Because there are basically no social service agencies like Catholic Charities in Cambodia and because the English Catholic Community in Phnom Penh has committed most of its income to serving the poor, its St. Vincent de Paul Society has become a major resource for people in need.
That has become a huge problem because we don’t have the money or the St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers to deal with all those seeking help.
Many people who call us we know from the parish. Usually, they need help with the rent or a medical emergency. But the majority of the calls and messages to us are from people unknown to us, and that creates a huge problem because some calls are from people trying to scam us.
The calls we get are about everything, many of them horrific situations.
Homeless people living on the streets or riverfront after losing a job because of COVID-19 are beaten and robbed of their phones and passports. They have only the clothes they are wearing and need housing, food and medical care.
Some who have lost jobs cannot renew passports and visas and are overstaying illegally with a penalty of $10 a day. Some then pay smugglers to take them to Vietnam. Many are caught and corrupt officials on both sides of the border extort money from them: Pay $150 and we let you go; don’t pay and you go to prison.
Chinese companies in Cambodia recruit foreigners from all over Asia for non-existent high-paying jobs. On arrival, workers are detained in locked compounds and forced to conduct phone scam operations. Their passports are taken and those not performing well are tortured with tasers. Local police are paid to look the other way.
Some people who have lost their jobs do manage to find some low-level job that doesn’t require Khmer language and then come to us for uniforms or work clothes and for money for food and transportation until their first paycheck.
Locals dependent on their old beat-up Honda motorbikes to get to jobs are stopped by police and the bikes confiscated because they don’t have the proper papers. Their option: pay $300 to the police and they get their bike back; don’t pay and they never see their motorcycle again.
And there are the requests for medical assistance. I get frantic calls from people recovering from motorcycle accidents or needing asthma medicine or being detained by a clinic because they sought medical treatment and can’t pay. My WhatsApp gets photos of horrific injuries.
Our SVDP group is happy to help when we can. What we can’t do is come up with the money that homeless people want to start a new business and get themselves on their feet again. What we don’t want to do is subsidize corruption and make extortion profitable by paying made-up fees and penalties imposed by dishonest police and other officials.
Determining who to help, what problems to help and how much to help are difficult decisions we face every day.
Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.