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Following Sophon

Randy Shattuck | Cambodia

Organization: iLightStudios

Five small boys come running up to Sophon Phy to get his attention. It’s obvious how much they admire and trust him. Everyone in the slums we visited seemed to look forward to Sophon’s visits. He would call out to people by name. Sophon prized the little people.

Child trafficking in Cambodia has made international headlines. Sophon Phy was the co-founder and executive director of the Riverkids Project, an NGO committed to rescuing families in distress. He passed away in August of 2013. This exhibit is called Following Sophon because that's what I did - right into the belly of the beast.

Sophon led me through three slums, or what he called communities. These are the very places where children have been trafficked. As we walked through these communities, children poured out from every crack and crevice in the thin walls and floorboards of these ramshackle structures, running out to greet Sophon. He touched nearly every child, tousling their hair like they were his own.  Every child in those communities was at-risk of trafficking, and children were everywhere.

Sophon was likely the most trusted man in Cambodia. A highly educated former government official, he could have had a cushy job in an air-conditioned office. But instead he chose to spend time with, and advocate for, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on planet Earth. 

Following Sophon was life-changing.

Following Sophon into these communities is an experience I’ll never forget. The smells were overwhelming, roasted garlic combined with open sewer and human sweat. Little children frolicked around on raised walk-ways built out of slats of wood laid across rickety poles driven into the sandy ground. Their little hands and feet were nimble and quick and they knew how to avoid falling off the walk-way, lessons I assume they learned the hard way. 

But the thing that amazed me is how many families were in-tact and still together, even though they were on the edge of disaster. There was no government support or housing for these people, so they build sheds out of wood scraps and corrugated metal. Small families of 5 or 7 people lived under one roof in a dwelling hardly big enough for one person. When the torrential rains fell, the water rolled right through their homes.

These families are at-risk of child trafficking because all it takes is a serious accident or disease striking one of the adults in the family. Then the other adult, sometimes a parent, sometimes an aunt, uncle or even grandparent, question their ability to care for the child and support them while living in the slums. The seed of doubt gives traffickers an opportunity.

Child trafficking, in the slums I saw, was not kidnapping. It was a con game where certain promises were made about how the child would be better off in another place – often described as clean, healthy and including schools and education – than staying with the parents or guardians. Traffickers offer the family a bit of money, not as a price for the child you understand, but as a means of “helping out” a family in deep distress.

But once the child is removed from the family, it’s too late. Horrible things happen to them. Some end up as sex workers. Some work long hours in factories for subsistence wages. Some labor on farms or in the fields. Some become “housemaids” for affluent families. Most of them will never see their families again.

Sophon made it his life’s mission to help as many of these families as he could. Listening to him talk, it was surprising how many stories he could tell from all of the different families he and his colleagues at the Riverkids project had served. As we walked through the slums, he greeted family after family and told me of some way they had been helped.

In this modern age, it’s easy to become jaded and to believe that the evils we face as a species are simply too overwhelming to address. Sophon never believed that. He believed the smallest act could change someone’s life for the better. I once asked Sophon if he was religious and he replied: “I like Jesus, but my heart is with Buddha.” I can say, without hesitation, that the most Christian man I ever met was a former Buddhist monk named Sophon.


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