If you met Dr. Ratha, DDS, today you might be fooled to think he’s lived a quiet, unassuming, “normal” life. His soft-spoken tone, warm smile, and thoughtful conversation style would lead anyone to think as much. Although his life was stabilized after he was taken in by FCOP at twelve years old, his life before that was a story of survival, separation, and hurt. Ratha himself admits, “I never thought my life could be what it is today.”
Ratha was born into a poor family that lived about 40 miles outside of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. His memory of his early childhood is a combination of his own recollections and stories his family members have told him.
He has very little memory of his father. He’s been told his dad would travel to Phnom Penh and find work as a cyclo-taxi. As was his dad’s habit, he would be gone for weeks and months on end. Ratha recalls that there was not enough money to buy food or clothes, or for his family to have a normal house. Estimating around age 5 or 6, Ratha remembers his mother receiving the devastating news that his father would not be coming back, ever. The news that his dad found another wife and wanted to start a new life, shattered Ratha’s understanding of what a family was. Already struggling financially, trying to survive without his father’s income seemed impossible. With little opportunity to process the pain of rejection from his father leaving, they had to figure out how to make ends meet. To make matters worse, from as early as he can remember, Ratha recalls his mom constantly battling with health issues.
“After trying to get [my father] back, we understood that he would never come back. We were so poor and it was so difficult. My mother had a lot of health issues. I remember clearly about her having a problem with something like asthma. I was too young to know what it was, but I would see her have problems breathing so much so that she was not able to sleep laying down. She had to sit in a chair to relieve pressure in her chest.”
After a period of time of Ratha caring for his mother, he was sent to live with his older sister, who was recently married. Her husband was a fisherman, and although poor also, they had enough to begin to send Ratha to school. He studied until third grade, when his sister’s family no longer had enough money to send him to the public school. Although public school is considered free throughout Cambodia, the requirements of uniforms and fees, along with unofficial bribes to be able to go into the classroom, makes education inaccessible for some.
With basic needs not being met, Ratha, at the age of nine or ten, was in agreement that he needed to go work with his brother in-law to be a fisherman.
“I started working for my brother in law to help provide for our small family. We would fish all night long and sell our fish at the market the next morning, along with vegetables my sister was growing. As I look back on it now, I realize it was a pretty difficult life, but as I lived through it. I was only young enough to do what I was told to do to survive. There were other kids in the village that went to school and I envied them, but I guess I always thought I would be able to go back soon.”
Ratha estimates the year was 1998, a couple months before the New Year of 1999 and about six months prior to his life taking a drastic turn for the better. As was his habit, Ratha came back from fishing all night with his brother in-law. They began to prepare their fish and goods to sell, only to realize there was a special event people were talking about. There were foreign visitors in the village that wanted to share about Jesus with people. As they shared, they had games and entertainment. As they returned day after day, one of the visitors approached Ratha’s family to ask why he wasn’t at school during the normal hours. Over the next couple of weeks and months, Ratha’s family agreed that it would benefit Ratha to be able to go to school and live the life of a normal child. Together with Ratha’s sister, the visitors who had become good friends, discussed the situation of Ratha’s mother and had a few options, but it was eventually agreed there needed to be a parent figure in Ratha’s life that could care for him.
“[The visitors] saw that there were a lot of problems in my life. We didn’t have clothes or beds or enough food sometimes. They asked if my sister would allow me to go live in Phnom Penh at an orphan home and go to school. My sister was hesitant at first because I helped around the house and to fish and sell our goods at the market. As they continued to check up on us in the months that followed, my sister agreed.”
Effort was made to bring Ratha’s mother into the picture as direction for Ratha’s life was discussed. Because her health continued to be an issue, she refused to be involved in any of the decision-making and agreed to let his sister make the decision as long as he wasn’t sent back to live with her.
Ratha was brought to FCOP in 1999, and the caretakers there estimated that he was about 12 years old. He began to live life as an average kid and he recalls it was the first time he ever knew it was normal to eat three times a day. A few months after Ratha’s arrival at FCOP, feeling he was a normal child and apart of a family, Ratha took a test to get into school. Fearing his third grade education had lapsed, he assumed he would have to start again at first grade, being twelve years old. The results from Ratha’s exam revealed he held the equivalent of a seventh grade education.
“I have no way to explain how I became smarter without going to school. I didn’t realize it at the time but I now realize how much I love to learn new things at school. Sometimes school is really hard and I don’t like it, but most of the time I enjoy learning challenging subjects.”
Ratha continued to thrive and grow. He received Jesus into his heart, began leading worship, and excelled at his studies all the way into University, where he began a degree in IT (Information Technology). As he was working in the afternoons as part of FCOP’s administrative staff, he took the opportunity to help out with a team of dentists who had traveled from the USA to help people in Cambodia. Ratha was there to help translate and assist the dentists with anything they needed; however, it was soon discovered that Ratha had quite a gift for picking up skills. Discussions ensued and Ratha was presented with the opportunity to be sent to dental school by FCOP. After Ratha received the news, he enthusiastically prepared to change universities.
“In order to get into dental school we had to take a six-month course with a test at the end. If you pass this test, you’re allowed to go into the first year of dental school. There were 200 students in the class and they informed us only 60 would be accepted. I tried to sit as far as I could in the front of the class and take as many notes as I possibly could. Out of the sixty students that passed I placed 14th. After passing the acceptance test in 2006, I immediately went into my first year of dental school.
I was completely overwhelmed when I went to dental school. Almost every year that I went, I thought there was no way that I could complete the studies. I really believe that God helped me learn the skills and study the books. I know I can say in my heart that I tried as hard as I possibly could.
In 2010 I completed my Bachelors degree of Dental Surgery and two years later (2012) I graduated as a Doctor of Dental Surgery.”
Ratha currently practices dentistry as FCOP’s full time dentist. He has helped provide free medical services for thousands of separated and orphaned children, widows, and others that don’t have access to basic dental care. He also runs a full time dental office in partnership with FCOP, offering medical services at supply cost for surrounding communities.
The concept of family drastically changed for Ratha when he moved into FCOP. He admits that he learned that family can be a healthy thing for the first time.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m so very thankful to my sister and brother in-law for taking me in. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have survived. They helped me survive and FCOP has helped me be healthy in every part of life. With FCOP, I realized for the first time what it meant to be a son and a brother. I even have a beautiful wife, two beautiful daughters, and am helping my little family grow up healthier than I did.”
Through it all, Ratha maintains that God helped him overcome all the difficulties in life. He admits that his life isn’t 100% perfect now. His fear of abandonment from his father leaving and his mother sending him away still sometimes bothers him. Only now, there’s a major difference: the hope of a better future. Part of that future is already being realized and there is confidence that it will continue to get better.
“FCOP has granted me the opportunity to live a life of hope. I can already say I have succeeded, but I also know that this is only the beginning. Like it says in the Bible, with God, all things are possible. Thank you God and thank you FCOP.”