Sunday, 24 February 2008

Fire sad for elderly Cambodians

Saroeuth Neth, president of the Khmer Buddhist Temple, stands in front of the building, which was severely damaged by fire Thursday. (Derek Ruttan, Sun Media)

Sat, February 23, 2008

Khmer Buddhist Temple was a community centre for many who arrived during the '80s.


A blaze that sent scared worshippers out the back door of a London Buddhist temple has left many elderly Cambodians with no place to gather, say community leaders.

For seven years, the Khmer Buddhist Temple has served as sort of community centre for many Cambodians who arrived during the 1980s, but until 2001 worshipped together in a two-bedroom apartment.

"This is very sad. This is a place for our old people," temple president Saroeuth Neth, standing on a wet floor, said yesterday.

"We need a place for them to pray because for me, I speak English. But many of our old people don't. They need a place to pray . . . and just to come to."

As many as 100 of the city's 250 Cambodian Buddhists were expected at the temple today to celebrate Buddha's birthday, he added.

Instead, Thursday night's fire has left the place charred and empty after several community members removed valuables from it yesterday.

"Cambodian hand drums," said Neth, as a man walked by carrying vibrant-coloured instruments on his back. "We are taking out the valuable items."

Firefighters say the blaze started from "unattended worship materials" in front of the temple, a former house at 2489 Fanshawe Park Rd.

Flames quickly engulfed the shrine and porch roof, then spread to the attic and into the front room where people were worshipping.

Neth said people often leave incense and light candles in a designated spot in front of the temple's two-metre Buddha, but that he didn't know what happened to trigger the fire.

Yesterday, the once-gold and magnificent statue brought from southeast Asia was charred black. Inside, vibrant rugs and cushions scattered on the floor were soaked and covered in burnt pieces of wood from the attic.

A monk who has lived at the temple for eight months spent the last two nights at a motel and will do so again.

"I did not sleep at all," said Thearin Ngoy. "This is very sad."

Ngoy was in the building Thursday along with about seven worshippers who noticed flames outside the front window.

"We ran out and saw the fire and then we ran through and out the back," he said.

Bought for $160,000 with community-raised funds, the building could take more than two months to restore, he said.

London's Cambodian community is estimated at about 1,500. Many of the elders arrived with families after fleeing persecution by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

More than 20 years later, community leaders still express a need for a gathering place, especially for senior citizens.

"It is very important to the elders. It is more than just a temple, it is where they go," said Born Heng.

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