Text and photos: Matthieu Delaunay
“In the province of Kampot, Sister Marie-Ange Yoeurng, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge camps and later a refugee in Quebec City, set up an agricultural farm to help poor families in the remote countryside with the aim of creating, one day, a place of spiritual retreat.
Before one could become a strong-willed woman, one most definitely must have experienced situations that developed such resilience. One could not have survived the Khmer Rouge forced labour camps without an incredibly enduring spirit and a stroke of luck.
It was a scorching day in March. Pepper trees and dust lined both sides of the track. In the small pavilion of the agricultural and educational center of Phnom Voar, Sister Marie-Ange Yoeurng was talking to a couple. The couple, both of whom came from rural backgrounds, came to entrust her with two of their children so that they could receive formal education. This family made an important decision amidst a difficult dilemma. A child at school is one less pair of hands to help out in orchards and pastures. In light of this, Sister Marie-Ange Yoeurng says, “I think they really want them to go to school. They have understood the importance of education to get out of poverty. Come on! It’s up to us! What do you want to know?”.
I THINK THESE PARENTS REALLY WANT THEIR CHILDREN TO GO TO SCHOOL. THEY UNDERSTAND HOW IMPORTANT EDUCATION CAN BE AS A SOCIAL LEVELLER.
THE HORROR OF THE CAMPS
In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime crushed Battambang District and the country with sheer power and terror. Many work camps were created to facilitate the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and repression. “My paternal side of the family is of Chinese origin. My father had fled Mao’s regime and settled as a trader in Cambodia. He had nothing. But through sheer hard work, he was able to set up a small business. We were not rich, but we still had plenty to eat. Perhaps that inspired jealousy in some and spiralled?”
The family was torn apart and young children, from the age of seven or eight, were considered fit for forced labour. Separated from her family, Marie-Ange was sent to the depths of the villages, Phum Spean, at eleven. It was divided into a dozen sectors, including a children’s camp where Marie-Ange was allocated.
“We were divided into groups of thirty. A president, below her, three heads who managed ten children. Every day was like a contest: whoever managed to work the most won praise. In the evening, we had to applaud the winners, it was indoctrination, systematic brainwashing. We only ate rice soup with a lot of water. Many times I have wondered if life is worth living. Lice were all over our heads. We knew that in the towns many people committed suicide. This lasted at least three years.”.
In 1979, Hun Sen and the Vietnamese army reclaimed control of Cambodia. Khmers were sent to refugee camps. Refused by Thai border control, Marie-Ange and her family managed to reach another camp and apply to Quebec for asylum. Quebec was where Marie-Ange picked up her French accent and character. Till today, she still speaks with the distinct Candian-inflected French accent.
FREEDOM IN QUEBEC
“I was very cold, but human warmth is more important in them than in you! There, our family was divided into two: my mother with my siblings, and I with my sister and her three children. The country was still very religious and that’s where I converted to Catholicism. On December 23, 1983, I was baptized. With conversion immediately came the vocation”.
Even though Marie-Ange was far from her hometown, she still constantly thought of, feared for, and loved her Cambodian compatriots. “I wanted to do theology at first, but I was dissuaded from doing so. I told myself that since everyone would get sick one day, I would do well to become a nurse, so I passed the diploma.” She then went to France to join the Congregation of the Servants of the Poor in Angers. Since the congregation had a missionary in Senegal, it secretly hoped to perhaps open one in Cambodia. Despite a slim opportunity for success, Marie-Ange forces fate and made a special request leave her convent. Finally, she was permitted to leave and was back in Battambang. “I went back to the place where I had been locked up by the Khmer Rouge. I reconciled with them. I forgave them. I believe it was because of them that I became a Christian. I would never have known Catholicism if I had stayed in Cambodia and there had not been war. She completes another mission on the side of Kompong Cham and is finally attached to the diocese of Kampot. There, the bishop asked her to start thinking about the creation of a spiritual center that could accommodate visitors passing through Phnom Voar (the hill of vines). “I got there in 2013, but there wasn’t a penny. So, the first year, in order not to stand idly by, I decided to employ the family that lived there to cultivate the eight hectares that the diocese owns, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. So we started clearing the land, with the family and three other workers. Together, they plant mangoes, coconut trees, banana trees and corn, a last crop that does not yield much. And then, the sister has another idea.
SALVATION THROUGH PEPPER
As long as there is pepper, there will be hope. And if there is no more pepper, Marie-Ange, sure will find something else with her strong will.
“With my personal $2,000 plus $3,000 borrowed from friends, I decided to plant pepper trees. It’s very expensive, because you have to care for them for three months, but it can bring in enough money to continue to develop and to welcome more people. In any case, to make them survive for longer. In Kampot, pepper is life, it’s the future. Since 2014, plantations have been flourishing and a significant saving is beginning to be released from the fruit of these trees. Some begin to make a fortune, the sister first seeks to settle families on the spot, in the countryside, and to stem the flight to the cities.
In April 2016, the Phnom Voar programme officially opened. More and more children started benefitting from the programme created by the sister and considered a different future to one in the fields. But for that, we must first preserve order and a healthy atmosphere within the community that is gradually growing. A few weeks ago, a family left without warning. The father, drugged, could not stand that Sister Marie-Ange refused to run the generator in the middle of the night so that he could recharge his mobile phone. Offended, he took his wife and children to an unknown destination. Unfortunately, the future of these families sometimes lies in a cordless telephone. Despite these trials and tribulations, Sister Marie-Ange shouldered on and continued her projects for the families of Phnom Voar. As long as there is pepper, there will be hope. And if there is no more pepper, Marie-Ange, sure will find something else with her strong will.
A Population at risk
Apart from a select minority, the majority population in Phnom Voar are farmers and workers in orchards. Many families are employed on farms owned by wealthy owners in Kampot or Phnom Penh, or even Westerners. This shows stark inequalities and abject poverty. Wages are five dollars a day and houses are reduced to the bare minimum with, at best, walls, a tin roof and, as furniture, a brazier, a mat, a mosquito net and a hammock. As the province has only a few factories, some do not hesitate to leave the province and head to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Children at thus left behind in the care of the grandmother or an aunt. Parents tend to only return once or twice a year, or during national holidays. This is further complicated by pressing issues such as alcohol addiction, drugs, gambling, violence…
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