Monday, November 16, 2009

Cambodian AIDS orphans have good plans for future

By Zhang Ruiling

PHNOM PENH, Nov. 16 (Xinhua) -- They are a hidden population, living with HIV/AIDS at a very young age. What we do know is that they are very vulnerable. It is this state of being hidden that puts AIDS orphans at special risk during their lifetime.

But those living with HIV in Cambodia are lucky. They live in the National Borey for Infants and Children, a state-run orphanage located in the suburb of the capital city Phnom Penh, which is supported by the government and humanitarian agencies.

"The center accommodates more than 100 orphans, among them 27 are living with HIV, and Sei La is one of them," Sani, a teacher at the center, told Xinhua while pointing at the boy who was orphaned at an early age when his parents died of AIDS.

Sei La is a typical Khmer boy with brown skin. He looks happy and healthy. He said he had just returned from school.

"How old are you, Sei La? Do you know China?" we asked.

"I am 15 years old now. I know China, it's a big country with a lot of people," Sei La answered with a shy smile.

"I am happy here. I have friends here and the teachers treat us like mothers. I study in the Khmer language school in the morning, and in the afternoon I go to English school," he continued.

"I have been working here for nearly 25 years. I love these poor children, they are just like my own sons and daughters," said Sani. Her warmth for these children is reciprocated, as Sani's proteges respectfully call her "Mama."

Sani told us that Sei La was a clever boy, and that he worked part-time in a small restaurant in the city every Sunday.

"Just clean dirty dishes, set tables, and serve as an assistant," he said.

"The payment is little, just 3,000 riel (about 0.73 U.S. dollars)," he admitted. "I only want to earn some pocket money, so I can buy some snacks and sometimes repair my bicycle, but first of all, I want to gain some experience for seeking a good job in the future."

When talking about the HIV/AIDS disease, Sei La looked calm while replying that he knew he was infected with HIV.

"I was very scared at first and hated my parents, but after I learned about HIV/AIDS, I know if I keep taking pills and do some exercise, the disease can be controlled," he explained.

We have reason to believe that Sei La has already overcome his fear and public prejudice, and learned how to stand on his own two feet.

On the playground, we saw a group of children playing frisbee and some girls playing on the swirls.

"I like here very much," Nani, a five-year-old girl, said while riding a bike in the yard.

Enjoying the sight of little boys and girls giggling and running around, one can hardly imagine that this is an orphanage and that these lovely children are AIDS orphans. At that moment, we gratefully realized that poverty and illness would never prevail over the purity of a child's mind, and that these children's aspirations for living and learning would rise above these impediments.

Mak Phanna, director of the National Borey for Infants and Children of the Department of Child Welfare in the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, told us that the Royal Government of Cambodia always paid great attention to children, especially the disabled and orphans infected with HIV. In effect, the government has adopted a law on HIV and AIDS, which went into effect in 2002.

Cambodia diagnosed the first case of HIV in 1993, and HIV prevalence in the country peaked at 3.7 percent in 1997. Chhim Sareth, director of the AIDS Health Foundation, Cambodia Care Organization, said Cambodia had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the region, but the good news was that the rate was decreasing every year.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that 75,000 Cambodians live with HIV, but the prevalence of the virus among the population halved to 0.9 percent between 1998 and 2006. The measures taken by the government include publicity campaigns and education to raise understanding of HIV/AIDS. Also, a condom campaign, offering free HIV tests, has made some progress.

"It is unfortunate for these children to suffer this illness. However, it is very fortunate for them to have received various assistance. Through much support, these children have attended elementary school without paying any tuition, and have received treatment and medicines free of charge," Phanna said.

We also have high hopes for these children and wish them a happy and healthy life.


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