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Free to fly -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Free to fly

By Phillip Jordan

In Cambodian culture, there is a ritual in which people release songbirds—opening cupped hands to allow the birds to fly away. It symbolizes letting go of the past, especially the bad parts.

New Habitat homeowner Chea Marady celebrates with volunteers and his wife, Saroun, on dedication day at the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Oudong, Kanal Province, Cambodia. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


On Friday, in the New Life Community in Cambodia, 42 songbirds—two for each new home—were released in unison as part of the house dedications. When the birds took flight, the families here knew what they were letting go of: their old lives at the Steung Meanchey dump. With a new community built, these families are also now free to fly away home.

That reality set in for many home partners today. House No. 10 is now Ros Saroun’s new home. As he prepared to unlock his front door for the first time, he looked back at the volunteers and construction assistants who had helped him create this place. And he grinned.

Then he motioned for everyone to join him, his wife, Luek Yary, and his 6-year-old daughter, Roun Nary, inside. “I am really very happy to have worked with all of you,” Saroun said. “And I’m happy to share this experience with you in our house.”

The team blessed the home by showering the homeowners with jasmine flowers. Saroun and Yary then handed out handmade bracelets and necklaces as thank-yous. Afterward, everyone rushed outside in the waning light to take many, many group pictures.

“This has been such an incredible day,” said Vanessa Lehman, a Bolivian volunteer living in New Zealand. “I think my favorite moment was actually this afternoon.

“We finished everything early and just sat down in the new living room. We met their little girl for the first time and showed her illustrations we had brought from schoolchildren in New Zealand to put up in her house. It was just special to be able to enjoy that room that we worked on all week.”

Up and down the street, similar scenes unfolded into the evening. And those scenes frequently left partner families and volunteers overwhelmed.

Half an hour after his home’s dedication, Hout Da stood where everyone had gathered for a final meal together. “I can’t even explain how I feel right now,” he said. “I will really miss everyone. They have become a part of my family, helping me build our home. I feel like I have more brothers, papas, sisters, daughters and sons.”

“It’s tough to leave,” said Rob Silcock, a New Zealand volunteer. “I’ve spent this week getting to know so many good people here, and after today, who knows when I’ll see them again? You establish these relationships and spend all this time together, and then suddenly it’s time to go.”

Silcock will not be able to come back to the site Saturday for the visit from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Friday was his last chance to say goodbye.

At evening’s end, as volunteers filed out of the village to waiting buses, Silcock walked with his arm around his homeowner friend, Hul Sophal. The two never spoke, but as they passed Sophal’s house, they stopped in unison. For several moments, they just looked at the home together once more.

Phillip Jordan is a writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International.