A Corkman walked into a Cambodian bar, and twenty children’s lives changed forever.
When Cork-based builder Martin McHenry walked into Momo’s Bar in Sihanoukville, Cambodia in search of a shisha pipe, little did he know that this would be the start of a friendship that would see up to twenty Cambodian street children educated and fed thanks to the generosity of the St Luke’s community.
‘Momo’, or Mohammed al Akbar, is originally from Iran, but fled the country in 1981, during the turbulence following the revolution. He landed in Turkey, and eventually made it to Scandinavia as a refugee.
After the breakdown of his marriage to a Norwegian woman, Momo lived and worked all over the world – he was in the US for 9/11 but left after the climate changed for Arabs (he’s keen that I mention that “Islam is about peace and not killing people”). He’s a wanderer and a character – exactly the kind of person who says “why not?” when faced with the apparently impossible.
Momo was in Sihanoukville, Cambodia in 2003 for a beach holiday with his Dutch girlfriend, Anita. One evening they were on their way home from the pub when he came upon a little boy, aged around 8, lying in the street.
“He was bleeding, he couldn’t walk… he was raped.”
They realised quickly there was nowhere to bring a child in such dire straits, with poor health and justice infrastructure in Cambodia. So they took the little boy back to their holiday apartment, and nursed him back to health. After a couple of days, they went to the police, who said they had no responsibility for the boy, and he had nobody.
“So I stayed,” says Momo, shrugging his shoulders. “What else was I going to do – throw him back out on the street?”
Anita went back to her life and her job in Holland – she helped fundraise when Momo’s adoption of one boy turned into a much bigger endeavour, which became Anita’s Children’s Home.
Conscious of the reputation of foreign men in Cambodia, one of the first things Momo did was go to the police and ask them to do an Interpol search on him, to show he had no criminal history.
As an income source, Momo opened a bar, but outside the bar, his reputation for looking after unwanted children or those whose families couldn’t care for them, began to grow. Families began to show up at the bar, or his home, with children, asking him to look after them. They’d heard about this man who would send their children to school, something few families in Cambodia have the resources to do.
“At the beginning it was really difficult… the kids kept testing me. With your own kids you can have rules and barriers, but you can’t threaten these kids as they’ve been through so much, they’ll just run away… many times I woke up in the middle of the night and asked myself what I was doing. But if I give up on them, there’s nobody else here.”
Soon, Momo had taken in seven children, with a butterfly-shaped sign over the door proclaiming ‘Anita’s Children’s Home’ in homage to the woman who was fundraising in Holland for this faraway project. The children were fed, clothed and sent to school.
Over the years, about 20 children have come and gone – many of them were not orphans, but their parents had come to Momo, unable to feed and educate them. In some cases, they returned to their families after a short while. In others, their mothers moved in too, and stayed until they’d found more stable employment. These days, most of Momo’s kids are teenagers, and some are back with their own mothers (most of the fathers are absent or dead), while he still pays for and organises their schooling, and sometimes their accommodation.
His last big endeavour is building the house, which he’ll hand over to the girls once it’s fully paid for in three years time, in the hope that it will secure their future.
“They will have their education, they will have their home, and they won’t be forced to marry some idiot who will beat them every day and make them have too many children,” says Momo.
When Leng Sor’s mother came to see Momo, her husband had died and she had three small children. Soon, all four of them were living above Momo’s bar. She had been working as a prostitute on the beach, and Momo agreed to send the kids to school, on condition she found another way of making money. So she began pickling cabbage to sell at the local market, and Momo, true to his word, sent the three kids to school. All three are bright sparks.
The eldest, Leng Sor, is 23, and he works as a supervisor in the New Star Shoes factory, where he earns $400 per month and lives in an apartment provided by the company. Leng Sor tells me the workers on the factory floor in the shoe company earn about $200 per month and says this is good money for people who don’t speak Chinese, as he does.
Leng Sor smiles when I ask about Momo. “He is a very good man. He always plays with the kids, he takes them to the beach – if it’s a Sunday and there is no study. He’s very good with the kids”.
Leng Sor remembers meeting Martin McHenry during his last visit, a number of years ago. At that time, he and his family were living above Momo’s bar – now, still financially supported by Momo and the team in St Luke’s, they live in a one room house with a woman who is deaf and her little boy. I ask him what he’d like to say to Martin and his friends who organise fundraisers every year. “Thank you very much for helping Cambodian children,” he says, shyly.
Leng Sor’s brother, Ah Cheng, is 20, and swiftly following in his brother’s footsteps. Thanks to the fundraising done in Cork, he’s studying at the Life University here in Sihanoukville, and he works in the evenings at Momo’s Bar. I ask him when he has time to study.
“I can do my homework here… we have no customers,” he says, prompting a guffaw from Momo. He’s hoping to win a scholarship to study in Korea and return to Cambodia to teach. He wanted to study fashion design but “I have to have a good job before getting married, so I can control my life,” he says, as Momo nods beside him. “He’s our Einstein,” says Momo proudly.
Their sister, Ah Grek, is a 16, and her eyes sparkle with fun. Another bright spark, she’s hoping to win a scholarship too. When we visit her home, she’s heading to a wedding party the same evening, and shows us the beautiful gown she’s borrowed for the occasion. She’s eager to practice her English on us, too.
“I like Momo because he is a good man, he gives me money to go to study, We got to study because of him. I like him like my father, we lived with him since my father is dead, when I was 8 or 9,” she explains. “Our relationship is very good. I think he wants to help children in Cambodia, we were very poor so he told us we need to study. We had no money and Momo helped us.”
Momo’s currently sending seven children to school, paid for by the generosity of Martin McHenry and the fundraising committee in St Luke’s, where they do a stew competition, an art exhibition and a Grab a Gúna event each year.
If you wish to support Momo’s work, see anitasorphanage.com for fundraising initiatives and events.
This article was originally printed in the Evening Echo, 29.03.16. Research funded by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.