She has been praised and supported by Hollywood stars and United States government officials and celebrated by the American media — reinforced the image of Cambodia as a destitute country still suffering from its legacy of genocide, helping generate millions of dollars for charities.
But activists say Somaly Mam's story is part of a larger tale of deception meant to attract foreign money into impoverished Cambodia. Such duplicity, they say, has drawn some foreign donors into unwittingly perpetuating a system that keeps thousands of poor children with parents in orphanages for years.
Her plea for orphanages are often more intent on making money and too rarely make good on their promises. Sébastien Marot, the director of Friends International, a charity that specializes in helping children in Cambodia and neighboring countries, said the organizations misrepresented themselves as orphanages because it helped them raise money. “An orphanage is an easy sell,” he said. “They are distorting reality so that they can attract more compassion and money.”
Hong Theary, a 22-year-old university student who spent more than four years in an orphanage in Phnom Penh, says she was one of those forced to lie and beg for donations from foreigners, although she comes from what she calls a “happy family” of rice farmers. Her parents sent her to the orphanage thinking she would get better schooling.
“It was a waste of time — I didn’t get anything out of it,” Ms. Theary said of the orphanage, which has since shut down. “The only person who benefited was the owner.” The head of the orphanage instructed her to take on a Canadian couple as “adoptive parents.” “I regret that I did not tell them the truth,” Ms. Theary said of the Canadians, who visited Phnom Penh a number of times and gave financial support that ended up with the orphanage director. “They were always good to me.”
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