September/October 2014
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Mission Compassion in Anlong Knang
After retiring from mission in Hawaii, a Maryknoll priest finds his second career as a missioner serving an impoverished community in Cambodia
By David R. Aquije; photos by Sean Sprague

Maryknoll Father Robert Wynne walks with skillful confidence over sewer pipes at Anlong Knang, a shantytown on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. The pipes are clogged with garbage and no longer work. Out of the filth, wooden piles sustain makeshift houses made of woven bamboo walls and thatched roofs. In the midst of the penetrating smell in the tropical heat, barefoot, half-dressed children run happily over the pipes.

In this shantytown, as elsewhere in Cambodia, the high levels of poverty and the lack of basic infrastructure are some of the scars that have been left from the country's involvement in the Vietnam War and the violent 1970s when the communist regime of the Khmer Rouge devastated the country.

Father Wynne is in Anlong Knang visiting homes to follow up on a cooperative and savings program he started to help families obtain some level of self-sufficiency. "We want the women to become independent," Wynne says.

The missioner is with a Cambodian man he trained to help him as a field worker. The children, happy to see the priest, run about him. The people greet him with cheerful respect as he walks through the shantytown's winding alleyways.

The priest from Worcester, Mass., has been a missioner for seven years in this Southeast Asian nation of some 15 million people, more than 90 percent of whom are Buddhists. He arrived in Phnom Penh after formally retiring from his mission in Hawaii, where he served most of his career since his ordination in 1968.

After a year of intense study of Cambodia's Khmer language, Father Wynne moved to a modest house so near the shantytown that he can walk to it. He is the only foreigner living in the area.

Anlong Knang is a resettlement community on an abandoned rice field. Hundreds of families came here after a suspicious fire in 2001 destroyed their neighborhood in Phnom Penh. After they were displaced, a casino and luxury hotel were built on the land they had occupied along the Mekong River.

A month after the fire, Maryknoll got involved with other non-governmental organizations operating in Cambodia to respond to the needs of the displaced families in Anlong Knang. With the help of the Cambodian government, they built a clinic and a primary and high school in the shantytown where more than 2,000 families now live.

Sister Leonor (Len) Montiel was the first Maryknoll missioner to work with the people in Anlong Knang, says Father Wynne. She currently runs Seedling of Hope, a program of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers that since 1995 has been offering assistance in Phnom Penh to children whose parents died of AIDS.

With Sister Montiel running the Maryknoll program in Phnom Penh, Father Wynne decided he was needed in the new community, 12 miles outside the city. Because of the lack of jobs near the shantytown, many of the residents commute to the city to work in garment factories, where they earn the equivalent of about $46 a month.

With the support of Maryknoll benefactors, Father Wynne rented two houses and began the Anlong Knang Maryknoll Center. After assessing the most urgent needs of the community, the missioner focused the Maryknoll Center on offering school support to children, counseling and health referrals to people affected by AIDS/HIV, and developing a savings cooperative and a craft program so that women can generate some income.

Father Wynne says bringing in teachers to help students with their studies also helps him because the instructors speak English and his Khmer isn't very good. "They make it possible for me to be here. I can survive," he says half jokingly.

At the Maryknoll Center, teachers and volunteers help the children with homework. The volunteers are high school students who receive a stipend and use the center's small computer room for their own studies. In addition to tutoring, the children get classroom supplies and school uniforms. Even if the parents can't pay the nominal school fee, the priest says, children can continue attending school. The symbolic tuition is so the parents will value their children's education, he explains.

They also receive a nutritious meal, which Father Wynne says "is probably their main meal of the day." He adds, "We hope they gain some weight."

Volunteers also visit the homes of some 200 children in the program, the missioner says. As part of their responsibility to the Maryknoll Center, the parents of these children commit themselves to not allowing their children to go out to the streets to beg for money or scavenge recyclables in the garbage dumps.

Six mothers work at the center, cooking, cleaning and sewing the children's uniforms. With the vision of an entrepreneur, Father Wynne allows the mothers to do some other sewing to earn extra income.

He has also encouraged the mothers to have a table at the center where they sell candy, cookies and other non-perishable items. The missioner hopes the business will prosper into a full neighborhood store in the future.

Not far from the center, Father Wynne visits a small group of women making handicrafts to sell. With clothing scraps they buy from a factory, they produce four small mats a day and sell them for 75 cents each. "This is how we help the women learn a trade," says Father Wynne. Men go to the city to work all day, while the women stay at home and care for the children, and the handicrafts are one of the ways the missioner assists the women to become productive and help with the family's finances.

Farther along the dusty path Father Wynne is following, he reaches a shack of only about 10 square feet. He and the field worker visit an old woman who cares for her orphaned grandchildren ages 13 and 15. The children's parents died of AIDS, and through Seedling of Hope, Maryknoll provides support to the children.

"Maryknoll supports children with money for the week," the missioner says, noting that the field worker keeps an account of the assistance given. The shack where the grandmother and her grandchildren live has holes in the walls that let the wind in, but the ceiling, where once the stars shown through and the rain came in, is now made of corrugated metal, thanks to Father Wynne and Maryknoll. Soon the missioner plans to help put in an ecologically friendly bathroom near the shack.

The priest and the old woman smile at each other. There's no need to talk. The compassion is in their eyes. The priest explains in simple terms the joy that serving in mission in Cambodia gives him: "It's very fulfilling."

For a video presentation of Father Wynne's work, click here.  To view the flash version, click here.

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