Building Smile Village

Net Ny already anticipates her feeling when she finally moves into her new Smile Village house, “I will feel more fresh and alive here. It is always smelly and dirty where I live now. My children and I always feel tired and sick.” Ny worked with Habitat Cambodia during the Mekong Big Build preparation, setting up the break area and the colorful flags that decorated the entire village. On the build days, she worked alongside volunteers in the block relay and in carrying materials throughout the build site.

Ny is among the twelve families who built their new homes together with over 150 international and local volunteers during the Mekong Big Build from November 4th to 8th. The new houses are in Phum Kdey Nhor Nhem (Smile Village) in the Dangkor district of Phnom Penh, about 30 minutes bicycle ride away from the Pour un Sourier d’Enfant school and the dump site, where Ny and her five sons live.

She is a widow and shares responsibility for sourcing the household’s income with two of her children, Soeurn, 33, and Chheng, 18, by scavenging. Their new 30 m2 home is a far cry from her current house made of scrap materials. Like other housing units in Smile Village, Ny’s house was built with cement blocks and has proper roofing and ventilation. The house features a kitchen and a toilet; something she has never before had.

Second-eldest son Touch, 27, stays at home and Voeurn, 18, and Ken, 14, cycle to school each day. Her children’s education is important to Ny. She dreams for her younger ones to find decent work in the future, “My children will be able to study well once we move in. They will have better sleep and have sufficient light to study at night. We will have clean water, a toilet and I will be able to cook clean food for them.”

The recent rains have highlighted just how perilous living in substandard housing is – homes made with old steel sheeting and plastic let in water and provide no insulation, standing water spreads disease, and illness means parents aren’t able to earn and children fall behind at school. “moving a family to a decent, safe house breaks this cycle of poverty,” said Don Boring, Habitat for Humanity Cambodia’s country director.

Among the volunteers was Gillian Robinson from Worcester, England who said, “I didn’t expect the amount of poverty I have seen, and I think 99 per cent of people back home don’t realize it either.” All the volunteers experienced working together across teams on the first day of the build. Instead of the typical approach of working on separate houses within teams, all volunteers worked in bucket brigades to move earth, remove water, and position cement blocks for use at the house site. The volunteers’ work marked the start of the construction on the 2.2-hectare site that will ultimately consist of 278 housing units, a childcare center, market and community center.

Another home partner, 40-year old Bo Try said, “I thought the men and women volunteers who came to help did not know about working hard and getting their hands dirty. I thought people in rich countries do not care about others, but these volunteers are happy working with us. I am a leader in my community, and I will be able to use this experience as an example that working together can achieve great things.”

On the fifth day of the Mekong Big Build, volunteers hung banners, flags and balloons adding to the site’s festive mood. Volunteers and home partners shared their excitement, celebrated their new friendships and cried tears of joy together in the house dedications. Later the volunteer teams and home partners shared their talents in singing, dancing and rapping, ending the Mekong Big Build on a high note. Net Ny was her cheerful self with her hopes set high too, “ I hope when they all come back, they will see how our lives have become better.”

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