BATTAMBANG, CAMBODIA — I hadn't wanted to wake Miss Phoeun from her afternoon nap. My motodop (Moto taxi driver) had no such qualms and rattled the gates until she and the others stirred from their slumber.
Miss Phoeun is unmarried, quite pretty, and probably in her early 20s. She also depends upon a set of crutches to get around. I had come to her and her cohorts to have some custom shirts made. Her group was the only one that was worthy, in my opinion, of my shirt-procuring dollars.
Cambodia does not have a huge safety net for the welfare of its citizens, especially its women. Especially its disabled women. Due to circumstances well beyond their control, many can barely feed themselves. More than a few sell the only thing they have: their bodies.
Some are fortunate. Miss Phoeun is very fortunate: She landed a slot at the Ponlok Yuveaktey Community, a program in Battambang funded by a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Not all women in the group are disabled, but not just any women are eligible. Only those who are unmarried, widowed, orphaned, desperately poor, or disabled are selected.
Tailoring is just one of the free programs available from its parent organization, Saboras Vocational Training Center in Battambang.
"In the late 1990s, Saboras was one of the few NGOs working in the returnee villages in Pailin Province, the former Khmer Rouge stronghold," says Lance Rasbridge, coordinator of the Cambodian Outreach Program, an independent nonprofit in Dallas, in an e-mail.
"The 'compassion' [the literal translation] of Saboras transcends political ideology," he continues.
Besides sewing, Saboras also teaches cakemaking, child care, and accounting, and runs a "beauty college." After graduation, those without enough money to start their own business are offered a low-interest loan of seed money.
It takes five months of study before participants graduate from one of the programs, and when I stumbled upon the all woman-run Ponlok Yuveaktey Community, I was dealing with its graduates.
There were five women and their female teacher, and now that they had mastered sewing, they were learning how to run their own tailoring business. Any profits from the custom clothing that they made went directly to them.
I brought along my own fabric. This was completely unnecessary (they already had plenty), but I had wanted some shirts made with specific tacky designs not available in Cambodia. My fabric caused the seamstresses to giggle. Cambodians have much better taste than I do.
The seamstresses were ready with a measuring tape for custom tailoring, but to make things simpler I handed over a sport shirt whose design and sizing I wanted copied. In fact, I wanted six copies, so I gave them six pieces of cotton fabric that I hand-carried from California to Cambodia.
I also asked them to produce perfect replicas in less than two days. After a few worried looks at one another, the women graciously agreed to have my shirts ready by the time my bus back to Phnom Penh left, the morning after next.
I stopped by the next morning to see how well my project was progressing. The five women and their teacher were busy cutting, sewing, ironing, and joining the pieces of my shirts in an assembly-line fashion.
This wasn't exactly a state-of-the-art shop: The sewing machines were foot-treadle models of advanced years. The iron they were using was an old, heavy cast-iron "toe-finder" model with red-hot charcoal inserted to keep the temperature up.
I snapped some pictures and left quickly; I was definitely in their way.
The next morning the shirts were ready, and the women were very proud of their work. Before they would let me have my shirts, though, they wanted me to put one on, so they could see how their work came out.
I took a group photo of the seamstresses, their teacher, and the director of Saboras. Everyone smiled broadly and genuinely.