasn't for her these children probably wouldn't be alive today," said the teacher.
But they were frustrated by her absence and worried that children weren't being provided more than food and shelter. Occasionally people would show up and adopt one of the children, but for the most part, they were growing up behind the corrugated metal fencing of a villa in the Cambodian capital with little thought being given to their education and their long-term well-being.
Expatriates take action
By the summer of 1995, it became obvious that someone had to do something. The landlord of the villa was upset about months of unpaid rent. Bronstein had been gone roughly two years and seemed unable to return. Officials in Cambodia's Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, and Veterans Affairs were concerned about the situation.
Relief organizations in Phnom Penh pitched in to provide emergency funding and supplies. Some of the women who had become familiar with the orphanage - either because they had adopted a child or joined a loosely organized community support group - began talking about taking over the operation. These volunteers arranged for the children and staff members to move to a less expensive house in June 1995.
The halfdozen or so of the most committed volunteers began to coalesce. All were women, and most were in Cambodia because their husbands had been assigned to work in the country. The women came from Australia, Canada, France, India, Ireland, and New Zealand. Many were connected with the international school in Phnom Penh, where some teachers and students had begun to help out at the orphanage.
That fall, the women found a leader in Janne Ritskes, a Canadian missionary who runs a non-profit community development organization in Cambodia. The group stressed pragmatism: Ms. Ritskes would only take on the work if the goal was placing the children in families - not raising them - and cooperating with the government.
"What's most important is that these people were willing to respect the fact that there is a government," says Ms. de Monchy, who has long experience in Cambodia and is now in Bangkok. That attitude produced vital cooperation from Cambodian officials, who often have had to contend with foreigners who don't respect their role.
Hong-Theme, a top official of the social affairs ministry, confirms the government asked Ritskes to take over Canada House and says he and other officials are "satisfied" with the outcome.
The group changed the name to Cambodia House, set up volunteer committees to take care of various aspects of running the orphanage, and began planning to put all the children up for adoption. International adoption is a sensitive issue in Cambodia, where there have been allegations of official corruption and child-selling, but the ministry told the group they could go ahead in March 1996. The volunteers began seeking potential parents in April that year, and 15 months later all the children had found homes.
The group was "very open" to having Cambodians adopt the children, "but it just never happened," says Ms. Cunningham, a psychologist whose husband works for an international organization. The children now live in places ranging from Australia to Canada. Some have joined the families of expatriates living in Cambodia.
I met Cunningham, who also happens to be a Canadian, shortly after the last of the orphans had been adopted. A calm woman with the measured manner of a therapist, she seemed drained by the experience of loving and caring for the children and then watching them go.
She described how far the children had come from the days of cloth diapers: "When they left they looked like any other kids you might see at the airport," she said, her voice catching a little.
I asked her why she and the other volunteers had invested so much time and concern in the welfare of the orphans. She responded elliptically: "You don't walk away from Cambodia House."