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home : current news : current news December 13, 2017

12/5/2017 1:46:00 PM
Sisters Habitat for Humanity builds in Cambodia
A joyous celebration of a house built with love. A house now made a home for a Cambodian family. photo by Gary Miller
+ click to enlarge
A joyous celebration of a house built with love. A house now made a home for a Cambodian family. photo by Gary Miller

By Carol Pedersen Moorehead

It's hot and humid in Cambodia, the sun intense on this November day. Sweat is pouring onto my mortar bucket. Heat emanates from the blocks I am setting as we construct an exterior wall. Water from last night's rain puddles on the dirt road we tread to reach the construction site.

Most of us do not perform manual labor on a regular basis, certainly not in these tropical conditions. If we visit the tropics, we play in the ocean and imbibe in fancy drinks with miniature paper umbrellas. Yet, here we are day after day hauling sand, cement and water to make mortar, filling our mortar buckets, laying blocks and climbing scaffolding as our exterior walls grow beyond our reach. Moreover, we paid our own airfare and a stipend for the privilege of doing this work in the enduring heat. Most of us will stay on for a week afterwards to tour more of this kingdom or make a visit to nearby countries.

The families for which we build have become "our" families.

A family representative was present each day at the build site and would assist in small ways. In the case of our family, Pin Chhoeu did not really meet his wife until they were married, not because of custom, but because the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that took over the country in the 1970s forced marriages to assure another generation of soldiers. Although the Khmer Rouge was driven out of Cambodia in 1979, this couple is still together, and with their four younger children relish the opportunity to have a home free of flooding, with a flush toilet.

We take care when applying mortar and leveling the blocks to assure a secure structure. After we leave the build site around 4 p.m., some of the local paid construction workers continue the work and in the morning, we inspect it, find fault with the way the blocks now slope or fail to match up. We "own" this work and want our sweaty efforts to pay dividends for our families for years and years to come.

A team of 15 representing Sisters Habitat for Humanity flew to Cambodia recently to help build 23 homes under the guidance of Habitat for Humanity International Global Village. This Cambodia Big Build attracted 253 international participants with teams of participants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Hong Kong and the USA.

Our Sisters team worked on two different houses, both made of compressed-earth blocks. The blocks are faster to make than classic fired brick and manufactured at a nearby site. There, workers scoop shovels full of soil onto a large screen where it is hand-sifted until a very fine product piles up below and is ready to combine with clay, cement and water then molded and compressed into blocks. The compressed blocks are set in the sun to dry. Two days later, they will be stacked and kept watered for one to two weeks before they are building-ready.

Five tools were indispensable for our project: the bricky tool - a gauge to lie upon the blocks as a frame for our mortar layer, a trowel to apply the mortar, a level to assure a flat surface, a rubber mallet for leveling the blocks and buckets to carry sand for mortar mixing and mixed mortar for application.

A cement foundation and framework completed before we arrived allowed us to start building walls. We transferred blocks from stacks to the worksite, applied mortar and built each wall block by block, leveled, added mortar, added a block until the row was complete. We mixed mortar by hauling buckets of sand and water, added a bag of cement and stirred the thick sluice with shovels. We filled mortar buckets and repeated this process hour after hour, day after day.

Finished houses measure approximately 356 square feet, about the size of a single-car garage, and include a flush toilet. Families and extended families with up to eight members will occupy these homes built on land secured through collaboration between the Cambodian government and Habitat Cambodia. Though each family has their own story, similarities exist. Most were squatting on land that did not belong to them. Many homes were unstable structures of tin and boards that would flood during the rainy season, causing unsanitary conditions. Income levels vary but most get by on a few U.S. dollars per day.

The 23 families occupying these newly constructed homes will now have a safe and secure place to live and will own their homes thanks to the work of volunteers and successful funding by Habitat Cambodia.

Building in another country is demanding yet rewarding work. Participant Sally Benton described the experience this way:

"Taking part in a big build is a remarkable experience allowing one to engage with a culture that is so different from our own and provides the opportunity to give back to our global community by providing much-needed housing."

Though we worked hard during the day, evenings provided a mix of opportunities to try out the cuisine of the area or participate in group dinners and activities. On our final night, the Battambang Circus treated us to a performance. The show included a range of circus acrobatics, juggling, and clowning, dramatic and visual art retelling the Khmer Rouge story. The performers were coaches and trainers for the arts school, Phare Ponleu Selpak. The NGO helps disadvantaged young people escape from situations connected with poverty such as begging or trafficking to get an education, in public school and in the arts. We all agreed the performance was world-class.

This is the fifth overseas build led by Sisters Habitat board member Jack McDonnell and his wife, MaryAnne. One previous build was in Nepal, three in Kyrgyzstan.

Asked why they devote so much time to Habitat for Humanity, MaryAnne replied, "We believe assisting people in other countries to have a decent place to live is how we can help to create world peace."

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