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Shiva in Phnom Penh

On a recent Friday afternoon, here in Phnom Penh, my husband, Jeremy, and I went to visit the family of one of his former employees, Mak Lavin. Jeremy started an NGO called Digital Divide Data (DDD) that is based here, so, as I wrote in my last dispatch, we and our two young children are spending the month in Cambodia.

Several months ago, the family whom we were visiting experienced a tragic accident. The father accidentally touched a live electrical wire, and was electrocuted. His four sons, including Mak Lavin, ran over to try to help him and were all killed by the electrical current. Five members were killed — leaving behind a wife, two teenage daughters, a daughter-in-law and four young children. Jeremy had not been in Phnom Penh since the accident, and so he wanted to extend condolences in person.

We drove to the outskirts of Phnom Penh, along with another DDD employee named Tin Socheat, who has maintained close relations with this family and could translate for us. On the car ride over, we talked about how the family was faring now. A family that until recently had five wage earners now has none. The family had received donations following their tragedy, and DDD continued to pay the wages of the Mak Lavin. We asked Tin Socheat if the family had other income coming in, and he mentioned that the mother had set up a small store outside of her house. This seemed promising.

We parked the van along the side of the road, and walked down into a narrow unpaved alleyway. There were small huts along the alley, with plywood walls and tin roofs. Tin Socheat told us that one of the problems of living along an alley like this one, is that it floods in the rain, and that there is no drainage or sewage, so for several hours each day during the rainy season, which lasts 3-4 months, people on this alley are cut off from transportation, commerce, education, and employment.

After a 10-minute walk, we reached the home of Mak Lavin’s family. On the front step of this small hut was the store — an incomprehensible collection of items that it was impossible to imagine anyone purchasing, even if there was a market of people living along this alley who were able to purchase anything. Outside the home was a large bowl of rice with flies in it and an open well with a bucket. We went inside to the small room, and the mother laid a mat on the floor for us to sit on. In the corner was a sewing machine, and next to it was a TV — both attached with loops of electrical wire to another series of wires, which climbed up the wall, and outside. It was not hard to figure out why this was dangerous. On the wall were pictures of the deceased father and four sons. The mother kept pointing to the pictures and pointing to the electrical wires, and crying. Her two daughters sat beside her, completely silent. One of them was holding a small child, one of her nieces. The child’s mother, after her husband was killed, took her two youngest children, one-month-old twins, back to the countryside where she was from to try to make a living there. She left the two older children behind.

I tried to remember if I had ever been in a place that felt more awful and more foreign than this one. The house was dirty and windowless, and had no furniture. It had no color. It had no toys. I was paralyzed by the awful combination of poverty and tragedy. Jeremy turned to me at one point and said, “Well, you are the rabbi, do you want to say anything?” I was overcome thinking about what it meant for anyone to be living here, let alone a small child.

We asked her how she was supporting her family, and Jeremy told her that DDD would hire the younger daughter, who just graduated from high school, and would send her to college, and that DDD would continue to help her and her family in whatever way they needed. We told her how profoundly sorry we were for her loss, and we got ready to leave.

And then it started to rain — crazy tropical rainy season rain, huge sheets of rain, thunder and lightening, trapping us. We all sat in silence for a very long time. I watched the young girl, and thought about how she spends her entire day in this place. Cambodian schools officially start at age 6 — and in Phnom Penh nursery schools begin at age 3 — but many families, and presumably this one, cannot afford the $40 annual tuition or the cost of transportation to the school.

Outside the rain poured down. It was so loud that we stopped trying to speak. We sat for a very long time.

Then the mother, motioning toward the photographs and crying, spoke for a very long time. Tin Socheat leaned in to hear her and then translated. It seemed that in the moments after the accident, three of the sons, including Mak Lavin, were still alive and so somehow they drove them — in a motorcycle? in an ambulance? — to the hospital, where the doctors would not treat them because the family first had to pay $200. So the three sons died, or at least had no hope of living, because they did not have $200. The hospital then levied a fee of $300 to release the untreated bodies from the premises.

At this, Jeremy became upset and asked Tin Socheat “Why didn’t they call someone at DDD? We would have paid; all of our employees have health insurance! Why didn’t they call? What is the procedure? We need to have a better procedure.”

Tin Socheat said slowly, “Jeremy, they do not know how to use a phone. Mak Lavin was the only one who had a phone, who knew how to use a phone. He was unconscious, they could not have called any one.” Jeremy is relentless about problem-solving, and so he kept asking, “Why don’t we have a card for our employees? How are their families supposed to know that they even have insurance? How could the hospital just refuse someone who comes in to the emergency room? Who is in charge of the hospital?”

Tin Socheat spoke to the mother and she again started to talk and to cry. Apparently, the (public) hospital would not treat her sons because she did not have $200. And yet the government gave her a few hundred dollars to defray the cost of the funerals.

At some point we decided that the rain would not be letting up any time soon, and we would have to make our way up the flooded alleyway. Jeremy reiterated his promise of support for the family, these three women and a young girl. We gave them money and fruit as a gift and we said goodbye.

The alley was a river of mud. We walked silently up towards the street, the brown water up to our mid calves. When we made it back up to the street, Mr. Voohey, our driver, was waiting for us and we got in and drove back to our apartment silently. We got back to our apartment just in time to quickly get ready for Shabbat.

All through Shabbat, Jeremy and I kept looking at each other, shaking our heads and not finding any words. Late in the afternoon, I read that week’s parashah. Near the end of Parashat Pinchas, the daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses. They explain that their father died and left no sons to inherit the family’s landshare in Canaan. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” they demand. God’s word comes as a victory for the daughters, and for all women: their cause is just. Women should inherit property when there are no male heirs.

I had thought about this story many times before, and had always thought about the women coming forward. What had prompted their courage, their sense of agency to demand rights that they had no reason to believe were theirs? Reading the story this time, I thought about something much more elemental. From the beginning of the human narrative, women are at great risk when left alone: without wage providers, without access to the broader community. The daughters of Zelophehad is an example of the way that the story of the family that we visited might end on a positive note, as is the story of Ruth.

Of course we are wracking our brains and mobilizing all of our access here in Phnom Penh to help the family. We are guided by our belief that the best way to help them is through education, fair and safe employment, and access to the many NGO’s here that are trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor. I feel confident that we will be able to fix some of the problems, but I am left with two thoughts, neither of them very positive. The first is to feel utterly silenced by how many people in this world are living in situations as bad or even worse than this one; the second is that while we might be able to fix some of the day to day problems, that will very likely not add up to a solution.

It is one thing to learn the teaching from Pirke Avot: It is not incumbent on us to complete the task but neither are we free to desist from it. It is quite another thing to be presented so starkly with the truth of this.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

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