Newborn baby Neth David has had a rough start in the world. His mother, Vong Daneth, was seven months pregnant when she contracted a severe case of Covid-19. When it became clear to her doctors that she would not survive, they performed a cesarean section to save her baby.
Two hours after Baby David – born prematurely and weighing only 2kg – began his life, his mother’s came to an end as she breathed her last laboured breath.
After Baby David tested negative for Covid-19, the weak newborn was eventually brought by his grandmother, Men Sreypich, to the Cambodia Children’s Fund (CCF) housing community where he was welcomed by CCF’s founder, Scott Neeson.
“Fortunately, the Khmer concept of ‘family’ means so much more here and goes well beyond just parents and siblings. There was never a sense that he was an ‘orphan’ and he was taken in by his aunt, cousins and other extended family members,” Neeson says while cradling Baby David in his arms.
Although his mother was taken by the pandemic, Baby David’s grandmother has still been able to find joy in holding him and his arrival has made life seem a little less harsh and unfair in the wake of Daneth’s death.
After spending a period in quarantine from June 5 until July 5, with her and the baby both testing negative four times out of an abundance of caution, Sreypich is now free to introduce her grandson to his other family and their friends.
Crying as she speaks, Sreypich tells The Post of David’s mother’s difficult life.
“Daneth came and lived with me when she was four months pregnant. Before that, she and her husband were garbage pickers but when that job ended her husband ran away and left her all alone.
“Everything seemed fine until 15 days before she gave birth. She said she kept feeling pain in her stomach and she was short of breath. I told her to go to the hospital and I would come after I sold some vegetables.
“Before I had even sold anything I received a call from the hospital informing me that she had Covid. The next day they [performed the c-section] and she passed away after a few hours,” Sreypich says.
With a tear rolling down her cheek, Sreypich says that one of the hardest things about having her 29-year-old daughter die from Covid-19 is that in the day or so after she went to the hospital up until she passed away no one in her family got a chance to see her face or say goodbye due to the risk of infection.
Sreypich says she is also dealing with feelings of guilt over Daneth’s death because when her daughter was alive she often couldn’t afford to get proper nutrition or enough to eat and she never once was able to go in for a medical check-up or an ultrasound while pregnant.
Unfortunately, Sreypich has been working herself to the bone to help support 11 family members including her siblings, nephews, nieces and her own children.
They receive weekly support in the form of 15kg of rice and $25, but it’s not enough to feed everyone and she struggles to find extra income to sustain her family.
She’s been doing laundry for people, scavenging for shells and selling vegetables as well as cleaning houses.
“Before Covid I earned more money by washing clothes but now nobody ever asks. So I went to Steung Meanchey garbage dump to find some shells and sometimes I go from place to place selling vegetables.
“Around 7pm I go and sweep the vegetable market and then at 9pm or 10pm, finally, I return home with some leftover vegetables that people have given me so that I can sell them the next day,” she says.
Her husband was working as a construction worker for a couple of weeks, but then the subcontractor skipped town without paying his workers and left him with nothing to show for his efforts.
Sreypich’s younger sister stays home and takes care of the small children in the household who study at an NGO programme and are too young to help out in any way.
“If there are people who want to help me, I could never ask for more other than a cart to collect trash to help my family earn enough to buy food to eat. I would be so grateful for that,” Sreypich says, hopeful that someone reading this story will take pity on her family after they’ve experienced so much loss.
Sreypich credits her family’s survival in recent months to the unconditional kindness, love and support offered by CCF and Neeson. Without them, she says she can’t imagine the level of hardship her family would be enduring right now.
She says she’ll never forget the day when she first came back from the hospital with Baby David and was under quarantine – with her house cordoned off all around – and Neeson came to visit her and the baby.
“That day I came back with David, Papa Scott just rushed in and hugged the baby close to his heart without any awkwardness or fear while the rest of my neighbours were so terrified they wouldn’t come near my home. If I didn’t have him, my grandson and I would be dead,” she says, crying.
Now Baby David is one month old and he’s doing well, considering the circumstances. He often has a hard time breathing, but he’s strong and his grandmother proudly notes that he’s already adding weight and is now up to 2.8kg.
Over the past 17 years the founder of CCF – Scott Neeson – has helped transform the lives of impoverished kids in one of Phnom Penh’s poorestareas with programmes that are turning them into tomorrow’s leaders.
Neeson – born in Scotland but raised in Australia – is a former Hollywood executive who rose through the ranks starting as a cinema projectionist to become president of 20th Century Fox International where he oversaw the production of blockbusters like Braveheart and Titanic.
Neeson tells The Post the reason why he left that glamorous life and came to Cambodia, which is not exactly a typical career move for someone who just completed a decade of successfully heading up a Hollywood film studio.
“There was a moment when I thought there was something wrong with me. The more I got, the less happy I was. Then, upon arrival here, I found happiness. It is not in the traditional context where people equate happiness with material success, but I have a life of meaning and more fulfilment than I could ever have imagined.
“We have the ability to change an individual’s life whether it’s a child wanting to go to school, a parent or grandparent who is sick, a grandparent who has been left alone without anyone to help them or a pregnant mother.
“Being able to help these individuals so profoundly is an enormous joy and every day I get to see these positive outcomes at Cambodian Children’s Fund,” Neeson says.
Neeson says that they started their maternal care programme back in 2010 after seeing a number of mothers die shortly after giving birth due to a variety of preventable causes. Since then, nearly 1,400 mothers have given birth with the assistance of their programme.
“Thank you to those who offer support and good wishes. The family will be receiving weekly support because of you and, despite the sad loss of his mother, the outlook for David is bright and warm,” says Neeson.
If you would like to help Sreypich, Baby David and their family they can be contacted via phone at 069 306 176.
To donate to CCF or to sponsor a child in one of their programmes, contact them via their Facebook page @cambodianchildrensfund.