Last night, I attended a screening of a fabulous documentary entitled “Les Pepites” with cultural companion and fellow intern, Nerea. The event was co-hosted by the French and Cambodian Missions at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
This film told the story of a French couple, who fell in love and built a beautiful family. Upon retirement, the husband went to work for a non-profit in Cambodia and shortly after, seeing the needs of the children of that impoverished country, his wife Marie-France joined him to start their own charity.
These children had been abandoned by the world, their country but worst of all by their parents. The film shows the story of life at a dump where everyday small children and teenagers pick through mountains of garbage and toxic waste looking for food and recyclables to sell. The atrocities and abuse that these children endured are overwhelmingly heartbreaking (I prefer not to say how many times I cried looking into those little faces while answering questions about their past abuse.) From being forced into gambling and prostitution at four years old to being beaten with electric wire and burned with hot water by their fathers, mothers, and guardians, it was very painful to listen to.
Christian and his wife single-handedly took these kids out of the dump and build a school from nothing, which has now given new life and opportunity to over 10,000 students. From first grade up to twelfth, and even beyond offering vocational training in cooking, electrical engineering, modeling, film school and more.
Despite the very real and horrific realities depicted here, “Les Pepites” is a true success story of humanitarian aid and could serve as a case study for NGOs and the UN alike. They found a holistic way to incorporate the local environment, cultural values, and real needs while fostering development through building schools and providing rice to families in order to incentivize them to allow children to leave the dump. It shows how even though there is no perfect how-to manual for international sustainable development, when you take a human-centered approach, fostering dignity through both authentic love and education, not only are many lives saved but entire communities.
“Les Pepites,” which translates to ‘Little Gems,’ is a story of following your dreams, family, healing, human dignity and authentic development. My favorite part was when they went back to the dump in the end, which was hardly recognizable at all and had been replaced by rolling green hills.
In America today, it is both easy and popular to criticize humanitarian aid from an academic setting or sitting in a coffee shop presuming that we have all the answers just because we can just Google them from our pocket. After seeing this film, I have a new-found appreciation for any and all efforts directed at alleviating this sort of poverty, both material and spiritual as well as physical and psychological.
It is hard to watch this incredible violation of such innocent and pure humanity, but this is the starting point. From refugees to environmental degradation, all the way to Cambodia for these little gems, we have to open our eyes in order to understand the severity of these issues. No one who watches this documentary will walk away with the feeling of “Oh well, not my problem” the way it is so easy to do today without having had an eye-opening educational experience. But as much as the light hurts our eyes upon emerging from Plato’s allegorical cave, I will never go back into the darkness and I can never be indifferent to the suffering around the world due to political conflict, misallocation of resources, and abuse of life…. Whether it is human life or all biodiversity. We are all called to be #DignityDefenders.
Written and photographed by Flannery McGale, a 2017 batch 1 North America intern.