Cambodia's Orphan-Industrial Complex

The country's orphanages are brimming, but along with brighter opportunities for poor kids come signs of long-lasting attachment issues.

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Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley

Seyma had a rebellious streak, and it came out strongest in the classroom. The 11-year-old Cambodian had some real authority as an assistant teacher, which is to say translator. He liked to leverage his power. Without him, the foreign volunteers that taught the English class found the communication gap uncrossable and the distracted pupils uncontrollable.

The classes happen under a corrugated iron shed about two miles north of Phnom Penh. It's a simple setup: two classrooms that can seat 40 in neat little rows of small wooden desks with attached benches on a floor of orange dirt. A whiteboard is hung from a supporting beam in the front of the class. On one "Fun Friday," an Australian volunteer named Claire also stood in front, trying to lead the class into a game. She was failing, stuck in a full-scale battle with Seyma.

Claire was trying to set up a word game with her students. She wanted to divide the class into teams of four. Seyma wanted to divide the students into three groups. The conflict was escalating.

"Seyma, would you help me divide them into groups of four, please?"

"No. Better to divide the class in three groups."

"No, no, Seyma, please, just tell them to make teams of four."

"But three groups is better!" He turned to the class and spoke in Khmer: "Divide into three groups!"

Claire was exasperated, but calm and persistent. She did not scold Seyma. She simply said "Stop, please," and went around the class counting out the teams. It gave her the upper hand; Seyma finally acquiesced and asked the class to make teams of four.

Seyma spent the rest of the class distracting students who were trying to play the word game, putting a panama hat and cheap sunglasses on them, and giggling at the fun of it all. The following week, when the authors of this article taught the class, he sat in the back of the room, talking to his mother on the phone. After he got bored, he started riding a tricycle around the classroom. He stopped only once, to push a student away from the whiteboard who was getting the answer wrong, but quickly remounted. The antics ended when he crashed into the whiteboard. We volunteers were helpless.

Something needed to be done to discipline him, but none of the volunteers had been there long enough to fill that role. They simply did not have a deep enough connection with Seyma.

Seyma lives at SCAO, an English school and children's home, with an acronym that papers over the unfortunate name of Save the Poor Children of Asia Organization. We had come to be volunteer teachers and to live with Seyma and the 16 other children that are constantly dashing around the house, devouring noodles, and demanding attention for play. It is a dusty and modest establishment. Everyone lives together in a house built on stilts above a tile patio. A field that used to be a swamp across the road is filled every night with trash -- it is the cheapest way of making new ground for more stilted houses. Today, 500 children come each day to practice English, but it started as an orphanage, and the 17 children that live in the house remain at the core of its mission.

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Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley

The problem is that the children are not actually orphans. With the exception of one, all have a living parent. Seyma's mother is alive and well in the Kratie province, in a town called Snuol. She works from sun-up to sundown as a seamstress. But his father passed away when he was six, and his mother is poor and can't afford school fees or medicine. She sent him to SCAO so that he might have those luxuries and live in a city of opportunity.

Seyma found the opportunity that she wanted for him. He learned fluent English, proved to be a virtuoso at computers, and had good access to healthcare. But he still lived away from his mother, who might have stopped his classroom antics and aggression.

Instead, Seyma's discipline fell to Carl. The 24-year-old Australian was among the longest-staying volunteers, having been at SCAO for five months. In the process, he had become a father figure to the rebellious 11-year-old. He was the only one able to sit Seyma down when the complaints of misbehavior came up the chain. The boy's kneejerk reaction was to deny everything. But Carl forced the issue and told Seyma how disappointed he was.

"We gave you the position because you're grown up enough, because we want you to practice so that you can become a full teacher in four or five years. But you can't play around in class. For that one hour a day, you have to act like a 20-year-old. Just for one hour." Seyma pouted for a while, but the next day, he was respectful and helpful in class.

Seyma's situation at SCAO is common in Cambodia: 71 percent of the children in the country's orphanages are not orphans. The number of orphans is actually on the decline, but the number of orphanages has exploded--increasing by 75 percent -- even though the government recommends residential care as a last resort option for children. The solution to the riddle is the tourism boom. The increase in orphanages started in 2005, when tourists started pouring into the country, their numbers growing by more than 30 percent a year. Cambodia's orphanages have become a tourist attraction. The industry is floating on foreign cash, and desperate parents all over provinces like Seyma's are sending their children to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to support their children with the donations of tourists.

The glut has inspired some atrocious scams. Two orphanages in Phnom Penh -- Love in Action and CUCO -- have just been shut down because they deliberately kept children in shoddy conditions to inspire more donations. But SCAO is not a scam. It is well-intentioned and decently run. It no longer calls itself an orphanage, but a care center.

Yet it shares a core problem with hundreds of orphanages around Cambodia. Its children are being raised away from the love and attention of their parents. There is no one to focus on a child's long-term development. Short-term volunteers generally don't stay long enough to be useful, and long-staying volunteers tend to leave just as they are settling in. Carl was about as good as it gets with foreign volunteers. He was motivated and cared deeply for the children. In his five months at the center, he developed a new computer class and curriculum. He had invested himself in Seyma's education and behavior. But just as those efforts were gathering steam, he was leaving. We were there for his last week on the job.

Carl was closer to Seyma than any other volunteer. He talked to him daily about everything from girls to homework to cautioning him about the violence in action movies. Yet Carl couldn't provide everything Seyma needed. The boy turned to his mother every day to share his thoughts, talking to her on the phone for almost an hour. They talked about things he was learning in class, about his younger brother, and shared their excitements and fears. Seyma was clearly missing some kind of connection to someone he knew would be there for him year after year.

There is formal evidence for the concern. Children in residential centers are vulnerable to psychological and developmental disorders. Studies have found that children raised in institutions can develop Reactive Attachment Disorder. With the confusion of forming and breaking so many relationships with volunteers, the kids can become indiscriminate in affection. We saw it at SCAO in children like Seyma: We were only there an hour before he started hugging us and holding our hands. On our first night, he climbed into bed with us and tried to engage in a nipple-twisting competition. The unnatural readiness to form bonds with strangers is one of the reasons why children's homes are commonly viewed as a measure of last resort in the United States, when there are no relatives or friends or foster homes that will accept a child.

Carl recognized how close he and Seyma had become, and worried about how he would take his leaving. He sees a lot of himself in Seyma. "Seyma is a punk--the smartest in the class and the most rebellious." Carl said. "I don't want him to make the same mistakes that I did."

A high school dropout and a runaway, Carl fled his parent's house at 17 and started living on the streets. He knew hardship and hunger. He got involved with teenaged gangs, briefly, and drugs, a little longer. He did not start speaking to his family again until he was 19, and didn't have a full relationship with them until he was 21. In the meantime, he worked every job he could think of in Queensland -- sales, retail, insurance, bartending, roofing -- anything that would pay a living wage. When he reunited with his family, his life was straightened and changed. He says he could not have gone to Cambodia without their support.

"I've been looking for a job that made me passionate for my entire life, but I never found it until I came to SCAO," he told us.

Carl had come to Cambodia as much for adventure and the experience of living abroad as to do good. It was something young Seyma couldn't understand.

"But Carl -- you said we could watch a movie!" the boy protested. Carl had forgotten about his promise.

He was torn. As his time at the center ebbed, Carl found himself caught between two worlds: wanting to spend more time at SCAO and with Seyma and anticipating his return home to his family. He hopes the kids will remember him. "It's a catch 22," he explained. "I want even better volunteers to come so the children get the love and care they deserve, but then I know I won't be remembered as the best. I don't want to become just another link in the chain."

When the last day came, the children gathered around him to sign their names on his SCAO T-shirt. All the kids wanted to be with him as long as possible. They scampered around, hugged him, and hung off his shoulders as he packed.

Seyma didn't join in. He couldn't even bring himself to look at Carl. He was trying to distract himself, lying on top of a table off in a corner, pretending to read a Star Wars picture book. He was doing better than last time, when he'd connected deeply with a long-term volunteer named John. When John left, Seyma didn't speak to him during his last week.

"Seyma, come here and give me a hug."

The boy that never seemed to leave Carl's side reluctantly forced himself to put his arms around him meekly for a second, then let go and shuffled away. Carl looked after him with concern but was already being called to the road. The driver wanted to leave before it started raining.

When Carl mounted the motorcycle, all of the kids ran out into the street to watch him drive off. Seyma stayed behind in the center, defiant until the last moment. He ran onto the street just in time to see Carl disappear around the corner.

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Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley

As Carl turned and waved goodbye, the slightest smile flickered on Seyma's face.

The story at SCAO highlights the grey areas surrounding institutionalization of child care in Cambodia. In Carl's five months working at the center, the question remains which family -- biological or SCAO -- would have done the better job.

For the centers that are not scams, the reality is that kids are getting more opportunity. They have access to healthcare, and they get a worldly education from foreign visitors. Of the two children that have graduated from SCAO, one has gone on to college and the other is an entrepreneur who runs a chicken farm. In the villages, by contrast, there is no work and little education. Many would simply become farmers or temp laborers like their parents.

Moreover, SCAO has given its kids the option to return home and all have declined, saying they enjoy living in the center. The kids at SCAO seem generally happy, and the only child that returned home opted to come back 10 months later, saying he missed the center.

It is hard to say if those opportunities can outweigh Seyma's lack of discipline and potential for attachment disorders. His mother seems to believe that he's better off at the center. Seyma's mother recently called her son to announce that his 8-year-old brother will be joining him at the center later this year.

What is clear is that there are increasing numbers of tourists visiting Cambodia's residential centers, and that they have a significant impact on the kids. In cases where the volunteer is dedicated and long-staying, it can do tremendous amounts of good. Carl certainly changed the lives of those he touched for the better. For volunteers that stayed for less time, their only lasting contribution was money. But the foreign dollars also support an industry that is largely unregulated, and for better or worse, takes children away from their homes. When temporary volunteers are supposed to do the parenting, this can be a dangerous proposition.

Two days after Carl left, we visited the center and found Seyma watching a Khmer horror film with some new volunteers. We asked him how he felt about Carl leaving.

"I hope I get to see him next year," Seyma responded. "I want to find him a Khmer girl to marry so that he stays here forever."