Intern counsellor used to be a beggar

Intern counsellor used to be a beggar
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Cambodian youth Chhap Longly has dreams not unlike those of other young people.

The 25-year-old psychology student wants to get his degree, further his studies and then become a counsellor helping abused youth.

It would be hard to guess that the first time he stepped into a school was when he was 13.

At age eight, he was trafficked back and forth across the Thai border, where he had to spend hours each day begging like a street urchin.

He was arrested by the Thai authorities and later placed in the care of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Hagar International in his home country, where he was sheltered, fed and given an education.

Yesterday, Mr Chhap, a polio survivor, recounted his harrowing experience at Hagar International's charity golf tournament at the Seletar Country Club.

The Christian NGO organised the fund-raising event for the first time yesterday, raising more than $100,000. It works in countries such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Cambodia, and needs about US$6 million (S$8.2 million) annually to fund its operations, said its executive director Michael Chiam.

In a speech during the event's gala dinner, MP Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) said he came to know of Hagar and Mr Chiam during one of the consultations for the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, which was passed last November.

"It struck me then that this was a man and institution which had selfless motivations in wanting to assist the vulnerable," he said.

In Cambodia, Hagar helps 50 new "clients" such as Mr Chhap each year. A broker had approached Mr Chhap's family in their village and promised comfortable lodgings, three square meals and a monthly income - if his parents would agree to let her take their son to Thailand to beg for a living. His parents, who scraped a living by farming, agreed.

"I had polio, so they thought I would be most suitable for begging," Mr Chhap told The Straits Times. "I was alone and homesick; I kept thinking about my family."

He was too young to remember which Thai city he was in, only that he spent upwards of 12 hours on the streets each day. If he collected too little, he would be whipped with a belt and not given food.

Things are different now, with Mr Chhap living in a foster home with a Hagar staff member and attending university in Phnom Penh.

"Hagar... gave me opportunities and a chance to attend counselling and training. Now I'm an intern counsellor with an NGO."

But Mr Chiam said it is not just victims abroad who need help. The scourge of trafficking is also increasingly a domestic problem, he said.

Hagar recently started a programme in Singapore to help trafficked sex workers. They are given legal support, counselling, life skills training and help with repatriation.

"In Singapore, we are both a destination and transit hub. People can fly in and out easily - you don't have to smuggle them across borders any more," he said.

This article was first published on July 25, 2015.
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