During the 1970's, the Khmer Rouge set out to destroy the family as an institution in Cambodia. They separated children from their parents; young adults were forced to marry partners selected by the state; and countless fathers were led away and never returned. The state, in it's role as father and mother, enforced order with violence.
That was two generations ago, but dig beneath the surface today and nearly every Cambodian seems to have a heart-wrenching story involving family relationships, including those who grew up after the Khmer Rouge. The problem is no longer what happened 40 years ago, but what is happening today.
We see two prevailing challenges: domestic violence and a shortage of parental care.
What can Alongsider mentors do in the face of such needs? They offer themselves as a go-between, and they come with new ways of thinking and acting.
In last year's impact assessment, half the little brothers and sisters reported receiving help with conflict or discrimination within their family or community. This compared with less than a quarter of similar children without Alongsiders in their communities.
Our research shows that many Alongsider mentors intervene in practical ways in these situations. This is in addition to other important forms of support, such as prayer and encouragement.
Alongsider mentors also introduce new ways of thinking. The most direct way they do this is by using the comic book curriculum.
The stories and images in the comic books portray alternatives to violence and new ways of looking at relationships. But it's not just the comic books that matter, it's also the process of using them that can make a difference.
Alongsider mentors are being trained to read and discuss the stories in the comic books with their little brothers and sisters. Discussion, reflection, and evaluation of conflicts and behaviors is an important discipline for growth in relationships. Simply working through this process together is a learning experience.
Then the lessons contain powerful insights. Forgiveness is revolutionary in any context, but especially in communities where forgiveness is not a cultural value. Even a normal practice, such as saying thank you, can take on new dimensions. Often, Cambodian children are taught to thank people outside their families, but they rarely thank members of their own family. Our story about "Thankfulness" brings expressions of gratitude home to the family.
And the comic books don't necessarily stop at the first reading.
But there are challenges.
Many Alongsider mentors develop good relationships with the families of their little brothers and sisters, but others struggle. As a younger person it can be difficult to communicate with older family members in a hierarchical society. Thus the engagement with families may be limited by cultural dynamics.
Most mentors read and discuss the comic books faithfully and carefully with their little brother or sister, but some struggle to find the time or don't follow the correct process.
These are growth challenges. They shouldn't be surprising in a country where few people reach outside their trusted circles of family and friends, and most people don't read or have discussions about what they've read.
But when Alongsider mentors visit their little brothers and sisters at home and develop relationships with their families, good things happen. We've seen entire families come to faith and behaviors start to change.
The changes we hope to see may take a generation to emerge. But families are the foundation of society. Better to start at the cracked foundation and restore that first.
In the words of famed American social worker and author Virginia Satir, known especially for her innovative approaches to family therapy: