When you see a child begging on the street, what do you think? Perhaps you ponder their plight or wonder if someone is making them beg – or maybe you simply look away. But when I see a kid begging, I’m reminded of my wife.
Savvy wasn’t born into a life of ease and comfort, where she could count on two parents to watch over her as she grew up. Her life started in a rural village in Cambodia. Had she been born a generation sooner, she probably would have stayed there, but the life of a subsistence farmer’s wife was not to be her fate. Savvy was orphaned in the Cambodian Civil War.
Despite the lack of a family and her extreme youth (she was 4 or 5 at the time), Savvy found her way to a refugee camp on the border with Thailand. In order to survive, she started begging for food outside a makeshift restaurant. It was her eloquence and demeanor that caught the attention of a young newlywed refugee couple. Using formal language, she told them that if they could spare a little food or money, she would pray for them at the temple. Touched by her words, the couple decided to “adopt” her. Once again, Savvy’s fate took a drastic turn.
Savvy found herself thrown into a family that had suffered nearly as much loss as she had. The new bride had lost her own parents and five of her siblings. Against all odds, somehow she and her remaining four brothers and sisters had managed to stay together. Since Savvy was around the same age as the youngest brother, her new guardians treated her like a little sister than a child. When the family received refugee status in the USA, Savvy went with them and once again her fate was forever altered.
In America, Savvy overcame a host of challenges: a new language, a new culture, and new rules. When her guardian gave birth to a daughter and then a son, she called upon Savvy to help care for them even though Savvy was but a child herself. There was no choice, since their mother had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Denied the chance of any social life, Savvy excelled at school and earned scholarships for both her undergraduate and graduate studies.
When I met Savvy as an undergraduate at Portland State University, I had no idea about her past and I knew nothing of Cambodia. The more I learned about her, the more I admired her spirit and determination. I had never met a person with their life so planned out; she had so much she wanted to accomplish and she knew what she needed to do to make it happen. Somehow, she found a way to alter the plan to include me.
This June, it will be 20 years, six countries, 12 moves, and three kids since we threw in our lot together. So many unexpected things have happened that it is difficult for me to predict what the next three years will look like – let alone the next 20 – but that will not stop us from planning.
Even now, it always gives me pause to see a child begging for handouts. I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for these children – the most vulnerable in society. What will be their fate? Who will they grow up to become, to love, and to nurture? I can only pray that they are half as fortunate as my beloved.
About the Illustrator: Seventeen-year-old Mike Li is an A-Level art student at Harrow International School Beijing. His illustration is a free sketch in charcoal based on an image of a war orphan he had in his head, with elements of a Cambodian fresco in the background.