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Women Organize to Find Cambodia Orphans a Home

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1997


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.

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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.