Living in the slums

One of our missions is to provide help for severely deprived families. Every couple of months, an Little Hearts Organisation (LHO) team alongside a CWC officer from the department of social welfare, goes out to distribute essential items to eight families living in severe poverty.

The families live in slums on the banks of the river Mekong, in mini shanty towns. The shacks are built from scrap materials with rusting metal roofs, and dirt floors. The locality suffers from the stench of waste which collects alongside the river. Kids roam the alleyways with barely adequate clothing. Some huts rest on stilts jutting out over the river, in constant danger of flooding.

Parents, with no formal education or skills, have to work as farm hands harvesting crops for $5 a day, but this kind of work is seasonal. Some gather wild water spinach to sell at the roadside for 500 riel a bushel reaping a meagre $2.5 on a good day.

Meanwhile, the kids are sent out to roam the streets, to beg or sell trinkets. Some families cannot afford bottled water. Instead, they catch rain water for drinking, and use river water for cooking. The teenage kids tend to work in garment factories for around $100 a month. These are labour intensive jobs, with harsh conditions.

Food parcels, clothes and stationery

LHO currently supports eight families living in riverside slums. We give each family food packages including a two months’ supply of rice, and noodles. We provide the children with school uniforms, clothes and stationary packs for school. Every so often the kids get a backpack or a new bicycle if they need one. Clothes donations come from Belgium, but the team has to buy school uniforms locally.

The immense joy they have is clearly visible when we arrive. As our minivan pulls up, they come running and greet us with warm smiles. Tony always takes a few minutes to sit with the kids, to check their English and see if they’ve made progress, before we move on to the next family.

Constructive support, reciprocity and education

The visits mean we’re able to ease some of their burden, at least for a few days, while clothes items and bicycles make a huge impact. A single bicycle can mean the difference between a ten-year-old begging on the streets or learning how to read and write, because now they can actually get to school.

However, the principle of reciprocity has to be maintained. A family needs to show a basic willingness to continue sending their kids to school, otherwise they’ll just become dependent. Little Hearts is careful to avoid this eventuality. The help has to lead somewhere, so if the family is willing to put some effort into sending their kids to school or try out new ideas for earning a basic income, then that turns into constructive progress and the support continues. This concept is a core principle of our poverty alleviation program.

Results take time, but we’ve seen the fortunes of many families turn around. It’s not just about the items we donate, but a big part of the progress comes from the huge boost in morale families get when they know they have support. Each visit means a few more weeks of survival with basic household necessities provided, as they continue their daily struggle to scrape out an existence, in the grinding poverty of the riverside slums.


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