Samnang, tired after her flight from Toronto and bearing a faint facial scar , is greeted by her father, Pich Bao, at Pochentong Airport.
"Pok! Pok!" the neighbors would call out at the little girl from Kandal
village in Kampot.
"Pok", which means "bump", referred to a growth protruding from
the front of her skull just above her nose. A hole in the skull had allowed her brain
to grow through, forming the tennis-ball shaped swelling.
However, an operation performed in Canada by a specialist medical team has meant
that the two-year-old girl, who arrived back in Cambodia April 27, no longer sports
the disfigurement. With her new look comes a new name: Samnang, which means "lucky".
"I don't think my neighbors will call her Pok any longer," says her mother
Ouch Pou on their arrival back at Pochentong Airport. "I would prefer that they
call my daughter Samnang instead."
Samnang was sent to Toronto for her operation at the Sick Children's Hospital by
Rose Charities, an NGO which trains Khmer surgeons to operate on birth disfigurements
including cleft lips and cleft palates.
Samnang came to Rose Charities at Khien Khlang when she was three months old. She
is the first Cambodian child to receive the surgery; 24 others are on the charity's
Dr Nous Sarom, chief of surgery in Khien Khlang, traveled to Toronto to view the
operation. He says that between 500-700 Cambodian children suffer from the congenital
defect, although the medical reasons behind its cause remain unclear.
However, he says that the defect is more commonly seen in Southeast Asia than in
developed countries. He adds that there seems to be a link between poverty and the
prevalence of the condition, but says Cambodia does not have the facilities or the
expertise to operate on afflicted children.
That looks set to change - three doctors from Cambodia attended the operation
to learn more about it. The idea is to train them to perform the surgery, allowing
dozens more children afflicted with Samnang's condition access to treatment. Dr Sarom
says that Rose Charities has invited the Canadian team to visit Cambodia to help
establish an operating center here.
Kanyapak Reinvetch, Rose Charities' administrator, says the travel expenses of Samnang
and her mother were paid by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, the star of the movie
Tomb Raider. The Toronto hospital provided the operation free of charge.
She says that anyone suffering from birth disfigurements such as cleft lips or cleft
palates need only come to the charity's clinic in Khien Khlang and they would receive
"We call on all Cambodians with similar problems to come and meet us,"
Dr Heng Ly also went to Canada to view the operation. He says that mother and daughter
received substantial help from Toronto's Cambodian community, who provided accommodation,
food and transport.
"They were very helpful," he says." They showed great generosity in
Samnang before the operation to remove the growth.
At Pochentong Airport, Samnang's father, Pich Bao, 32, had been waiting since 9 a.m.
with Samnang's brother and sister to welcome her back.
"I am very happy that my daughter is coming back," says Bao, waiting at
the arrivals hall with his eyes fixed on the exit. "I prayed that she would
return safely to us. Last night I couldn't sleep. I implored the sun to rise sooner
because I want to see my daughter."
It was not just Bao who had trouble sleeping: Samnang's older sister, 14-year-old
Loy An was excited too.
"I missed my sister very much," she says as she waits with her father and
brother outside the terminal. "When I see her I know her bump will be gone from
At 10:45 a.m., Samnang is carried through the exit gate by her mother. With her are
three large suitcases of gifts for Samnang. Bao and his children rush to hug the
little girl and the tears run freely.
Ouch Pou thanked the Cambodian expatriate community in Toronto, particularly the
monk at the pagoda where she stayed for the duration of the trip, for their generosity.
As Bao carries his daughter, Loy An kisses Samnang's face and examines the scar on
her forehead. Her mother says they didn't have much hope the operation would be a
"We were disappointed when we saw her face after she was born," she says.
" But now I am very excited because my daughter will be able to live her life
like any normal person."