Eight years ago, on a bridge in Thailand, the Swiss Hannes Schmid saw a beggar crouching in a corner. When he threw a few coins into the metal box in front of her, she looked at him – and Schmid was startled. The girl’s face was severely burned.
As Hannes Schmid was to find out later, the then thirteen-year-old Khat had been deliberately inflicted with these burns. Khat’s disfigurement served one purpose: to make money. She was mutilated at the age of three and then sold to a professional beggar syndicate. Her disfigured face was supposed to increase the compassion of people who would walk past khat so that they would give her more money – which in turn she would have to pass on to the bosses of her gang. On this day in 2012, Khat was lucky that it was Hannes Schmid who passed her on the Thai bridge.
Schmid’s sympathy went far beyond throwing a few coins. The Swiss smuggled the girl across the border, back to her home country Cambodia. He took Kath to an orphanage there and learned from the director of the home that in Cambodia, the same thing is done to 250 to 300 children every year that was done to Kath. First their faces are mutilated with welding torches, boiling water or acid, then the girls and boys are sold to beggar syndicates.
When Hannes Schmid found out about it, it was the reason for him to change his whole life. The respected photographer – one of Schmid’s most famous motifs is the “Marlboro man” – moved to Cambodia because he wanted to help. He founded his NGO “Smiling Gecko” and first bought the essentials for the children, such as rice or milk powder. Then he wanted to help more long-term, he bought tuktuks with which the children could go to school, he invested in clothing and set up a laundry so that his charges could study in clean school uniforms – in the school, which he also set up.
A few months later, Hannes Schmid decided that it was time to include the people who were really responsible for the children: their parents. He brought the impoverished mothers and fathers of the children from all over Cambodia to his “Smiling Gecko” program, which thus developed into a village. With his help, the families established a number of farms, a pig farm, a chicken farm, a fish farm and a vegetable farm. There is even a noble hotel on the 150 hectare site. “I don’t want to support a single child or a single family,” says Hannes Schmid. “I want to generate economic growth. Because only that is sustainable. “
Schmid’s vision for the future is a “Smart Village” – which can be reproduced throughout Cambodia. Because the country in Southeast Asia imports 80 percent of the products that are sold there from other countries – vegetables, meat, energy. Schmid is convinced that up to 30 percent of the gross domestic product could be replaced by the sale and export of domestic products. “That’s the vision, that’s the idea. If you believe in it, if you work hard on it, then you will do it, ”he says.
And he has already achieved a lot. “Smiling Gecko” now has more than 250 employees. The NGO supplies various hotels, shops and restaurants in the area.
Schmid’s story is the story of a man who radically changed the direction of his life several times. The trained electrician taught himself photography, an art in which he enjoyed great success. At the age of more than 60, he devoted himself to the children in Cambodia, where he is currently fighting, like so many others around the world, against the consequences of the corona pandemic. He has already had to lay off half of his employees, he told the Swiss magazine “Blick” at the end of March. But he continues to pay them half of their wages. “We urgently need donations, even the smallest,” Schmid continued.
Whatever the impact of the pandemic on Schmid’s development project, he has certainly already given a woman a better life. Khat, the begging girl from the bridge in Thailand, is 19 years old today. Her face has been operated on twelve times to date, and she is now able to eat normally again. She was able to go to elementary school and secondary school. Today she studies “Law and Environment” at the University of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Schmid says she chose this course because she wants to change her country.
What trends does Hannes Schmid see for the future? He’ll reveal that at the NewsABC.net Trends Festival and you can find him there experience live.