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And, with a corrupt Ministry of Health, it sure won't heal what ails you either.
PALO ALTO, California — James and Cara Garcia say they just wanted to do some good. She’s a registered nurse, he’s an emergency medical technician, working in South Carolina, and last year they found themselves on vacation in Cambodia, indulging Cara’s new interest in Theravada Buddhism.
Suddenly Cara was seized with the idea of uprooting their lives, moving to Cambodia and opening a health clinic for the poor. Her husband eventually agreed, and without realizing it, they stepped into a drama that proved Joseph Mussomeli’s prophetic warning about the state.
Mussomeli was the United States ambassador to Cambodia from 2005 to 2008. While there, he would tell visitors: “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” In a country where NGO scams are not unknown, the Garcia's story was found to be true.
The Garcias sold most everything they owned, netting about $40,000, and managed to raise another $16,000 in donations. With that they set off for Phnom Penh, hoping to open a clinic and begin treating patients right away.
Altruism is a rare commodity. And while Garcia was telling the truth when he said, “we were just trying to do a good thing,” the couple did have another motivation. Cara had a mental disorder that made it hard to get a job. She was considered disabled. What’s more, six years ago, she was caught, twice, stealing prescription drugs from the pharmacy in a hospital where she worked. The South Carolina State Board of Nursing censured her. Needless to say, all of that made it virtually impossible to get a job. The new venture might give her a fresh start.
Cambodia is a charity state. International donors pay for nearly all of the nation’s social services, and the health minister, Mam Bunheng, spends much of his time ingratiating himself to foreign benefactors. So it was with the Garcias. He gave them permission to open a health clinic in Kampong Thom province.
Using their own money, they began seeing patients, hundreds of them – more than 900 every month. But when they asked the local health-ministry office for the supplies, drugs and medications they needed, the local representative said the warehouse was bare.
“We put in request after request but were always told they had no medications,” Garcia said. Then finally the Garcias happened by the ministry’s local warehouse when the doors were open and saw that it was fully stocked with all the medications they had been requesting. Garcia asked why his requests were turned down but said the warehouse manager told him simply: “None of this is for you.”
Not long after, while Cara Garcia was out for a walk one night, she saw two SUV’s pulled up to the warehouse doors. Two men were filling the vehicles with medications and equipment. When they Garcias asked about this during a local donors’ meeting, they began to broach the second part of their Cambodian adventure, under Mussomeli’s gloomy formula.
Most likely, they were told, the men were carting off the drugs, intending to sell them and keep the money. Across the province, the health ministry operated 19 clinics like the Garcia’s, but most of them were closed; some were boarded up. Three or four were regularly open, though only a few hours a week. That allowed bureaucrats at the health ministry to pocket the salaries of ghost employees – a stratagem with a long, inglorious history in Cambodia. Suddenly, in October, the Garcia’s good intentions ran full force into the ingrained customs of the nation they were trying to help.
Cara Garcia, particularly, did not like it. She raged at government officials, questioned their honesty, blamed them for the deaths of patients the Garcia’s could not properly treat. Cambodian corruption, she kept shouting, was killing little children.
In Cambodia and much of Asia, women just don’t behave have like that. She quickly made several powerful men quite angry. A few nights later, the Garcias said, Cara was walking home from a meeting when several men jumped out of a car, dragged her into a rice paddy, beat and raped her for several hours then left her for dead. She didn’t die, but she was broken.
The Garcia’s went to the police in several locations. All of them were unresponsive. Now the Garcias were radioactive. No one wanted to touch them, proving the maxim that is naive and foolhardy to carry American values to a foreign land and expect everyone to comply.
They began packing up their belongs, and settling accounts – only to discover, Garcia said, that their office assistant had been stealing from them for months.
They had nothing left, “no home, no car, no possessions or belongings except what was in our suitcases,” Garcia said. They had no more money and had to solicit help to get home.
Back in the United States, Garcia reflected on their journey
“We gave all we had,” he recalled. But Cambodia “defeated our spirit” – and broke their hearts.