Bernadette Bolo Duthy is the National Director of Habitat Cambodia. Every year, volunteers from across Ireland travel to support the most vulnerable communities in the country. Read her Advent reflection below:
We begin the Season of Advent with a simple message from the gospel of Jeremiah 31:13
Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
We are God's hands and feet, here to serve others and show them His love. The tangible experiences that Habitat provides allow you to engage those around you live out your faith, and offer a unique opportunity to love your neighbour.
I had the honour to host over 80 hardworking and dedicated volunteers to build nine timber homes for nine families in Siem Reap during the Cambodia Big Build in November.
Traditionally, families in rural areas choose to build timber houses because it is more affordable than concrete homes. However, even this can be too expensive, and families are left living in old homes that are at risk of decay. Typical of this is the house Ty and Hourn lived in.
For over five years, the couple stayed in a house together with other siblings. Ty and her husband Hourn both work in construction, aside from growing rice during the rainy season. Cambodia’s booming construction industry employs between 175,000 and 200,000 workers, many of whom are unskilled and work informally as day laborers.
For five days, Ty worked diligently with the New Zealand volunteers, and from time to time, she stopped to appreciate the house that is slowly taking shape. She did not mind the heat and the humidity, as she knows she is building her home and her future. On the fifth day of the build was the house dedication. She gleefully ran around the community collecting wildflowers growing alongside the rice paddies. Ty and Hourn wove coconut fronds into a graceful arch placed at the base of the stairs. They participated in an elaborate traditional house warming. A floral shower of pastel-colored lotus petals marked the start of the reflection session with the volunteers. On the second floor of their timber house on stilts, volunteers and home partners took turns in sharing their feelings and gratitude. What welled made our eyes well up was when Ty said: “tonight I will sleep with a smile in my heart." Indeed, advent came early for this family. They have been building as paid labour for other people's homes and hotels while they are living in a dilapidated and half-walled thatch house. Construction work is hard, but Ty proves that a woman can do it as well as a man.
I also had the chance to chat with one volunteer. Traditionally, volunteers and visitors are perceived as bearers of gifts. This story of a volunteer highlights the opposite. Siyath was born in a refugee camp near the border of Cambodia and Thailand. His parents, trying to flee from the Khmer Rouge, eventually settled in Canada. In 2006, his parents took him back to Cambodia to visit relatives for two months. Seeing firsthand how they lived had a profound effect on him. From then on, he vowed to do more for his fellow compatriots. As a volunteer for CBB2019 (his second build with Habitat), he highly encourages more Cambodians living in other countries to come back and volunteer.
“This is the truest form of experience you can have to help provide a decent home. I want them to know the joy of watching your brothers and sisters feel proud of what they have.”
The joyful feeling that the Ty and Siyath shared as givers and receivers of good deeds make my heart dance in gratitude for the opportunity to see it in action.
Hear our prayer today for all. For the homeless, the landless and the hungry. For those living in fear and the powerless. Embolden us to live our faith; to work for peace and justice not only through words but more so by meaningful actions. We pray for those of us with warm beds, enough food, and safe shelter so that we continue to be grateful and help us see God's face in every poor people we meet. In your name, we pray. Amen.