SOPHY’S STORY IS ONE that breaks my heart. It is also the one that gives me the most hope. I first met Sophy in early 2015. We had hired a Sustainability Assistant when we moved to our new community centre, someone to cook lunches for the staff, take care of our farm, keep our community centre relatively tidy and watch over the students. Our original Sustainability Assistant hadn’t worked out. She was an alcoholic, and would often not turn up for work. We were determined to help her, but as you have learnt through this book, not everyone can be helped. Or perhaps they can, but just not at the time when the help is available.
Thai had previously visited Sophy’s house when he was conducting assessments to bring marginalised children into our scholarship program. He had originally offered the role to Sophy, however, she was recovering from appendicitis and was unable to work. Once we let our original Sustainability Assistant go, Thai went back to Sophy’s house. She had recovered from surgery and was eager to work with us. She still works at Human and Hope Association to this day.
Sophy wasn’t given a fair chance in this world from the get-go. She grew up in a war-torn country. With the Khmer Rouge taking control of Cambodia, she and her family had very little food to eat, worked all day at risk of punishment, and didn’t have access to education or medical support. When her father was killed, her family struggled to survive. Yet, Sophy was considered lucky, as she wasn’t one of the two million people (a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time) who perished under the regime.
Once the Khmer Rouge regime ended in 1979, Sophy’s family struggled to rebuild their lives. Her mother remarried a very violent man who directed his anger towards her family. One day, despite their pleas to stop, Sophy’s stepfather killed her sister with a piece of wood. Her mother spiralled into depressed and died several months later.
All alone, Sophy had no option but to continue to live with her stepfather. After a few months, he married a woman who forced Sophy to work from early morning until late evening. Sophy would work in the rice field and collect rattan. With no free time and no one to care about her, Sophy never had the opportunity to attend school.
Sophy’s stepfather was killed by stepping on one of the millions of landmines left over from the war. This meant that she had to work harder than ever to support herself, and she was overcome with a feeling of helplessness.
That feeling changed when she was approached by an artisan association to work with them. Sophy learnt how to paint statues and earned a good income for her work. She was finally happy, and when she met a man in her village at age 20, she decided to get married. Sophy chose him as he didn’t smoke and drink alcohol, unlike many of the men in her village.
Sophy gave birth to her first child a year after getting married. Despite being allowed by her employers to take maternity leave and return to her role, her husband didn’t allow her. He was jealous that she worked away from home and expected her to stay and do housework. He began to drink alcohol and became an alcoholic. With the alcohol came violence, and Sophy’s life was back where it had started.
Sophy began collecting rattan to make baskets for 25 cents each. She also worked on a farm and completed seasonal shifts as a builder. Despite working three jobs, her salary wasn’t anywhere near as much as she made when she was a statue painter.
Sophy started spiralling into depression, and with four children to look after, she never had a free moment. Sophy was often sick and her hospital bills pushed her family further and further into debt. This is the time when Sophy began working at Human and Hope Association. Her husband agreed this time since our community centre was just 300 metres from her house.
As time went by, Sophy’s role developed from part-time to full-time, with her taking on additional responsibilities such as teaching in art class and promoting our organisation to the community.
Sophy’s four children study in our educational programs, including English, Khmer, preschool, art class and library. They continue to study in public school, with her eldest child already in secondary school. Sophy has learnt basic Khmer through our language classes and partakes in weekly staff development workshops and external training sessions. Through our staff savings scheme, Sophy has been able to start a chicken farm and build a well for her family to access water. Their quality of living has been steadily increasing.
We work with her husband to reduce his drinking and violence by involving him in our family happiness workshops. Sophy continues to live with him in the hope that he will change and be a positive role model for her children. Although I can’t imagine being in Sophy’s situation, I have the highest respect for her. She always puts her children first, and genuinely cares about the people that HHA help. Despite not having much money, Sophy would always buy me coconuts or give me fresh vegetables from her house. She organised for HHA to borrow land so we could expand our farm. She treats everyone who comes to HHA with dignity and respect, despite not being treated that way for most of her life.
I am not sure what the future holds for Sophy and her family. However, I do know that her children have already been afforded a much better life than she was, and that surely has to mean something.