A wheelchair--it can send the message that something is wrong, that some basic ability is missing. It can be the beginning of a sad story. But often, a wheelchair is hope. In the States we have designed doorways, lifts, and ramps to accommodate wheelchairs. They give access and provide mobility, create a level playing field, we like to say. The wheelchair user still faces physical and emotional barriers, of course, but we have tried to let the wheelchair be an ordinary part of life.
In Cambodia, wheelchairs are not so everyday. Here conspicuous numbers of people have suffered disability from wartime violence and peacetime accidents and disease. And their disability has cut them off from ordinary life. For these people, wheelchairs make miracles happen.
In 1965, the war in Vietnam began spilling over into Cambodia. Prince Sihanouk allowed North Vietnamese bases in his country, and U.S. bombing began in 1969. In 1970 Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk, and U.S. and Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia. In 1975 Pol Pot seized power and began his bloody regime. By the time Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and ousted him, 1.7 million Cambodians had been killed. Refugees poured over the border into Thailand, where camps sprang up. But land mines and ordinary accidents, polio and other diseases ravaged many of the survivors inside Cambodia or in refugee camps. In 1991 warring factions signed a treaty, and repatriation began in 1992.
Soon after its founding in 1981, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) began working with the Cambodians who had made it to Thailand. As the political situation began changing in the late 1980s, the JRS was able to send some workers into Cambodia itself.
Fr. Enrique Figaredo is a Spaniard who in 1985 went to work in the camps in Thailand as a young Jesuit. He plunged right into projects at the Site Two refugee camp, where the JRS had a small center for the disabled. After three years he went back to Spain for theology studies but during summers returned to Cambodia to help with the increasing JRS services there. After ordination in 1992, he returned to Cambodia full time.
The JRS in Cambodia was working mainly with rural villagers. In 1990, the government gave it a site about eighteen miles from Phnom Penh that had been a military communications post during Lon Nol's time and a jail under Pol Pot and the Vietnamese. Through these changes the center had kept its name, Banteay Prieb, the House of the Dove; the JRS at last has made the center worthy of its name.
In nine years, the staff of Banteay Prieb has taken those ravaged by war and helped them claim their share of the opportunities of peace. The students at Banteay Prieb learn skills to get jobs: literacy in the Khmer language (80 percent have never been to school), agriculture, carpentry, mechanics, welding, electronics, woodworking, and tailoring.
The school's first students were ex-soldiers; they were affected by land mines in greatest numbers. Later, women and children began suffering more from land mines, and Banteay Prieb started women's programs. Though it does not have a school for children, it has a center for children coming for treatment in Phnom Penh. At Banteay Prieb they see disabled adults working hard and studying hard, and they begin to see their own lives in a different way.
The students learn more than skills at Banteay Prieb. Living in small huts with about ten people, they garden and cook and play sports, visit the capital and welcome visitors to their home. "Here they live like a family, and the place becomes a small paradise for them," Fr. Figaredo says; "Banteay Prieb is like a drop of hope in Cambodia."
And he notes how the students change: "When they arrive, they come a little bit sad, very insecure, thinking they can do nothing. They think, I don't know if I will finish my course. Then, at the end, they may be a little afraid of going back. But they are very happy; they are full of hope.
"Banteay Prieb is a place of hope that gives hope to others," Figaredo reflects. "Even to us, to me!"
The hope that takes root at Banteay Prieb branches out from there. One of its workshops, for example, produces beautiful tables and school desks. "To see the disabled bringing this furniture to a school is really wonderful," says Fr. Figaredo. They feel really part of building their country. They feel very proud. And I feel very proud."
He is also very proud of the wheelchairs they produce. They are Cambodian designed, and all the parts are made in Cambodia. They call them Mekong wheelchairs, after the river. The sixteen disabled people who work on them produce about 80 every month.
Teams from Banteay Prieb bring the wheelchairs to those who need them. Fr. Figaredo describes the process: "You have children who have been inside their home for maybe five or six years. They are ashamed of their bodies, and they don't go out. They stay at home, the girls more than the boys. When our students or our social workers go with the wheelchair into a village and go inside the hut, the small house of the person, and give them that wheelchair, the child goes out with the wheelchair and starts to change his or her life."
They see further results in a short time. "It is very nice during the follow-up that we see the little boy, the little girl going to school again or for the first time and joining with other children and starting to move and to go to the river and many other places. Their style of life changes completely. It's incredible."
And the wheelchair affects everyone. "It makes a big change in the life of the people who receive these wheelchairs and also a big change for us, the producer. A miracle. A small miracle that we have already more than 4,000 in Cambodia. Really, for me this wheelchair is a sacrament," says Figaredo.
The staff of Banteay Prieb who share in this miracle includes five religious sisters, eleven Jesuits, and various lay persons--two teachers, a lawyer, an agriculture expert, a Japanese social worker, a Korean doctor. Another 35 or 40 staff members are Cambodians, about 25 of them disabled. Some of the team, like Sr. Ath, have been together since the refugee camps. All of the staff form one community, sharing a dining room and chapel.
"We are very proud of each other," say Fr. Figaredo. "The Cambodians working with the foreigners feel that we are part of their life. They consider us foreigners as part of their history and future. I was born in Spain. But I feel that I am a little bit Cambodian."
Because the Cambodians were no longer refugees, Banteay Prieb stopped being technically part of the JRS in 1994, becoming simply the Jesuit Service. Still, it maintains close association with the JRS. Besides Banteay Prieb, JRS has social workers in Phnom Penh working on the campaign against land mines and on women's rights. It also works with refugees who come to Cambodia seeking asylum, about 100 per year, from Vietnam and China and even as far away as Sudan. Most want to go on to the United States, Canada, or Australia, but their papers are rarely in order and their resources scant.
Though Figaredo speaks about hope and gratitude, he also admits the difficulty. "The hardest thing for me is to suffer the problems that we cannot resolve, to be with poor people, to know that we are not able to make them richer, that we do not have the power to resolve their real suffering. We have to suffer with them."
Figaredo reflects on the contrast between Spain and Cambodia: "When we are in a society like Spain, we think that life is something evident and that it is given to us with all the rights we enjoy. But being with the refugees and with the Cambodians and with the disabled I get the sense that the gift of life is so precious and we have to take care of it. This makes me feel much closer to God. I place value on the gift of life, because life and death are so close in these places.
"In the beginning, in the refugee camps, life and death were very close. First it was the war, then came the land mines. And so many people died because of lack of medicine or hygiene. This made me see that we are not the owners of life. Life is a gift that comes only from God, and we have to take care of it and we have to fight for it and we have to give all our energy to that.
"When I see the disabled get their lives back and see poor people grow happier as we accompany them, it makes me feel that we are in the hands of God in a much stronger way. So I have to express these things--not just to talk--to express these things by my loving others, giving my life to others, being with these people who are the face of God for me."
Cambodia and the Mekong River--a quarter century ago on the nightly news those names meant patrol boats and mines, napalm and bombs, body bags and body counts. But like the wheelchair, they have taken on new meaning. At the House of the Dove, the Mekong wheelchair is part of Cambodia's story of new hope.