banner image
From the seeds they planted, a village grows -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

From the seeds they planted, a village grows

By Phillip Jordan

When Paul and Aileen Munn first visited Cambodia four years ago, they did not know they would gain nearly a hundred new family members.

Volunteer Aileen Munn puts an arm around Habitat home partner Chea Marady, whose house she has been working on during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


Paul Munn, who helped buy the land where Habitat houses for 21 Cambodian families are going up, dispenses humor, water, sunblock and energy mix at the Project. Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm


But as houses are built on land the Munns donated to the 21 families Habitat is partnering with this week, that is exactly how Paul and Aileen feel. The Australian couple and the home partners here have formed a bond.

“When we say we adopted these families, we meant it,” Aileen said. “We will move on and work with other communities and hopefully replicate what we’ve been able to do here, but these families will always be special to us. Now we know: This is what we want to do with the rest of our lives.”

Four years ago, on their first trip to Cambodia, the Munns boarded a tuk-tuk (a popular mode of transportation here, which looks like a covered wagon pulled by a motorbike) and asked the driver to take them to the Steung Meanchey dump. The dump had become known throughout Phnom Penh for the atrocious living conditions of the communities around it, where people scavenged the dump to make a living.

Paul had polio when he was 3 months old, which severely weakened his left leg. It was the rainy season in Cambodia, and as Paul stepped down from the tuk-tuk, his cane sunk deep in the mud. His left leg could not regain its footing, and he fell onto a pile of rocks at the side of the road.

Two young men named Vibol and Vanneth ran to pick him up, lifting Paul’s arms around their shoulders. The pair led the Munns to their home near the dump site, and to their community’s leader, their father, Chea Chandy.

For the rest of the day, Paul and Aileen met family members and distributed the rice and bananas they had brought. They played soccer. Paul introduced them to cricket. “Unfortunately,” he recalled, “Australia lost the first test against Cambodia.”

When the Munns left that afternoon, they knew they would return. “The people here didn’t realize the effect they had on Aileen and [me],” Paul says. “Sure, we saw poverty, but we also saw the happiness. They had so many needs, and yet they treated us with so much love.”

A partnership forms

Soon they had worked with the community to buy a plot of land in Oudong city, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the dump in Phnom Penh. The Munns had no idea how homes would get built, but they donated the land to 21 families in Chandy’s community.

Banks, however, would not give loans to the families. “We weren’t getting anywhere,” Paul said.

This was during their fourth trip to Cambodia, and they planned to stay 56 days. On day 55, Aileen saw a sign for Habitat for Humanity.

“They build houses!” Aileen shouted.

On a prayer, they went to Habitat Cambodia’s office in Phnom Penh.

“And down the stairs walked an angel named Bernadette,” Paul recalled. Habitat Cambodia’s country director, Bernadette Bolo-Duthy, “listened to us talk for half an hour as we explained our situation. She never said a word.”

Bolo-Duthy recalls what she immediately thought: “These will be our partners for the Carter Work Project. They are highly organized, they are committed, and they are passionate—just the right elements for a partnership.”

Now, thanks to Habitat and volunteers with the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, the houses are almost complete. The Munns donated solar panels for each house, along with 25 percent of the cost of each home to make them affordable enough for the families. Over the next five years, the families will fulfill their partnership requirements, paying $15 a month to Habitat. Then the homes are theirs forever.

While waiting for this week to come, the Munns and the families here have strengthened their bond even more. Aileen has spent a lot of time with the women in the community, teaching them new skills, such as knitting and cooking, that they can use to make a living in their new village.

One woman, Chea Touch, took to the knitting right away. Now Touch makes scarves. Aileen is her biggest customer, paying her $5 per scarf each time she visits and taking 20 back to Australia to sell there. Aileen hopes to teach other women how to make baby bonnets to sell in the local market.

The Munns also are starting a business microfinance fund for the families they will repay through another nonprofit organization over the next few years.

“Paul is a very generous person,” Aileen says. “He loves to give, give, give. And we did that at first here. But we had to stop at some point and say that might not always be the best way to help. We want them to become independent, not dependent. That’s why we have been excited to partner with Habitat and to partner with a microfinance group.”

A dream fulfilled

On the build site, Aileen works on Chea Marady’s house. Paul’s polio does not allow him to build all day, but he is one of the most visible—and verbal—volunteers on site.

Paul doles out bottled water, sunscreen, Tic-Tacs and wet towels to volunteers all day. Most transactions include something volunteers have come to expect by week’s end—a joke, a kiss, arm-wrestling, a dousing of water from Paul’s bottle.

Paul chose his position across from Marady’s house on purpose. He shares a kinship with the 26-year-old Cambodian: Marady also has had polio at three months old. Both of Marady’s legs were affected, but it does not keep him from hauling blocks and buckets of mortar.

“I feel for him,” Paul says. “He’s working so hard out here. I know why. He wants to be one of the guys. But I know he’s crashing through that pain barrier now, too.”

Paul motions Marady over to take a break and cool off with a wet towel.

“This has really made us feel human,” Paul said. “We want to find other communities that we can do this with now. This is what we are doing with the rest of our lives.”

“And anybody can do something to help,” Aileen says. “It’s still a bit surreal that this is all here now. But when you step out in faith, something like this is always possible.”

Phillip Jordan is a writer-editor with Habitat for Humanity International.