Building love: Mission among Phnom Penh’s poorest citizens

By Christie R. House

Love 1 - Clara Biswas kids
Photo: Courtesy of Clara Mridula Biswas

Clara Mridula Biswas expresses her love every time she walks into the poorest communities of Phnom Penh—through garbage-strewn fields and dumps and into the small bamboo, tin and plastic makeshift sheds that serve as homes.

A Global Ministries missionary working in Cambodia, Clara has a deep and abiding devotion to the people she works with in Phnom Penh.

“If I can do anything to help them realize positive change in their lives, that makes me very happy,” she said in a recent interview.

Working with the Methodist Church in Cambodia, she directs a program called Street Children Ministry and Community Outreach. While her main focus has been on children’s ministry and education, she also visits the sick. She follows up on children who miss school to find out if their families need help. She assists women caught up in domestic violence and human trafficking.

Like church and community workers in the United States, Clara seeks to connect and refer her clients to places and organizations that can meet them where they live and find solutions to their pressing needs. She works with a growing network of partners to weave together a safety net in the six areas of Phnom Penh her program covers.

Most of the families Clara works with are headed by low-income workers who find jobs on the margins of society as cyclo (bicycle taxi) drivers, garbage pickers, cleaners and day laborers. The government considers the poverty-stricken slums in which they live undesirable.

Mass relocations

In some cases, the government has moved entire slum communities out of Phnom Penh to the outskirts of the city, especially when the government wants the land they occupy for new hotels, restaurants and other amenities for Phnom Penh’s increasing tourist industry.

When Clara started missionary work in 2001, her area included the communities of Bording and Basac. Efforts there were proceeding well. “But suddenly a fire burned down the whole community,” Clara said, “The government moved all the residents to a rural area more than 22 km (13.6 miles) from the city to a farm called ‘New Phnom Penh,’ and to other places. They broke up the communities of Basac and Bording and spread them out.”

These “new communities” had no sanitation, health care or schools. But Clara’s ministry and workers followed their clients, guided them through the transition, and, with help, found schools for the children.

Residents then had to spend money to travel back to Phnom Penh for work, which further cut into their income and their ability to support their families. Clara’s work and the networks of her ministry expanded. “They never gave up. They faced the situation, and they found ways to live,” Clara said.

Sustainable networks of love

Clara and her colleagues encourage interdependency. Sometimes, she finds pregnant women living in dirty, unsanitary conditions without guidance or medical help. She follows up with doctors, helps the women get health cards, and makes sure they get to their regular check-ups. “Now, I encourage our group to lead each other through the same process. They learn, and they help each other, and they are happy to do that.”

Through our year-end campaign, you can Give Love to Clara and the displaced people of Phnom Penh by helping them to build community in the places they now live.

Christie R. House is the senior writer/editor for Global Ministries.

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