Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – "Charity is always a source of hope. When the heart is open to hope it is ready to accept the faith,” said Fr Mario Ghezzi, a 15-year veteran with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Cambodia.
For him theological virtues found a concrete embodiment in a small hostel in lost corned of the country.
Called ‘House of Hope’, the facility is located in Ampau Prey, in Kandal province, some 20 kilometres southeast of the capital Phnom Penh. The provincial capital is Ta Khmau.
Run by a Cambodian Catholic woman, it has been the home for almost five years for dozens of boys and girls eager to study.
Some of the 35 kids (pictured) come from Lake 94, one of the country’s poorest villages, lacking in basic services like water, power, and roads.
The village was established under the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, when the leaders of the Maoist revolutionary movement decided to move some 150 families to the area, site of a dam.
Since then, the authorities have neglected, almost forgotten, the community, which has access to resources to rebuild a future only through the work of missionaries and local and international NGOs, as Lay’s story indicates.
"The idea behind the hostel was to bring village kids to Ampau Prey so that they could continue their education,” Fr Mario said.
The village already has a kindergarten and an elementary school, set up by a Korean Protestant Church, but it did not have middle or high school. The primary school "offers only half of the ministerial curricula, so the education is a bit . . . lame."
The first person who believed in the Lake 94 project aimed at young people was Men Thary, 50, a Chinese-Cambodian woman who converted to Catholicism, and was baptised in 2007.
Married and the mother of four, she "encountered Catholicism through the Sisters of Mother Teresa" in the early '90s.
“She is an active and enthusiastic, curious, purposeful, yet severe and pretentious," the priest said. She did not convert to Catholicism "for convenience or by mistake, but out of deep conviction" that developed over time, through studies and experience. “She is driven to share the joy of faith with others through concrete actions and experiences."
For Fr Mario, three things define the hostel, namely faith, hope and charity. “We try to pass on the spirit of charity to newcomers. Faith is developing. But living together brings life-changing hope”.
Some of the young people eventually continue to high school, then college. Others, however, go to vocational training to find work after school.
"They are simple kids, naturally good, but with a strong need for a guide, a reference because they risk disorientation," the missionary said. In view of this, Men Thary is a very strict “mother,” an unlikely figure among Cambodians, but one “who allows kids to be the best they can be.”
Through meetings, discussions and sharing of experiences, young people from a deeply Buddhist village now "know the reality of the Church, and the activities in which we seek to involve young people."
"They are immersed in a Catholic environment, one that compels no one, but one that offers possibilities and raises questions. This is an important aspect, because people do not tend to ask questions, but learn through experience. If someone shows them a collective experience that entails joy, life, prayer and working together, questions can emerge.”
After many years in the country, we never “explicitly proclaimed the Gospel, but now it's time to do so,” the missionary said. “Our charitable initiatives, such as the distribution of gifts and the collection for the poor through the parish youth, including the hostel kids, have a 'reason' and it is time to proclaim our mission."
This is also necessary because in recent years some young people have asked questions about the Gospel and the Church, "so much so that four of them were baptised last year."