When I went to Phnom Penh to meet “Ayn” as she calls herself on social media, I was expecting to see an older, solemn lady. Like everyone else who is following her good deeds through the online world, I had no idea what she looked like or what her real name was. I figured if she was taking care of one whole village with her soup kitchen, organizing meals, educational activities and providing basic healthcare she should be a very serious lady with not so young age. I was wrong…
Instead I found a smart, vibrant, funny young woman in the beginning of her 30s who has dedicated her life to the wellbeing of the children and their parents in a country, thousands of kilometers away from where she was born and bred.
Her story starts with an ordinary event which happens to all of us nearly on daily basis: Reading a blog post about people in a dire situation. Hers was about a village, located 10 km outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and its inhabitants, suffering from poverty, at the verge of starvation; each trying to survive with one dollar per day.
99 out of 100 people would have read this post, shake their heads, feeling sad for about a minute and move on. Not her… After reading this post, she made a decision that would alter all of her life: Moving to Cambodia to build a soup kitchen for this village.
In 2,5 months she had closed down her apartment in Istanbul and flew to Phnom Penh, to realize her goal.
When I met her, she was living in Cambodia for almost 2 years and she was providing food for 300 people village, 80 kids and 220 adults. Her soup kitchen is located right across the Killing Fields, the mass graves discovered after the brutal years of ruling by the dictator Pol Pot a.k.a Brother Number 1, the head of Khmer Rouge.
As Khmer Rouge calls 1975, the year they started to rule, “the year zero”, they decided that all the culture and the traditions of the country must be completely destroyed to be replaced by the revolutionary ideals. Their twisted idealism, to turn Cambodia into an agriculture nation, caused the massacre of all the white collared employees, academics, doctors, teachers and even English speaking citizens of the country. During 1975-1979 almost 2,5 millions of citizens were arrested with the charge of being a CIA agent and after confessing that they were, under heavy assault and torture in the secret prisons, they were taken to these fields to be executed. Not just the accused but all of their family members were executed, because Pol Pot was afraid that they would seek for revenge in the future.
Today the killing fields is a memorial museum, visited by thousands of tourists every year, to witness one of the most brutal era in the history of mankind.
The after effects of this recent history still continues in Cambodia, the country and its people are still suffering from poverty, lack of education and health care.
Ayn, calls her soup kitchen and facilities located only a few meters away from these mass graves, as “the living fields” and she is determined to help as many people as she can.
With the help of donations from all over the world and travelers who visited her in Phnom Penh who decided to end their trip and stay with her to help, the soup kitchen is functioning like a true NGO and helping the villagers in every aspect of their lives.
Recently, when 2 of the houses collapsed because of a flood, Ayn and her friends have started a small campaign to rebuild them and in no time the families had new roofs to sleep under. But now, she has a bigger goal, she is intending to renew all of the village and turn the gloomy neighborhood made of basic shacks into a fairy tale town. She has started an online campaign, with the help of benefactors she’s hoping to rebuild all 52 houses.
The children who come to the facilities after school can enjoy English and art classes. One of the biggest goals of Ayn is to teach every kid in the village to speak English. She thinks, if they learn English, they may have a chance to create a better life for themselves as the number of English speakers in Cambodia is very limited.
Ayn, doesn’t want to depend on donations so she is about to open a restaurant to provide funds for the soup kitchen. This way, she is hoping to create a sustainable income for the operational costs and the people who works in the restaurant.
Organizing handcraft classes to the ladies is her another dream. She hopes to give the ladies the opportunity to acquire skills which will increase their income and later, sell their products in the restaurant.
As the reason of never showing her face in any medium, she told me that she wanted to remain anonymous because she wants her work to be under the spot light, not her appearance.
Ayn Soup Kitchen is growing into a self-sustaining facility day by day and creating one big difference in a small village of Cambodia. But her dream is to open many branches throughout the country and even the rest of Asia in the future.
“Children are children…” she says. “You can love all of them like your own regardless of where or from whom they are born”
Adored by the children and much respected by their parents, Ayn is surrounded with love and appreciation and feels like she has one big family in Cambodia although they are not even speaking the same language.
“Actually, aren’t we one big family? Aren’t we responsible for the wellbeing of each other?” These questions meandered in my mind for quite some time after I met her and visited her village and the conclusion I have reached was a one big YES. Indeed, we are…
I believe, acknowledging this is the biggest step on the way to create a difference in the world. Because only then, we will be able to realize that the fortunate ones shall land a hand to less fortunate ones. Because after all, that’s what families do…
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Solen Yucel is a traveler & blogger who believes that establishing human connection and learning through each other’s experience is the true essence of her journey. She can be followed through Instagram and Facebook here.