Scott Neeson and I worked together on marketing for Braveheart and Titanic when I was executive vice president of publicity for Paramount Pictures. I had heard about the remarkable work he was doing in Cambodia when he left Hollywood, and marveled from afar at what he was doing in Phnom Penh—but not for long.
On a backpacking trip through Asia, Scott met the children of Steung Meanchey, the toxic garbage dump in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. That experience changed his life forever. He sold everything he had in Los Angeles and moved to live full-time in Phnom Penh to set up and run the nonprofit CCF. His initial goal was to handle the needs of 45 children. Today CCF serves almost 500 children on a daily basis (www.cambodianchildrensfund.org).
When Scott asked me to help him, I set off for Phnom Penh.
The Steung Meanchey dump is a scene from the apocalypse.
Think the Wild West sandwiched between Vietnam, Laos and Thailand and you have described Cambodia. It’s a severely impoverished area still suffering from the genocide of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979, two million Cambodians—one-quarter of the entire population—were killed while the world looked on.
You notice something odd when you drive the streets and alleys of Phnom Penh. You find very few people above the age of 50—and even fewer in their 60s and 70s. You won’t find an adult in Phnom Penh who hasn’t lost grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in the holocaust. Generations were exterminated. Today, 38 percent of the population is under the age of 15.
Cambodia is very much a country still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. It affects everyone—but especially the children of the children who watched their loved ones die during those terror-filled years.
Child abuse, neglect, malnutrition, abandonment, and even mothers and fathers selling their children into prostitution are all too real scenarios everywhere in Cambodia. Children are often victims of roaming nighttime gangs and nefarious sorts searching for boys and girls as young as 6 to work in brothels.
Then there is Steung Meanchey. Trash and medical, industrial and human wastes are piled in an area at least 100 feet high and eight football fields long. It is the home of 1,200 of the most improverished families in the city, who live, trudge and sort through trash daily, breathing in methane fumes and contracting a myriad of illnesses with no money for a doctor or medication.
Scott brought me there on his daily rounds. He knows every family and they know him. Putting on rubber boots that went up to our shins, we waded through gray sludge swarming with mosquitoes and flies. The families that work there wade barefoot.
After a while, you forget the putrid smell, but I can’t get the hellish images out of my mind.
The small shacks on poles with flooring that saw though to the mire underneath were each barely the size of a large area rug. One such hovel we visited housed a mother, father and four small children all living in a dark, damp hole. They smiled at us and warmly greeted us from their home.
The dump is a scene from the apocalypse. Children and adults wore head and face coverings while poking at freshly dumped waste with hooked poles to find something that would fetch them money for a bowl or two of rice at the end of the day. No fresh water, no comfortable place to rest. Their only shelter was dirty torn straw mats, and if they were lucky, a simple sheet of plastic to block the sun or rain.
These lost children have no hope, especially the infants who have been abandoned by their mothers and fathers.
But the story is not over. Scott’s Cambodian Children’s Fund is bringing much-needed help to the Steung Meanchey youngsters.