By Phillip Jordan
Phnom Penh, Cambodia—On a 95-degree afternoon, Sam Sue and his wife, Ly Pheap, began gathering shoes inside their wood-shack home. Sitting on the ground, Pheap gave each pair of shoes a final cleaning before Sue stuffed them into a white rice bag about four feet deep.
The couple had repaired the shoes after salvaging them from Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey municipal dump, where nine tons of trash is discarded daily. The dump loomed a couple hundred feet from their house. The dump’s smell invaded their home, their clothes, their nostrils. It made their three children sick.
When Sue could not fit anymore shoes in the rice bag, he strapped it to his back and climbed onto his green-and-white motorbike. Through Phnom Penh’s crowded streets, it took about an hour to reach the Takamao night market.
Sue set up shop between two food vendors selling bread and sandwiches. He laid down a blue tarp and began placing the shoes on top: men’s shoes on one side, women’s shoes on the other. For the next four hours, long after sunset, Sue joked and bargained with potential customers. He scrambled to keep the shoes organized as people threw them back on the tarp. He never got off his knees except to thank someone for making a purchase.
“When he first started to sell, he was too shy,” Pheap had said of Sue earlier that afternoon. She smiled when she said it. “So I had to tell him what to tell people. He had a difficult time selling women’s shoes. I told him to wave his hand and ask women how they were doing, to make them feel welcome.”
By 9 p.m. Sue had made $25, mostly from women whose shifts had just ended at several nearby garment factories. It was factory payday. Many days and nights net Sue or Pheap $5 or less. As he knocked the dirt off his pants and repacked shoes into the rice bag, Sue spoke softly: “I am tired of this. The glue we use to repair the shoes is toxic, and we have headaches all the time. I am away from my family too much.”
He put the bag on his back again and sat on his bike. He put on his helmet, felt for the $25 in his left pocket once more and rode back toward the dump through the darkness.
A new life
Today, Sam Sue, 33, Ly Pheap, 31, and their three children—sons Se and Say and daughter Davan—do not have to sift through trash for discarded shoes anymore. They live in a safe, healthy Habitat house in Oudong, about 45 kilometers away from Phnom Penh.
They are among 21 families who partnered with Habitat for Humanity Cambodia to leave the Steung Meanchey dump behind. The families worked with more than 250 volunteers from 13 countries to build their new homes in Oudong during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project .
The families named their Habitat neighborhood the New Life Community. Immediately to the community’s west, rice fields stretch to the horizon. Just a couple of kilometers to the east, four 13th-century temple tops rise from Preah Reachtrop Mountain.
In the land behind her house, Pheap has planted a mango tree.
Back in mid-November, Sue worked alongside volunteers to place bricks and spread mortar. Now he has a job as a construction assistant with Habitat Cambodia, producing stabilized soil blocks to be used in a nearby Habitat development called New Holistic Hope. Fifty-two other partner families will relocate there from Steung Meanchey.
Sue and Pheap also head their community’s education committee, a task they take seriously. Their own children attend Arey Kasat School in Oudong and study English each morning with a teacher who visits their community.
“The children are the future of this community,” Sue says. “If they do not go to school, they will walk down the wrong path in life, and this community will suffer.”
Pheap grew up in the countryside, a daughter of vegetable farmers. As a girl living on the farm, she wasn’t given the chance to go to school. Perhaps that is why her secret dream was to somehow become a teacher.
Instead, as a mother, she has also sold fish, repaired shoes and done whatever else was needed to support her children. Now she hopes their education will allow them to do what she never could.
“If they follow my advice, learn in school and become teachers, I would be very happy,” she says.
The journey home
Habitat Cambodia staffers know the sacrifice parents like Pheap and Sue make for their children.
On the day many of the families moved to Oudong, Sue helped load a rented 1980s-model Hyundai Porter with everyone’s possessions. During the hour-long ride, Pheap sat atop pieces of furniture in the truck, holding her children close. Sue helped lead the multifamily caravan on his motorbike, his family’s only mode of transportation. Once home, families helped each other unload and later celebrated with a community dinner.
Before the celebration, however, Sue had set up a meeting with a visitor in front of his new home. Sue sold the man his motorbike.
“I need money for medicine for my children,” Sue explained later. “I had to do it.”
Today, Sue doesn’t have to resort to such measures. For one thing, his children’s health is much improved since leaving the dump. And Sue and Pheap now have new ways to make money. Over the past several months, Habitat Cambodia partnered with donors and other nonprofits to organize a series of income-generating workshops for families.
Many women in the community have learned how to make soap they can sell at a nearby market. Others have learned how to knit scarves and make hand-woven baskets to sell to visitors heading to the nearby temples.
Habitat donors have provided a well and water pump to enable families to grow some of their own food. And thanks to another income opportunity sponsored by an Australian church, families have learned how to raise chickens and ducks. Families obtain the birds through a loan. When they sell the poultry, their loan repayment goes into a community fund that supports other livelihood activities.
These programs, along with their new jobs, mean Sam Sue and Ly Pheap no longer have to return to Phnom Penh to scavenge for shoes to repair.
“I feel overjoyed, and I wonder why—why does Habitat care about us so much?” Sue asks. “They really care about us. I have the feeling I have joined a big family.”
Photo slideshow: Habitat houses around the world
Affordable housing solutions might differ from place to place, but the hope they build always remains the same.