by Luca Bolelli
Thi wanted to go home for Christmas, but neither she nor her family could afford the cost of the trip. So her friend Srey On decided to gift her the ticket, despite the fact her salary is barely enough to feed her and her family. The Gospel in the midst of daily poverty, a story told by a PIME missionary.
Kdol Leu (AsiaNews) - Fr Luca Bolelli, 35, from Bologna, Italy, is a PIME missionary who has been in Cambodia for 3 years. At Christmas, he wrote to AsiaNews.
I returned to Cambodia after passing the summer in Italy, intense days where I was able to see so many of you, unfortunately it was not possible to see many others, and for this I am sincerely sorry. I resumed my life Kdol Leu, on the banks of the Mekong River, along with Father Ivan and the people of these lands.
The last few weeks have seen us busy preparing for Christmas. There is a tradition in Leu Kdol of staging the Nativity in front of the church. Villagers from surrounding villages come in large numbers, curious to see the play, though not Christians. Each year the young people prepare some plays and traditional dances for the occasion. It is truly a special feast. Those from our village who left to look for work or study far away try to be present, although 25 December is not a public holiday in Cambodia.
Thi is also among them. Thi is a young Vietnamese girl who has worked for two years here with us at church, helping in household chores and preparing the "bobo" rice for the nursery school children. Then last summer she crowned a dream, when it became possible for her to resume her studies that she had to leave at first grade. Being the eldest of seven children from a very poor family, even as a child, she had to think of them first of all. Now that their situation is a bit 'more stable, here brothers and sisters have all grown, and her parents have allowed her to study for two years with the Salesian Sisters in Battambang, a large city practically on the other side of Cambodia.
A few days before Christmas, Thi called me all happy, "Father, I will be home for Christmas”. I called her mother and together we phoned Thi, but then came the disappointment. Her parents did not have the money to pay for her ticket home from Battambang, plus the rice season has just begun and there are very few riel to spare. "Patience," said Thi "it doesn’t matter." That same evening at dinner and I spoke of what happened to Srey On and Darong [pictured], who know Thi well. Darong also has a very difficult family situation, we helping him as much as possible and it is deeply moving to see the effort he puts into study, especially English, with which he struggles greatly. Srey On took Thi’s job here at the mission. They are very similar: she could not study and so reads and writes with difficulty, but she is a girl of immense sensitivity and her concern for others is truly astonishing. A few weeks ago we decided to increase her salary because she works twice as much as had been originally established, and at home her mother is very ill (her father abandoned them when the children were still small).
Srey On asked me: "How much is a ticket from Battambang?". "About 30 thousand riel (ie, little more than 6 euro)" I replied. She thinks for a moment and then says, "I’ll give Thi money to come home for Christmas." I was amazed. 30 thousand riel is a lot of money, especially here in the countryside. Srey On never spends more than 5 thousand a day on food for herself and her mother, more than half of the raise we had given her. She could have spent it in a thousand other ways, or put it away for a rainy day, but ...
So I called Thi to give her the good news, she thanks us but does not want to come, having thought about it, she feels its too much money. So I pass her to Srey On, they speak together for a few minutes, and in the end Thi tells me: "Father, I’ll come and see you at Christmas." I'm overjoyed, her brothers and sisters can’t wait to see her, none of us can. I remember the act of Srey On, small and insignificant like the widow in the Gospel story, who offers two small coins for the Temple and no one notices except Jesus: "She put more than all the others because she gave everything she has to live on" . She could have kept them, she is poor, she had every right. Instead, she choose to give her money anyway.
Finally Christmas Eve arrived, the young people were ready to stage the Nativity and dances prepared in recent months. A lot of people came this year. Every so often I would scan the crowd to see if Thi had already arrived. But it was already dark, the ferry must have stopped service by now. Where was Thi? Her mother asks me too. I guessed that the bus from Battambang arrived late and she was forced to find shelter for the night, perhaps in Kompong Cham, the capital of our province. Not even Ciuri, one of her sisters who studies with the Salesians in Phnom Penh, is unable to return in time for the celebration. A bad infection in her hand meant she had to remain in Kompong Cham, a "short walk" from home. The evening of the 24, she had to undergo a small emergency operation.
Christmas morning and still no news yet of Thi, strange because transport from Kompong Cham had already been running for some time. After Mass I phone for news of her sister, and who does she pass me? Only Thi! She met Ciuri Christmas Eve in Kompong Cham and decided to stay to keep her company. What a girl Thi, I think to myself, you have not changed. You gave up something that you deeply desired for your sister.
I alert her father and mother who immediately search for a bike to borrow to visit their daughters. Just before sunset the father returns with Thi, her mother has decided to relieve her to take over. The embrace between Thi and Srey On made me think of what I imagine Mary and Elizabeth felt when they were pregnant with Jesus and John the Baptist.