The one-time maid who became a community leader

Inspired by a church community, a Cambodian woman is now helping impoverished girls escape dead-end lives
The one-time maid who became a community leader

Kek Soon in her café which is situated in the Cambodian city of Kampot. (Photo by Cristian Martini Grimaldi)

A five-hour drive from Phnom Penh, the Kama Cafe in the colonial city of Kampot stands out from the others thanks to a robust presence of plants and flowers that almost seem to want to conceal the entrance.

“They are the symbol of life,” says Kek Soon (Khun Gechsoun), the manager of the café, who embodies the dynamic transformations taking place in Cambodia.

The 35-year-old opened Kama Café five years ago, but she always intended to do more than just serve iced tea and vegetarian sandwiches. Her mission went well beyond that of the typical café owner and the Church has played a pivotal role in helping her achieve her dreams.

“I call it a community center,” Soon says. “Today we are helping some 30 girls, most of whom come from neighboring villages. They are the offspring of large families and we try to teach them a job to keep them away from the street and from the temptations of the nightlife in the city.”

What Soon is euphemistically referring to are the many “girlie bars” along the Preaek Tuek Chuu River that bisects the city.

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“A year ago, there were none, they arrived with the Westerners who are fleeing Sihanoukville, which has been besieged by Chinese construction operators and tourists,” she says.

Feeding off prostitution are the demands of glum looking French, American and British pensioners decked out in their flip-flops, t-shirts and shorts. “Girls are approached on the street, in cafes, everywhere ... the typical 67-year-old westerner comes here with the idea of settling down with a girl at home,” Soon says.

“With a hundred dollars a month they can get themselves a trustworthy concubine. Salaries here are still a pittance so many girls see it as an easy solution to many of their problems.”

Soon then came up with the idea of financing social development projects through art. “Many of these girls have hidden talents, a beautiful voice or drawing skills,” she says. “We provide the means for them to express themselves through, woodcut printmaking and singing lessons; for those that reach a certain level we provide the space to sell their works,” she points out.

“The money they make by selling their artistic products is all reinvested in our female community.”

Inside the laid-back Kama Cafe in the Cambodian colonial city of Kampot. (Photo by Cristian Martini Grimaldi)

 

Her entire life has been marked by the presence of inspiring women. “Grandma always told me ‘never steal, don’t prostitute yourself and work hard.’ And I listened to her.”

In fact, she followed the advice religiously and when her father left home for another woman she, as the oldest child, worked tirelessly so the family could make ends meet, even though she was still an adolescent.

“At the age of 15 I was already scrubbing fishermen’s boats for 800 riel (20 cents) an hour. I used to find fish at the bottom of their boats – they were just scraps, but I picked them up one by one and it was enough for me to cook a decent dinner for the four of us in the family.”

But this was only her day job; in the evenings she would walk the streets of Kampot selling bags of local sweets. If she sold the whole lot, about 100 bags, that earned her 1000 riel.

The money fed the family but was never enough to deliver the necessary means for them to enjoy a more secure and satisfying lifestyle. Then an opportunity came along.

When Soon was barely 16 she was offered a job in Malaysia. She and several other girls would work as servants in a big household, where her employer was a rich Chinese businesswoman, whose husband was an Englishman. The prospect to work abroad meant a much higher salary but it was only later that she found out the true cost.

“The first four months I had no salary,” she recalls. “I had to pay back the cost of processing my passport and since it was a false one, being a minor, I was not allowed to find work outside of Cambodia.”

She effectively became an indentured servant – she needed to repay an ambiguous amount of money, the sum artificially manipulated by unscrupulous employers, before anything became her own.

“Many workers return to their countries, after years of hard work, without having accumulated a single dollar,” she says.

In a sense, though, she was luckier than others. “I worked hard, and, in the end, I always received my salary, down to the last penny,” she says proudly.

Nevertheless, her time in Malaysia basically amounted to eight years of near slavery. “I worked from 5am to 11 pm, with just a few minutes’ breaks... But the main problem was the language. I didn’t speak English and I didn’t understand it. The other girls with whom I shared the housework took advantage and always made sure I got the heaviest jobs.”

Her life finally changed when she found out about the church through a Filipino friend who lived next door.

“I got really lucky. I discovered that there were lots of great school activities there, for example guitar lessons, ballroom dancing, language classes and baking courses. My boss allowed me to go, so every Sunday I joined their programs.”

It wasn’t just the technical skills Soon was learning — the community became more like a second family to her.

“I still have fond memories of the social life there, especially all the courses I applied to, they even had hip-hop dance classes which I really wanted to do. There was an older Filipino teacher who would take us on trips around Malaysia. After a while I really felt like the Filipino community at the church had become my family.”

She also participated in volunteer programs like distributing care packages to others who were in trouble and needed support.

“There were lots of other girls in much worse situations than I was. The priest at the church would also help maids who had run away from their Malaysian employers but didn’t have any passports.”

Soon became so attached to her new community that sometimes she would fight with her boss at home because she wanted to spend more time at the church. Eventually she was allowed a full 12 hours off on Sunday.

“Even though I’m not religious,” she says. “I felt the religious teachings were fairer and easier than the way Christianity is taught in Cambodia. They never forced me to become a Christian, it was all very open.

“Still, in the time I was there I would also join the praying and religious ceremonies. I was only in the church for the last one and half years of my time in Malaysia, but they gave me the opportunity to go through the emotional experience of what it means to help the weaker others, which I found was very rewarding.

“I also learned practical skills and received certificates in baking, which really helped me when I returned to Cambodia. I ended up using these skills when I started to manage my café.”

Outside the Kama Café, Kampot. (Photo by Cristian Martini Grimaldi)

 

Then she made a momentous decision: she asked her boss for two years’ pay in advance, so she could give her mother enough money to buy back the house she had lost due to debts she had accumulated over the years. She was granted the money.

After her full eight years she was also able to put enough money aside to start her own business.

She is now dreaming of a bigger project, which she calls the Fish Island Arts Center. She intends to expand the Kama Cafe and house it in a new community arts center, contemporary gallery, school and artists residency. Soon has bought the land, moved 300 trucks of dirt and rock to fill a former rice field and already laid the foundations.

“My life has always been a serious of small steps forward,” she says smiling. “This is a bigger challenge, but I am confident it will be a success.”

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