The story of Mao, Srey Mom and Dit
Mao turned up for his interview. A stunning kid with perfect teeth and gorgeous smile. I asked him if they were his own teeth, as most of our staff didn’t have real teeth. “Yes” he answered via translation. OK, I gave him a job, since he obviously knew how to look after something!
“..but how old are you?”
“You’re not twenty five, how old are you really?”
“He reckons he’s twenty five!”
“So, he’s probably twenty five then.”
Jeeze he kept his age well. He ended up being a delight to have on board; working hard, always polite, very happy to be working in Jasmine Valley, where he learned new things, was fed, housed, had a good social life and got paid for his time with us.
Srey Mom suddenly turned up in the drinks kitchen and helped with some waitressing. I didn’t know we had new staff coming, but that’s nothing new. Mom needed ‘relocating’ because an in-law of some description kept trying to get her into bed. She settled in well, and became part of our community.
One day, I noticed Jasmine giving Mao very precise instructions before he went to the market. It seemed to be about money. It turned out that she was explaining exactly what money he needed to bring back as change, since he got his numbers mixed up all the time. A strange thing that was happening around the same time was, well, he was growing! You don’t grow like that at twenty five years old! Upon investigation, Mao was only fifteen. He had got his ones and twos mixed up. He had never been to school.
One day, late in 2011, Mao was pretty down. Jasmine asked him what was wrong, and he broke down in tears. He was going to leave Jasmine Valley and was very distraught about it. His mother had borrowed $350 from his brother’s boss. His brother, Dit, worked as an unskilled labourer in Phnom Penh, and earned $35 per month. At 10% interest per month, he could only just cover the interest, so was basically now a bond-slave and was being treated very badly.
We offered to pay the debt, and have Dit come and work with us. This we did, and so began a new chapter in Jasmine Valley. We were just finishing up our skate bowl (the only concrete bowl in SE Asia, I’m told) and I had ideas of teaching our ‘boys’ to skate, as a bit of a hobby after work. They took to it, and within a few months were skating very well. Five months after they first stepped on a skateboard, they were dropping in, grinding, getting a little air and exiting the bowl via a wall with 1m of vertical. In another six months they’ll be ready for TV commercials and competitions! Being poster-boy, elite sportsmen is a very different future to the future Dit, and Mao, had mapped out before them a few months ago.
Srey Mom received news from the family that some fella from the village had offered to marry her. This would sort out the other relational trouble that was going on, and mean she was no longer an old maid – at a ripe old age of nineteen! She was devastated. So was Dit! It turned out they had mad crushes on each other!
In Cambodia, it’s customary for the groom to pay for the wedding. The bigger the budget, the better he’ll be seen to be capable of looking after the bride. Dit is from a very very poor family. There was no way for him to ever be able to afford a wedding. Jasmine offered to pay for a wedding for Dit and Mom if they were able to get the appropriate parental approvals.
To the happy couple’s delight, they received the blessings of both family and monks, and a date has now been set – the 8th of May 2012!
In the meantime, not all has been smooth sailing at Jasmine Valley. An old man, who sponsored Jasmine Valley with ‘seed money’, became upset after I confronted him about some things. He decided he wanted his money back, and has taken us to court, demanding they auction everything Jasmine and I own and give him the money. We’ve been trying to protect Jasmine Valley (and the well-being of all of our staff) for the last five months, and have spent all our profit-to-date on lawyers etc. So, we’re basically broke at the beginning of the quiet, wet-season, which is a very troublesome place to be.
So, what do to? We have made a commitment to help very poor and very undereducated young Khmer people; our staff. This was really a test of that commitment. Jasmine, who grew up in the harshest of poor environments, and has been horrendously exploited nearly all her life, has the softest and most compassionate heart I have come across. Her commitment to the well-being of our staff is unmatched. Despite the fact that we're struggling financially and under threat, she has decided to sell her wedding bracelet. It’s white-gold with diamonds, and is gorgeous. She understands the sentimental value of it (and the material value of it - this is the only thing like this I've ever bought!), but she also understands real commitment, care and compassion. This is the stuff I love about her.
The wedding will proceed!
OK, here's the update. An ex-student of mine, from The Little Day Project, came to shoot the wedding. Thanks a lot Frosty! You can watch the video below - just a few minutes :)
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