The photo is a shot of the street on which we were working. You can see the houses are rather small and the road is dirt.
The people living in "Little Cambodia" came to the small town of Rosharon, Texas in 1975 as refugees escaping the notorious Pol Pot regime.
I'll let history.com explain:
"Pol Pot was a political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. One detention center, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. Some historians regard the Pol Pot regime as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history." (History.com)
Cambodians were one group of people that comprised the Indochinese refugee crisis that began in 1975, as people from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos escaped the communist governments that had gained control of their nations. An estimated 2.5 million of these people settled in North America, Europe, and Australia.
I remember the news reports. I also remember that a number of churches in my Conference of the United Methodist Church "adopted" refugee families to help them settle in their adopted state.
Like so many of the refugees and immigrants who came to the USA over the centuries, the people of Little Cambodia settled in and began to contribute to American culture and economy.
Since they were farmers, they created hot houses built of wood and plastic, where they raised vegetables. Their specialty was something called water spinach, or ipomoea aquatica. As its name implies, water spinach is semi-aquatic and grows in tropical or semi-tropical areas throughout the world. Because it also is invasive, the plant is highly regulated and cannot be sold across state lines without a permit. (NPR)
We had the opportunity to sample water spinach the day we concluded our work. The community hosted a lunch for all the workers. Along with barbecued chicken, rice, mac and cheese, potato salad, we sampled the vegetable cooked Cambodian-style. And I'm here to tell you it's delicious! Garlicky and crunchy... to die for.
The photo below was taken through a screen inside the house we were working on - but it provides a view of the family's hot house in the backyard.
The people of Little Cambodia passed the years following their immigration by living simply and making their living as truck farmers.
That is, until Hurricane Harvey showed up last summer.
The hurricane and the flood waters destroyed peoples' homes and their hot houses.
At one point, a man arrived with a plan. He said he was a contractor and was wiling to help them rebuild. All they needed was to give him their FEMA money and he would do the rest.
Well... he built some houses, but they were half-baked construction. I ought to know, my group worked to negotiate siding around window frames that were not level even to the naked eye.
Then one day the "contractor" vanished, taking with him $75,000 of the community's money.
Eventually one resident, a contractor himself, decided to quit his job (temporarily) and start a non-profit to get houses and hot houses fixed. He told me that he had enough money to get through a year of working with the non-profit. His process was to partner with mission groups from churches and other organizations to complete the job the other man had left behind.
The new houses are up on stilts. If you live in New Jersey (or have visited other beach communities in other states), you know that houses are built on stilts so flood waters can go underneath and not wash the structures away.
But what struck me is that people of Little Cambodia, who cannot live in their unfinished homes
are living underneath them or in other temporary shelters. The family we were working with also had things stored in a car that looked as if it had been through the flood itself.
Although one of our youth is mugging in the photo below, look under the house. You can just make out the outline of camp chairs and other items. Our family had strung up a couple of hammocks, did their cooking on a grill, washed their clothing by hand and hung it on a line to dry, and so on. It has been months since the hurricane and they are still living outdoors.
The work we did was only part of what needs to be done to get the family get back in their home. I don't know how much longer it will take, but I have faith that they will be inside soon.
One the lighter side, our family had a little chihuahua, which we named "ChaCha" until we realized her real name was "Taco." The animal lovers in our group could not resist her, despite her fleas.
I am glad to report that we got most of the siding up, as evidenced below.
And once again, I have come to realize that mission trips are not one thing. They are difficult, hard work, frustrating, fun, a bonding experience, and so much more. But the main focus is helping someone else simply because you can.
I think my character Maggie would be in agreement when I say that helping and loving others is what we are put on this earth to do.
Yeah. Jersey is definitely in da house. Luc left a written account of our work (next to another team's graffiti). Our words will be covered up, but the love still will be there.
History.com, "Pol Pot."
NPR, "Water Spinach Farmers Struggle To Recover After Hurricane Harvey," 26 Oct 2017.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder