Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Reaching out

Reaching out

Reaching out

Eyes drifting, semi-aware, empty. Plastic bag in one hand, a sickly-sweet gas odor.

He sees me looking and stuffs the bag. Asks for money. Well, this barang has some

surprises for him-in Khmer language:

"What's in your pocket?" Out comes a plastic bag. (Careful, Arne; firm

voice okay, but keep a safe tone.) "Not that bag-the blue one." Out, slowly,

comes a slimy blue one. Gas fumes again.

My guts are imploding. He's barely a teenager. "Why do you do that? It's bad

for your brain. Bad for thinking clearly. Look at me. Look straight at me."

Tries to focus. Wow, focus! No, bleary again. But SOMETHING was there for a second.

Here comes an older boy, perhaps 17. He squats out of reach. Obvious snort from a

pink bag. A challenge to me? But the first kid is close, and responding. Only about

70 seconds so far but he trusts, dishwater eyes trying to find me. What on earth

to do now?

Touch the strain. Light finger, caresses, forehead, cheeks, jaw, bones, just jutting

bones. When did someone stroke him last? Grasp his hands through layers of grime.

Older boy launches for ward but settles just beyond easy contact. Okay. He'll see

the love and care, and I can still talk.

"Look at me. No, look at me. You too. Did you give up hope? Please don't give

up hope. I'll be back on Thursday, same time. I know about people who can help you.

It's a street-kids agency called Friends (Mith Samlanh).

"Ha ha! No, I won't give you money to buy more of that stuff! I'll be back with

information."

My fellow Canadian, Mariah, and I have come to watch Chinese Dragon dancers rehearsing

outdoors. I have no focus now beyond the boys, but Mariah will say afterward that

everybody started watching us. At first wary (what's that barang doing?), then gradually

opening up.

Sometimes people don't know how to make contact-just as in New York or Toronto. I

don't really know either. It just happens.

More reassurance, then I get up to watch the (incredible!) dancers and drummers again.

H'mmm, I wonder...

Back to the boys.

"What's today? Today is Tuesday."

His eyes find mine.

"Not tomorrow, but Thursday. One, two days. I'll be back on Thursday. Please

don't give up hope."

Arne Sahlen - Phnom Penh

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