Caring for the children of Cambodia

Lynne Barnett in Cambodia
Lynne Barnett in Cambodia
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Lynne Barnett spends her working life helping local children and families cope with the worst traumas life can deal. But the former Bluebell Wood Hospice therapist who now runs her own practice, Sanctuary Therapy, is just as dedicated to the children of Cambodia. In June the 51-year-old grandmother will head back to the country for the 11th time. The former nurse and midwife will be leaving her Doncaster home and family for a year to work with the young victims of sex trafficking.

Q. When and why did you first go to Cambodia? What did you know of the country’s history and social problems before you went?

A. I first went to Cambodia in 2005. My faith and my wish to help in a developing country were the motivating factors. After the atrocities suffered during and following the genocide of the Pol Pot era in the 70s, Cambodia’s problems don’t seem to reach the media. Most people have heard of the ‘Killing fields’, but it has become a distant memory for many. I thought I knew of the poverty and need in Cambodia, but in reality I only knew of the tip of the iceberg.

Q. How many times have you visited and why?

A. My next visit will be my eleventh. Every time I go I am so moved and inspired by the people surviving in absolute poverty, it fuels my wish to continue offering support.

Q. On your last visit you contracted Dengue fever. How did it affect you?

A. It is a viral infection spread by mosquito bites. It caused fever, severe headache, pain behind the eyes, muscle and joint pain, vomiting and bone pain. I felt very ill indeed. It all started suddenly on Christmas Day. The memories I have of the ‘health care services’ in Cambodia will stay with me forever.

Q. When do you go back in June, what is your mission and what sacrifices do you have to make to be there?

A. I return for a year to offer counselling to rescued children and young people who had been sexually trafficked. I will also be delivering basic counselling training for Khmer staff and setting up a therapeutic support group for survivors of trafficking. Currently the survivors are only supported by two people who have had only five days training.

The biggest sacrifice for me is leaving my son of 24, my five-year-old grandson, family and friends. My business will also be on hold, which means no income for a year. But these are nothing compared to the hardship the Khmer people suffer. They live in absolute poverty and many suffering from post-traumatic stress and attachment issues.

Q. Why is sex trafficking of children such a problem in Cambodia?

A. Although a birth register exists in Cambodia, it is not an enforced legal requirement; births and deaths are often not recorded so it’s hard to keep tabs on children. Also the country’s borders with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam are often crossed illegally by traffickers. People are desperate for food, money and support and their lack of education makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and coercion.

I teach about child protection and safe guarding whenever I have the opportunity.

Q. How do you find these children?

A. Visiting the country so many times has enabled me to build good relationships with many projects and non-government organisations.

I will be working with organisations which rescue children from trafficking and gives them a safe place to live. Counselling is an essential part of their healing.

Q. Tell me the story of one of the children you have encountered...

A. A 12-year-old girl from a rural village went missing. She lived with her elderly grandmother after her parents died of AIDS.

Then the girl disappeared. A Khmer teacher, who is funded by donations I raise for her to teach in two remote rural villages, raised the alarm. The grandmother had been approached and given the ‘opportunity’ to increase her income by allowing her grand-daughter to do house work for a local business person. She was given a ‘down payment’ and the girl was supposedly taken to her new job, but did not return. We found her after much searching. She was in a local brothel. We had to pay for her release. To avoid this happening again, we paid for the girl to follow her dream of training as a hairdresser.

Q. You are a trained counsellor and very experienced in working with children; your previous posts in Barnsley and at Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice saw you working with children and families in highly emotive situations. Will you help the children of Cambodia in the same way?

A. Over the years I have worked with many people who have suffered extreme traumas - including bereavement, murder, suicide, abuse and arson. Every individual is unique, so the treatment has to be, whether in this country or overseas. But I believe a safe, loving relationship is the catalyst for the healing process for everyone. The children and young people I work with will be empowered by choice, be valued and respected and given the chance to play, have fun and rebuild their confidence and self-esteem.

Q. You must feel what you are doing is but a drop in the ocean...

A. I do; however, I see the ripples that come from that one drop. When I look at each child we help, it warms my heart to think of the difference it makes in their life.

Q. Do you come home distressed?

A. It would be a lie if I said it did not affect me. I face reverse culture shock each time I return to the UK. I often need time-out to process all I have seen. The debrief I have with a colleague on my return from Cambodia is very much appreciated. It helps prevent emotional burnout.

Q. How can The Star’s readers help you?

A. I would not be able to do this much-needed work without kind donations from individuals and corporate sponsors. I am grateful for any offering someone can give. The money will be used to cover my flight, visa, health insurance, basic living costs and the cost of educational resources I need. I am happy to do talks for groups who are interested in hearing more about Cambodia, too.

Please help me to help the victims of sex trafficking.

To help Lynne raise the £24,000 she needs for her trip, email lynne@sanctuary-therapy.co.uk