Thursday, 3 March 2016


“So often when you do something like engineering, it seems abstract, it seems far away from those lives.  But it’s not.
This building, when it is built, will be a safe home. It will be a haven; it will be a shelter from the storm, in so many ways, of this society. And the fact that it is well-designed for them - not only in terms of function but in terms of how they perceive the building, their sense of safety within it - has direct impact on their psychology, their understanding of who God is. Because this is provided by God for them. A safe place to sort of re-align their lives, put things together.

So the role of eMi in creating that space is not abstract for those lives, it is absolutely central in terms of recreating normal and appropriate life for them.”

Brian McConaghy, the Founding Director of Ratanak International, said the above words to me as I interviewed him at the end of our week in Phnom Penh. I appreciated his words. I really do believe God is and will continue using us to change lives in a very direct and intentional way.

Image result for ratanak internationalRatanak International has been working in Cambodia since the borders re-opened in 1989 and have since provided aid in many areas of poverty alleviation. Most recently, they began working to help end sexual exploitation. One aspect of this is their program ‘RAP’ (Ratanak Achievement Program). RAP is a re-integration home for young women who were rescued out of exploitation.  The program aims to build on the women’s previous rehabilitation by providing counselling, life skills training (such as cooking and going to the market) and vocational training. 
As Brian explained, it is called the Ratanak Achievement Program because... "...we want to celebrate the girls as soon as they arrive. It's an achievement even to survive and to have gotten here."
Brian is a storyteller. Many of our meals during the week were spent listening to Brian’s tales of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge and the issue of sexual exploitation.  His stories were fascinating – some were terrifying, some were uplifting and some were, unfortunately, disheartening.

By the end of our first full day in Cambodia, our team had heard many of the sad stories. Brian felt, and we agreed, that before designing a building for Khmer people, we needed to understand more of their history. We spent our Friday learning about the genocide perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge communists in the 70’s, when the entire country was converted to a concentration camp and over 2 million Cambodians were executed or starved to death. 

After breakfast, Brian gave us a brief historical overview of the effects of French colonialism, the Vietnam War and the genocide in Cambodia. The facts of these events were surprising and often difficult to hear (for example, the fact that the US dropped more tons of explosives on Cambodia than the entire Allies dropped in the Second World War – killing thousands of innocent Cambodians, adding fuel to the Khmer Rouge’s anti-western ideologies and encouraging many to join the revolution.)

Next, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - known during the revolution as S-21. The school-turned-prison is one of the darkest places I’ve been in my life.  As many as 20,000 prisoners had been cruelly tortured in what were formerly classrooms, until they finally confessed (or fabricated confessions) to being involved in anti-revolution activities.  In the end, only 7 survived.  The victims included women, young children and even babies (the Khmer Rouge saying was, “to dig up the grass you have to remove the roots.”)

Brian showing our team around the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The museum contains large boards of the prisoners’ documented photos:  

photo by Taylor Norris

The photos are even more haunting when you focus on one at a time and realize that each was a real human being;

photo by Taylor Norris

a person with hopes and aspirations;

a person God loved as unconditionally as He loves me.

That afternoon, we visited Choeung Ek just south of Phnom Penh.  Also known as “The Killing Fields”, Choeung Ek was the place S-21 prisoners were taken for execution. Even though it has been only partially excavated, almost 9,000 bodies have been found amoung the mass graves.  Many of the victims’ bones and clothing still litter the site. The skulls have been preserved in the Buddhist stupa at the centre of the site – over 5,000 catalogued by age and gender.

photo by Chris Hardrick
photo by Chris Hardrick

As a Canadian, it’s really difficult to understand the enormity of the tragedy of the Killing Fields. Even standing there, it was hard to believe anything on the scale of the Cambodian genocide could have ever happened.  Brian reminded us that the “children of the Killing Fields” – the survivors – are the parents of today. As many as 80% may still suffer from PTSD, and the country continues to experience high rates of depression, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In the midst of the country’s painful history is the tragedy of sexual exploitation.  While it continues to be a devastating problem in much of Southeast Asia, many NGO’s and government ministries have started to make big strides towards eradicating human trafficking.  Recent agreements have aided in repatriating Cambodia women who have been trafficked to other countries (without proper paperwork), as well as helping women trafficked to Cambodia return to their homes in other countries. Some of these women will end up as short-term residents at the RAP home, where they will have access to counselling and hear the gospel.

We had the chance to visit the current RAP home on Sunday and had a good meeting with Brian, Lisa (Ratanak’s in-country director) and Nary (the RAP home director) about some of the challenges associated with their current space and their vision for the new building.  It was exciting to hear not only about the difference that RAP makes in the lives of these women, but also the dreams that Lisa and Nary had to make an even larger impact.  To accomplish their goals, it was clear that the program needed a space much more tailored to the needs of the residents, as well as the program’s administrative requirements.

Before returning to the hotel, we had the privilege of stopping by the new site briefly.  While we were there, two young women pulled up on a motorbike and greeted Lisa, Nary and Brian excitedly. They were survivors of sex slavery who had spent years in Ratanak rehabilitation and reintegration programs. Now – as University students and followers of Christ – they stood together with us as we prayed over the land that the new building will eventually stand on. To say the least, it was an amazing experience. It was great encouragement to our team that what we were doing wasn’t, as Brian said, abstract – our design will have real impact in real lives.

On Monday, we returned to the site to complete a basic survey of its dimensions and topography.  Chris (team civil engineer and future eMi Cambodia staff) and myself worked at this for the morning while the architects began working the program into the first basic floor plans.

photo by Greg Young

I always love seeing how the design evolves throughout the week.  It’s almost unbelievable to see what gets done on an eMi project between the start of the design process and the final presentation.  It’s been estimated that each day in-country accomplishes what would often take a month to accomplish back home.  As we went through the week, more and more of the design was worked out based additional information we gathered and further meetings with Lisa and Nary.

Towards the end of the week, I was chatting with Lisa. When I asked how she had felt the week with eMi had gone so far, she made an interesting comparison.  She talked about how the design process reminded her of the creation story in the bible.

“It feels like that’s what [eMi] is doing here. You start out with this blank slate, and the spirit of God breathes on it. God has given shape and form to this project based on the giftings and skills that the team have.”

I found that to be an interesting comparison. God had allowed us as an eMi team to participate in his creation story – to mimic, with his blessing, the process of designing a place made specifically with its residents in mind.

By Friday, we had gone from a blank slate to a 3D building model, detailed floor plans and had done tons of work on water, electrical and structural elements of the design. Even before our final presentation, Brian had used images of the model to show to potential donors.

Following our final presentation on Friday, we casually chatted with Brian, Lisa and Nary about the future of the project over a very pink, flowery cake (it was Greg’s 50th birthday). While the concept of fundraising for a brand new building seemed daunting to them, it was clear that they fully believed that God would provide. I was encouraged by my conversation with Nary, who is a native Cambodian and the staff member most directly involved with the RAP home and its residents. Her confidence that God will provide for them was inspiring, not only with regards to the project but to myself in my own life.

"And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work."
- 2 Corinthians 9:8

After a trip to the market on Saturday morning, we left Phnom Penh for a couple of days of debriefing and sightseeing up in Siem Reap.  It was a lot less “big city” than Phnom Penh, and touring Angkor Wat was very enjoyable (albeit hot and sweaty).

Before we flew out of Phnom Penh, we had the chance to visit two other Cambodian ministries.

We met up with Sokreaksa Himm, who runs a ministry with the help of Ratanak.  Reaksa has quite a story. During the Khmer Rouge regime, Reaksa and his family were evacuated from the city they lived in and brought out to the jungle to be killed.  Miraculously, Reaksa survived, but had to witness the rest of his family being executed. He escaped as a refugee and immigrated to Canada in 1989, where he earned a Bachelor of Religious Studies, a Master of Arts in Christian Education and eventually a Doctor of Psychology.  In the 2000’s, Reaksa returned to Cambodia to teach at a bible school and now oversees a ministry that plants churches, trains pastors and runs various community programs.  He has also embarked on the incredible journey of forgiving his family’s killers meeting them face-to-face and giving them New Testaments in the Khmer language. I highly recommend reading his books “Tears of my Soul”, which describes his journey to freedom, faith and purpose, and “After the Heavy Rain”, which tells of his journey of forgiveness and reconciliation to the people who killed his family.

While visiting Reaksa, we got to play floor hockey, foursquare and basketball with a bunch of kids and young men/women.  It was hot, exhausting and sweaty to say the least, but it was great to spend some time interacting with them and learning from them (the Cambodian hockey team whooped our wimpy eMi team).

photo by Taylor Norris

Finally, we visited Place of Rescue – a ministry eMi has served before.  PoR is a safe haven for families living with AIDS, orphan children, orphan grannies and young unmarried pregnant women. We had visited their “House of New Dreams” earlier in the week (an eMi-designed transition house for their kids to live in when they go off to University).  It was an amazing time of seeing another ministry making a huge impact in Cambodia. Of course, it was also fun having cute little kids literally hanging off of us for a couple of hours.

photo by Scott Stober

This trip taught me a lot.  I’m not sure I have it all sorted out in my head yet.  I got to be a part of some amazing conversations and experiences that I can’t even relay to others, certainly not well enough to do them justice.  It’s amazing how God can speak to us through the people he puts in our lives, even if it’s just for 11 days.

More than anything, this trip (as eMi trips tend to do) encouraged me again that our work with eMi is worthwhile, impactful and a part of God’s bigger plan.  God continues to do amazing things through us, and the credit goes to Him alone. 

For all of those who have supported us in the past and continue to support us and pray for us – thank you. Please know that through your obedience and generosity, lives are being impacted all over the world.

“Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshipping him with holy fear and awe.”
- Hebrews 12:28

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