Pana will tell you that he’s 15, but nobody, himself included, knows for certain how old he is, or how he came to be an orphan. Most nights he sleeps at the Buddhist pagoda, but sometimes, for one reason or another, the monks kick him out, and he makes a bed of a hammock at a nearby restaurant or on the back seat of a tuk-tuk. Most mornings he showers under the hose of a nearby hotel, when the staff come out to clean the front patio. He walks to Angkor Wat, 10 kilometers away, where he sells postcards, a pack of 10 for a dollar. If he’s lucky he can make a dollar or two in a day. He buys food with the money, and shares whatever’s left over with a friend. Some days he makes nothing, and goes to bed hungry.
Recently a Swedish couple staying at a nearby hotel befriended Pana and offered to pay the expense for a local family to take him in. Other friends are trying to get him admitted to a local center for homeless children. Reluctantly, Pana makes the first steps toward one of these options. Still, he is scared of the change. He enjoys his freedom. He likes selling postcards. He can weather the cold, foodless nights, and even the occasional beatings from the monks that he claims to be a victim of. What he doesn’t realize is that he cannot do this forever, that his boyhood charm won’t be there to help him sell postcards when he gets older. He is too young, his sphere of experience too small for him to understand that education and the help of a community now will go a long way later in life. Luckily for him, his friends are trying to get him the help he might not know he needs.
Unfortunately, Pana’s story is anything but unique in Cambodia. Decades of civil war and genocide have ravaged the country. The general unrest ended a decade ago, but the harmful effects it unleashed still persist.
Since the 1950s Cambodia has seen colonialism, independence, civil war, genocide, foreign invasion, and more civil war. It weathered the extended effects of the Vietnam/American War, and was victim of a little-known long bombing campaign by the U.S. But by far the saddest point in the country’s tumultuous history came under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmer, a rebel group that gained victory over the presiding Lon Nol government in April of 1975 with the capture of the capital city Phnom Penh and ruled with a bloody fist until the Vietnamese invaded and ousted them in January of 1979. In four short years the Khmer Rouge changed the entire structure of the country.
Their aim was to turn back the clock in Cambodia, to return the country to what they termed Year Zero. Banks were destroyed, currency was eliminated, postal services were dissolved. Cambodia, long considered by much of the Western world as “The Gem of Southeast Asia” and dubbed “The Country of Smiles”, was to exist as Democratic Kampuchea, a wholly self-reliant, staunchly independent and isolationist country, cut off from all ties with its neighbors and the world. The goal was an agrarian society, composed of mindless, uneducated peasants, free of the burden of thought, subservient to the state. The philosophy of the Khmer Rouge was grounded in Maoist doctrine, but the actions the leaders deemed necessary to achieve their stated ends were nothing short of genocidal.
Immediately upon capturing Phnom Penh in April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge commenced a massive population relocation program, transferring the inhabitants of the country’s cities to the countryside. At the same time, anyone deemed to be a threat to the new order was removed from society. First targeted were those involved with the deposed Lon Nol government and military. Next The Khmer Rouge targeted the rest of the educated and the skilled classes, rounding up the country’s teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people, artists, intellectuals, tradesmen of all sorts, even monks. Over the course of the next five years, these people were imprisoned, tortured and executed in what can arguably be called the most brutal cleansing program the world has ever seen.
It is thought that at least two million people died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, nearly a quarter of the population at the time. Execution was not the only form of death. Everyone, from children to the elderly, was made to work in the fields, for up to fifteen hours a day. They were fed two meals a day, usually a watered-down rice porridge. Any disobedience was met with immediate execution. Many simply died from the starvation and exhaustion caused by this food rationing and slave labor. Disease ran rampant, and malaria and dysentery killed countless more. One man, a taxi driver in Siem Reap, told me that his family lost four members during the five years of the Khmer Rouge, unable to cope with the famine and fatigue their bodies were forced to endure. He spoke of working in the fields as a child, and of often passing dead bodies lying on the side of the road on his way to and from work. Another man, a cyclo (bicycle taxi) driver in Phnom Penh, spoke of losing his entire family. Stories like this are tragically common in Cambodia.
Everyone suffered under the Khmer Rouge. Thousands were dislocated from their families; many families were wiped out altogether. The whole fabric of Khmer society was shredded. When the regime finally came to an end with the invasion of the Vietnamese army in 1979, the country was in a state of horrified chaos. The saddest point in Cambodian history was over, but the resultant tragic effects were to persist for a long time after.
Widespread famine followed the Vietnamese invasion. Very little rice was planted in 1979 due to the chaos engulfing the country. Crops previously planted and tended were left un-harvested, and rice stocks were destroyed by both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, both sides fearful that they would become a food source for the other.
Landmines dotted the countryside, greatly restricting the useable area of farmland. It is estimated that up to ten million unexploded landmines remain in Cambodia to this day (most planted by the United States during the Vietnam War). 45,000 Cambodians have been disabled as a result of leftover land mines. Land mines are so prevalent in the country that some people have even been known to use them for fishing.
Continued fighting between the two sides, that would last for nearly twenty years, forced many rural Khmers off of their land and into the cities. For some this was a return to their former lives, but for most this meant leaving behind their homes and their traditional way of life.
Meanwhile, corruption was common, sadly seen by many as an acceptable means of making a living. The rich grew richer, the poor even poorer. The price of basic necessities, such as petrol, was much higher than in other countries of the region. The infrastructure was in shambles, and the lack of reliable public transport made traveling difficult and expensive. The country was further handicapped by the vacuum left in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, the absence of those skilled citizens most capable of setting in motion the means and methods of improvement.
PART OF THE SOLUTION
Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989, but skirmishes between the ousted Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Army continued until the death of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge “Brother Number One”, in 1998. With the relative peace of the last ten years Cambodia has come a long way. But the country is still terribly plagued by all of the problems that its sad history gave rise to, among them poverty, homelessness, disease and disability.
Despite the ease with which we might dwell on the horrors of the past and the difficulties still shared by many Cambodians, it seems to me that the most positive angle from which to view the tragedies that have befallen the nation in the past is to examine the number and range of all of the community aid organizations working within the country today to aid and empower the citizens and to help the country get back on its feet. There are many governmental organizations, among them UNICEF, UNESCO, AusAid, NZAid, and the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, that give aid and carry out many ongoing projects in the country.
UNICEF and ECHO (the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office) have partnered on projects undertaken in concert with the Cambodian government and local communities, with the overall aim being to strengthen general health in the country, with a focus on child survival rates. Cambodia currently suffers from the highest child mortality rate in Southeast Asia. Most deaths are preventable, a result of malnutrition, diseases like malaria and dengue fever, acute respiratory infection, and dysentery. Accidental deaths are common as well. Nearly ten percent of infants die before the age of one. Fourteen percent of children born die before the age of five. Forty-five percent of children suffer from malnutrition.
UNICEF states that: ”a key part of preventing child deaths and improving survival is providing access to clean water and sanitation facilities“. To this end, they are working on the drilling of more than 400 wells in rural villages and schools this year, offering community hygiene classes, and installing latrines in and around schools.
The partnership is also active in the arena of health care, making monthly visits to small villages to vaccinate children against preventable diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, diptheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, and Hepatitis B, as well as providing Vitamin A supplements to boost children’s immune systems and deworming tablets to kill intestinal worms. Expecting mothers are also given prenatal checkups.
There are numerous NGOs working in Cambodia as well, some working with or receiving funding from governmental organizations and many others functioning independently. At this time there are more NGOs operating in Cambodia than in any other country in the world, tackling a range of projects that benefit Cambodian individuals and communities in need. Below are just a few of the many examples.
A group called Nyemo operates several stores in Phnom Penh, with the focus on quality silk and other handicrafts, The group promotes fair trade practices and decent wages, and aims to increase employment opportunities in remote areas by training local women in the art of Khmer silk weaving and other craft production. Nyemo also runs a drop-in center and counseling house for abandoned women and their children, particularly those affected by AIDS. In addition to its stores and other services, Nyemo runs a restaurant, the proceeds from which help disadvantaged women re-enter the workforce.
The National Center for Disabled Persons also aims to improve employment opportunities for disabled Cambodians, facilitating community research, referral, and rehabilitation programs. The NCDP operates a retail outlet, a café, and an exhibition area to generate income, as well as other facilities, including a research center and a conference hall.
Wat Than Handicrafts, Colours of Cambodia, Khemera, and Rajana all have shops selling many locally made products, again with the emphasis being on fine Khmer silk. Proceeds from Wat Than go to help landmine and polio victims. Many of the products at Colours of Cambodia are made by disabled Cambodians with a range of afflictions, from blindness to HIV infection. Tabitha also operates a store selling locally made products, and funnels its profits into rural community development, enabling projects such as well drilling.
The Starfish Project, based in Sihanoukville, provides individualized, one-on-one assistance to people in need in the community, in areas of medical care, housing assistance, and employment opportunities, the overall aim being to support ”disadvantaged Cambodians who have fallen upon hard times”. Income generated from The Starfish Bakery covers all of the overhead and administrative costs of running the organization, making it possible to put all of the proceeds from donations directly into the aid programs.
And then there is the whole sub-group of blind massage. An outfit called Seeing Hands trains and employs visually-impaired massage therapists, and currently has five locations spread throughout Cambodia. The therapists specialize in Shiatsu and I, for one, can attest to their skill. Similar businesses also operate in the larger towns.
Small outfits have sprung up to help less-obviously disadvantaged Cambodians. Take, for instance, the situation of Phnom Penh’s cyclo (rickshaw) drivers. Many of these drivers have come to the capital city to make money to send home to their families. Their average income is around one to two dollars a day, about half of which goes to food, and the rest of which goes to their families. Most spend the night tucked into their cyclos in compact groups congregated on street corners throughout the city. A “Cyclo Center” has recently opened in Phnom Penh, offering a safe house for cyclo drivers, a place where they can take showers, get a haircut, receive basic language training, get medical attention, even deposit their savings for safe-keeping until they can take them home. This is an invaluable service, as cyclo drivers are increasingly the victims of theft at the hand of muggers in Phnom Penh.
It seems that everywhere you look in Cambodia there are groups working to combat the ills from which the country suffers. However, it should be noted that any gains made are not solely due to the efforts of these groups. The strongest combatants in this battle are those Cambodians who are themselves in need. Even after all of the death and hardship of the last fifty years, the spirit of the country and of its people remains indomitable. Cambodians embody a resilience and strength that are just unfathomable. The country’s inhabitants have long been known for their innate friendliness. And to this day, a smile is the strongest currency found on the street. The children, especially, are full of them.
THE CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA
Tonight I came upon a group of children who had formed an impromptu drum circle on the sidewalk near my hotel. One kid drummed on a 5 gallon bucket, another clacked two pieces of metal together, and a third did most of the singing and rapping. I have no idea what he was singing about, but he got some good laughs from the gathered crowd of Khmer adults. The children of Cambodia are nothing if not resourceful. One girl was especially taken with my small video camera, and laughed as she pawed it, turning it off and on, trying to control it any way she could. These are kids who have probably never held, much less owned, a video camera, or any camera, for that matter. These are kids who probably didn’t have any toys growing up. However, this is surely the least of their worries.
The children of Cambodia face an uphill battle. It can be argued that they are the ones who have suffered the most from the Cambodian tragedy. Although they were not yet alive when the most overt horrors were inflicted, they still suffer from the far-reaching effects, many having inherited, upon their birth, the lasting legacy of disease and poverty.
Based on the results of a 2001 survey, the NGO Mith Samlanh estimated at the time that there were at least 1,200 homeless children living alone in the capital city of Phnom Penh on any given day. Over 30,000 children under the age of fifteen have been orphaned due to the death of their parents from AIDS alone.
Where once the larger family unit and the community might have absorbed orphaned children, today many have no one to turn to and are forced to go it alone. Many others, not orphaned per se, lose contact with their families, with the end result being much the same as those actually orphaned.
Many more children live in poverty with their families. The same survey done by Mith Samlanh found upwards of 20,000 children who spent most of their time working on the streets to provide for themselves and for their families. Children are often the primary bread-winners for their families, and the work ranges from selling postcards, books, scarves, or souvenirs, to shining shoes or hawking newspapers.
Child prostitution is a sad reality here as well, and there are stories of children being sold into prostitution and other forms of indentured servitude by their own parents, desperate for money and unsure of how to feed even one more mouth.
THE GLOBAL CHILD
“All around the world, children are the first to suffer, and the last to get help,” remarks Alan Scott-Moncreieff, founder of The Global Child School in Phnom Penh. “Everywhere I have been I have seen the same smart, charismatic children living on the streets, looking for an education but not being able to afford one.”
Scott-Moncrieff started the Global Child School (or, TGC) in 2004. His background was in the arts and documentary film. Finding that his films weren’t affecting the kind of change he was hoping for, and feeling that he was, in large part, preaching to the converted, he decided to take direct action. His plan is to open ten schools in ten war-torn countries in ten years. It is an ambitious project, no doubt, and right now all of his energies are focused on the first school, in Cambodia. He considers this country to be the toughest challenge, due to the fact that it has had to start from scratch.
When he first came to Cambodia, Scott-Moncrief found the requisite materials for a good education to be sorely lacking. First, there were fewer than 300 teachers left in the country after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown. Most had been killed or had fled the country. Scott-Moncrief was able to sufficiently staff his own small school, but what of the rest of the country? Second, teaching materials were either nonexistent or terribly outdated. Scott-Montcrief couldn’t find a single geography textbook for younger students. When he brought some back from the United States, he learned from his hired teachers that the books were better than those the teachers had used in university-level classes. Third, while primary education is somewhat standard for Cambodian children, secondary education is not. Secondary school enrollment sits at around 15%, while actual attendance figures are much lower. Availability (or lack thereof) of teachers and resources are two of the main reasons that, for most Cambodian children, what formal education they receive ends at a very young age.
Just getting children into The Global Child School in the first place was a challenge that required a creative approach. Many families are dependent upon the money brought in by their kids to survive. As the average wage for a child on the streets of Phnom Penh is a dollar a day, Scott-Moncrief decided to subsidize their schooling by awarding each child one dollar per day attended. In this way both the children and their families could benefit from their schooling in an immediately tangible way in the short term.
The funding for the school is drawn from private donors, as well as the moneys generated from the café, clothing boutique, and salon that TGC operates on the ground floor of the school building. 100% of the proceeds gained from these ventures go directly into the school. Scott-Montrcrief has also taken a rather creative approach to fund-raising. Recently he completed a sponsored 9,000 mile motorcycle trip around the United States, raising around 20,000 in the process. He also has plans to return to his former profession of film-making, to shoot and show locally a Khmer drama to further raise funds for the school. In the end, though, as the website notes, “the ultimate objective is to enable the School to become a largely self-funding entity that is minimally reliant on outside sources of financial sponsorship”, to ensure that it can function independently in perpetuity.
Today the school counts twenty-five children among its students, aged 8 to 16, “selected from a large population of street-working children who collect[ed] recyclable garbage, [sold] books, flowers, snacks, beg[ged] in principal tourist areas or who [were] otherwise unsuitably employed . . . the initial intention [was] to remove them from the street and the belittling existence of being the lowest class citizen, to protect them from ‘crossing the line’ into prostitution, drug addiction and crime, and to instill them with a sense of hope and opportunity”. These are kids who otherwise would have had little chance of an education, due to their poverty or the necessity to work in order for their families to be able to afford to eat.
Teachers for the school were selected by Scott-Montcrief from among the top graduates of local universities. All are at least bilingual, with a proficiency in English and Khmer. TGC has one teacher for about every three students, and has found that this 1:3 ratio, along with a capped student body of 25, has been instrumental in the school’s efficientcy, effectiveness, and its success thus far. Scott-Moncrieff comments, “We believe there is a perfect balance that must be met if a school is to achieve a successful educational program that caters to each and every one of its students... We hope that by remaining small and focused we will achieve a cost-effective and efficient method of educating highly-demanding, charismatic children in need of a real challenge.” In other words, by remaining small, the school can function with little waste of finances, resources, and energy, and will be more capable of achieving its goal of a 100% success rate, graduating every single student into gainful and meaningful employment.
Once the first group of students and the right staff were selected, the next step was to assess the children and their families to make sure they would make the most of the opportunity afforded them by acceptance into the school. Once passed, each child was assigned a desk, a uniform, notebooks, pens, pencils, and a school bag. Students received immediate health care in the form of blood tests, immunizations, and any necessary treatment for maladies such as lice and malnutrition. Three balanced and nutritious meals and any necessary additional supplements are a cornerstone of the school’s daily schedule. Dental care is also provided to those in need.
Finally, each child was offered a spot in the school’s safe house; the decision of whether or not to utilize this facility was left up to the children and their parents. Those who choose to remain at home or in another safe house are guaranteed safe transport. Older children are lent bicycles to use for the commute; younger children ride to and from school in tuk-tuks.
The students attend TGC nine hours a day, six days a week. Subjects taught include English, Khmer, Math, World History, World Geography, Social Studies, Culture, Computer Studies, Debating, and Ethics & Manners (taught by visiting Buddhist monks). It takes six months for students to complete each grade. Creative Arts also play a large part in the TGC curriculum, with classes ranging from drama and dance (both classical and folk) to painting and guitar. Karate, or a similar martial art, is also required for all students. In past tournaments the students have done exceptionally well.
In addition to the above subjects, the education of the students is supplemented with vital life skills necessary for surviving in Cambodia and in the world today. Sex education is taught to students over the age of twelve, with an emphasis on HIV prevention and birth control. In the country that has the highest rate of HIV infection in Southeast Asia, this supplemental education is very important indeed.
In its commitment to giving the children a well-rounded schooling based in the integration of education with other facets of life, TGC makes every attempt to engage the students and to pique their interest. Kids being kids, it is vital to include some fun activities in the curriculum. One day a week, Saturday, is given over to extra-curricular activities. Karate in the morning, followed by outings in the afternoon. The children visit various cultural sites, museums, even roller skating rinks, or go on boat trips or to the beach.
The Global Child stresses the importance of community to its students. “Emphasis is placed on encouraging students to remain in, and help maintain and improve their country”. Children are required to perform community service, in the form of at least one charitable act done for a neighbor each week, with no monetary compensation. The children are then required to write a report on their service. Those not able to write yet illustrate their act in drawings. Scott-Moncrief believes there is a three-fold benefit return on the community service, “in teaching students to give back from what they are receiving, to impress on the local community the beneficience of TGC students, and to set the dye for a future in selflessly assisting their country via a humanitarian outlook”.
This last effect is of primary importance in the TGC philosophy. From the first day of enrollment, TGC children are taught that they will be expected to give back to their community in a proactive humanitarian capacity upon graduation, in a manner Scott-Moncrief has named “Occupational Philanthropy”. “[They] were told upon enrolling that the purpose for their having been selected was to combat poverty and ignorance in their own country . . . Each of them was to receive the ultimate schooling and nurturing but would be expected to help 100 of their own people in return when they finally graduated . . . if they had no desire for such ambitions then they were free to leave.”
It is vital that the students understand their country within the larger context of the region and the (especially Western) world. “TGC students must necessarily adopt critical aspects of modernity in order that they may be optimally employable and entrepreneurial.” Each child also has a Pen Pal Rainbow Sponsor, a program that helps subsidize their education and further demystifies foreign cultures.
Both students and teachers are held to very high standards. Students are assessed weekly by each of their teachers, “to determine progress in every academic skill, sport and art subject as well as to determine mental, emotional, and physical health”. Students are also asked for their own opinions on each class. Guest teachers that are found to be ineffectual, uninspiring, unchallenging, or lacking in some other crucial capacity are let go. Students are also encouraged to speak openly about their home lives and any issues bothering them, so as to “protect them from potentially abusive situations and gauge performance against domestic stability”. Examinations on each subject are held monthly. Classes are geared toward the highest achievers, and those who seem to be falling behind are given tutoring so that they can meet the challenge set by the high standards.
This level of student involvement goes even further at the Global Child. The students make up their own rules for the classroom (within reasonable limits) and are made to strictly adhere to them. Students receive credits for following the rules and debits for breaking them. The student with the most credits at the end of each month is rewarded.
Students at the Global Child are required to take their education into their own hands, as well as that of their peers. Under what the school has termed the “learn-teach” method, the children are required not only to learn the material, but also to be teachers themselves. For instance, a grade 2 student will teach a grade 1 student for one session of each school day. In this way the information is embedded and better learned. Every child’s learning process becomes the concern of the entire school community. This system is just one link in the chain of the community ethos that is central to the TGC philosophy.
As aforementioned, the teachers are also subject to weekly evaluations, assessed by their students and by their peers. Teachers are asked to stay abreast of current affairs, are expected to be familiar with the latest local and international teaching techniques, and are measured against the yard-stick of “comparable progressive schooling procedures underway in the U.K., the U.S., and Europe”. In short, they are asked to always be learning and improving their methods. The staff is also required to attend weekly behavioral management courses and there are weekly discussion groups held on the progress of the students. Through this rigorous system of constant evaluation and communication the school is ever-changing and improving, thus ”TGC evolves on a weekly basis.“
This model of such a rigorous education gives the children the tools they will need when they graduate and start looking for employment. The challenging atmosphere instills in them the independence, discipline, and work ethic necessary for them to have the intended effect in their communities and their country.
At the same time, the standards to which the teachers are held to makes good of the promise, the intention, to create a self-sufficiency on the part of Cambodians, so that in the future schools such as the Global Child can function successfully on their own, can multiply, and can set a new standard of excellence in education geared toward fostering a higher standard of living for all Khmers.
OTHER NGOs WITH A SHARED VISION
Examine any NGO operating in Cambodia today, and you will find this goal of working toward future Cambodian self-reliance to be one of the pillars of their stated mission.
The Green Gecko Project, operating a safe house and programs for street children in Siem Reap, states on its website its intention “to provide a long-term, locally managed and staffed safe place” for children.
Mith Samlanh, another NGO working with street children in Phnom Penh, lists as Point 3 in its Mission Statement, “building the capacity of the staff so that the Cambodian nationals are able to run the program independent of foreign intervention in the near future”.
All of these programs exist to empower Cambodians to help themselves, whether they be teachers or students, those giving aid, or those receiving it. The hope is that some day in the near future, more Khmers will command the skills and resources to do both.
GREEN GECKO PROJECT
The Green Gecko Project functions on a belief similar to that at the core of The Global Child, as they state:”that every child has the right to a childhood, the right to be protected and nurtured”. They offer a place where children can come to get off the streets and to take a break from begging. Though not as rigidly structured as TGC, the group provides a vital resource for the community. “At Green Gecko, the children can eat a hot lunch, attend an English class, feel secure, play, get a hug, put their pictures up on the wall, have a shower, get their hair combed, nails cut, brush their teeth and receive medical attention. They can attend fun excursions and receive the chance to expand their interests and knowledge of new subjects, by participating (somewhat enthusiastically) in dance, art and craft, drama, photography, gymnastics and performance classes”.
The project provides services for up to 50 local kids a day. Those who are able to might spend most of the day at the Green Gecko. Others might only make use of some of the wide variety of services on hand.
The Green Gecko offers some of its own classes, primarily in the English and Khmer languages, but also in areas of health, hygiene, and sanitation; drug, sex, and HIV education and awareness; and family planning. Monks from a nearby monastery also give lessons on Buddhism, morality, and culture.
The Green Gecko also supports the entrance and/or reintroduction of children into the more formal public school system. Families are offered support and assistance for community reintegration. Children are given one balanced, nutritious meal a day. Health care is provided, including medical screenings and treatment and psychiatric counseling to those in need. Skill development and guidance are provided to children in the hope that they might stop begging and pursue a vocation. Children and families are encouraged to set up micro-businesses, so that they might have a service to offer in lieu of begging. Such micro-businesses might include food and drink stands, book carts, or the selling of other wares.
The Green Gecko, just like The Global Child, makes Saturday a day of fun and outings, taking kids on excursions to local sights such as the nearby temples, thus allowing them a window into places they might not otherwise see.
Yet the most fun activity offered at the Green Gecko has to be Circus Gecko. Children are taught circus skills such as juggling and acrobatics, and behind-the-scenes skills like make-up application and costume selection. The hope is not just to have them doing somersaults and back-flips, but to “eventually provide the children with an opportunity to earn a more favorable source of income by entertaining Siem Reap’s tourists”.
One of the biggest challenges The Green Gecko has faced is similar to one that initially confronted The Global Child: just getting kids in the door. Families dependent on a child’s income for survival have a hard time seeing the long-term good done a child, and thus the entire family, by their learning to read and write, or learning a new language, or, on a larger scale, opening their eyes to an entirely different paradigm of vocational initiative.
Yet once the initial hurdles are cleared, and parents sign off on their children’s involvement, it is obvious that the program offers the community innumerable benefits. Some of the things already achieved by the program include increased attendance and parental approval, increased preparation by kids for entrance and/or return to public school or classes at a language center, the housing of a homeless family and a notable decreases in child beatings.
Mith Samlanh means “friends” in Khmer. The NGO, based in Phnom Penh, operates many programs for the benefit of street children, on a rather large scale when compared to The Global Child or The Green Gecko Project.
The group began with the efforts of three expatriates, Sebastian Marot, Barbara Adams, and Mark Turgesen. They each began, separately, feeding kids on the streets of Phnom Penh. When the three eventually met each other, and realized they were effectively providing the kids with 6 square meals a day, they wondered if maybe they were enabling the children to maintain the street lifestyle they were growing accustomed to. The three decided to join together to form an organization that would constructively address the root causes of the problems the children faced, rather than exacerbating the situation through disenabling handouts.
Today Mith Samlanh/Friends (herein referred to as Friends) runs 12 centers spread out across three provinces in Cambodia, as well as regional programs in neighboring Laos and Thailand, and another in Pakistan. The Cambodian branch employs 201 Khmer staff and 7 expatriates, providing services for approximately 1,600 children a day.
The focus of Friends is to care for street children in whatever capacity their situation requires, to meet their immediate essential needs while preparing them for a more promising future. Friends aims to, when possible, reintegrate children with their parents, if they have them, and work to better the living conditions of the entire family unit. The group works to place students in school and better work positions, in essence, to reintegrate them with productive society.
First and foremost of the group’s functioning principles are the Rights of the Child: the Rights to Life, Development, Protection, and Participation. Part and parcel of these rights is the need to provide a safe and caring environment, a foundation, if you will, for the children to be able to realize for themselves a more wholesome lifestyle. Within the Friends network there are many programs that serve to meet the children’s needs.
First, there is the Prevention program, working to keep kids off the street in the first place. Then there is the Outreach program, literally reaching out, day and night, to kids in the street, and trying to present them with an alternative. The Outreach team provides children, sadly many of them already involved with drugs and/or prostitution, with life skills information on drug abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. It offers them a window into the many alternatives available to them, urging the kids to find less harmful work.
Friends operates a Boarding House for those in need of a place to rest but not yet ready to commit to other “traditional” centers. Medical care is given to those in need, and counseling is available for all. Those ready to take the next step can transfer to the Transitional Home.
Every child who is part of any Friends program receives basic training in what Friends calls Peer Education. Those who show the most interest receive further training. Groups pick a media (puppet shows, games, dance shows, posters, etc.) and a theme (e.g. HIV/AIDS, drugs, reproductive health, hygiene, nutrition, etc.), and work to develop educational material to share with their peers – children in the streets, in squatter communities, in the Friends center, and in other NGO facilities. Those kids who really take to this can go on to become Trainees, and maybe one day even Friends staff. At the time of this writing Friends was working with fifty-five in-center Peer Educators, had seven former Educators who had become Trainees and six more who had become full-time staff members.
Along with its Peer Education program, Friends offers many other avenues for vocational training and employment for kids over the age of 14. Some of its many programs include instruction in car and motorcycle maintenance and repair, farming, and laundry services.
Friends operates a number of businesses that both support their programs and act as an environment for the children to learn hands-on skills of entrepreneurship, business and finance management, customer relations, and marketing.
Former street children staff the Friends n’ Stuff shop in Phnom Penh, which sells goods designed and produced by students in sewing and welding training, including clothing, lamps, and cushions. Donations of old goods are accepted, repaired by students in mechanics, electronics, and electricity training, and sold back to the community. The Nailbar is also located inside the Friends n’ Stuff shop, offering children beauty training.
Next door to Friends n’ Stuff is the Friends restaurant, where former street children receive restaurant training and are rewarded with an income. All profits generated are funneled back into Friends programs. The group operates two other restaurants in the Phnom Penh area as well, Romdeng and Le Café du Centre.
Programs are increasingly being implemented in other countries. Recently Friends has offered programs on photography and drama for street children in Laos.
In an effort to strengthen its impact and to engage the community in the task of protecting and aiding street children, Friends started an initiative in Cambodia called the Childsafe Network. The network includes people such as tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers; hotel, restaurant, and internet cafe owners and employees; shopkeepers, basically anyone in a position to help protect minors from sexual abuse, illegal drugs, and prostitution. Child protection skills training is offered to those who want to become involved. Candidates are carefully screened, selected, trained, tested, and monitored to make sure that their actions live up to the Childsafe policies. Graduates of the training receive a diploma co-signed by Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism. Stickers, patches, and clothing with the widely recognized Childsafe logo are given to the drivers and businesses to advertise their involvement in the Childsafe program, and locals and tourists alike are encouraged to support them. Childsafe also operates a hotline accessible via telephone and the internet, whereby people can anonymously report cases of child sex abuse.
ECOLE PAUL DUBRULE
The Childsafe training has become a key part of the curriculum in several hospitality and tourism schools, of which The Paul Dubrule School (Ecole Paul Dubrule, or EPD) in Siem Reap is one example. The school, started in 2002 by the co-founder of the Accor Hotel Group, trains its students (more than half of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of them former street children) for careers in the hospitality and tourism industries. The school banks on the growing influx of up-market tourists to hotspots such as Angkor Wat as a means of creating a viable and sustainable tourism market, and aims to take advantage of this trend to better the standard of living for Cambodians. Students of Ecole Paul Dubrule have enjoyed a 100% success rate in finding employment after graduation.
Science of Life Systems, or SOLS 24/7 for short (also known as Leadership Character Development Institute, or LCDI), also works to improve opportunities for young Cambodians through its boarding and training programs. SOLS 24/7 has become the largest non-formal education provider in Cambodia, offering two-year intensive training programs for 2,500 students a year at its 23 provincial centers, boasting 22,000 former graduates, all of whom found employment in “public, private, and the social sector”. Forty past graduates currently run the project, with support from the founders.
The organization, whose stated vision is “to develop underprivileged youth to become skilled, responsible, dynamic, disciplined, and socially conscious” offers training programs in such areas as leadership and character building, academic and livelihood skills, and lessons on social consciousness and active citizenry. SOLS 24/7 has similar programs under development in Vietnam, Laos, and East Timor.
SOLS 24/7 is an active member of its communities, providing basic social services such as medicine, food, clothing to inhabitants in the towns and villages surrounding its facilities, as well as offering public awareness programs.
MUSIC, ARTS, AND SPORT
Some groups focus substantial effort on enriching the lives of Cambodia’s children through programs in the arts and other recreational activities. The Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children is located in the small river-side town of Kampot, 145 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh. The staff of fifteen Khmers and the British founder and director provide food, clothing, medical care, counseling, and schooling for about 100 children, including about thirty-five orphaned and abandoned children who reside at the school’s boarding house full-time. Beyond an academic education, the school also offers classes in traditional Khmer music and dance, offering the children a chance to pursue and practice their native arts while at the same time garnering an income.
The Starfish Football Federation was born of a partnership between the FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club), a popular hotel and restaurant in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian Football Federation. The program aims to allow poor and disadvantaged Cambodian kids to learn from the pros. Since its launch in April 2006 the program has enrolled 450 orphans, foster children, and street kids and outfitted them with cleats and uniforms. The children learn basic skills before going on to play in matches and tournaments. The hope is that the benefits derived from the experience will extend into other facets of the children’s lives, instilling their daily activities with the discipline, hard work, and cooperation learned on the field.
In January 2000, a small group of expatriate rugby players brought the sport to the kids of Cambodia. The first flock of players was culled from a group of homeless children working with an NGO called Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (For a Child’s Smile). It wasn’t long before the Secretary General of UNESCO took note of the children’s enthusiasm for the game and suggested that the program be more widely implemented in the country. Today children as young as six years old, from a variety of backgrounds and from several Cambodian provinces, have the opportunity to play competitively. The Cambodian Federation of Rugby is currently working on establishing international youth tournaments with other Southeast Asian nations.
What conclusions can be drawn from the story of Cambodia? For one, the work taking place in the country today serves as testament to the old adage that, to paraphrase, a small group of dedicated people can truly affect meaningful and measurable change. We might focus on how Cambodia came to be in its present situation, and take with us the lesson of what happens when misguided zealotry is allowed to run rampant. Really, we can draw any number of valid conclusions from the story of Cambodia, but the follow-up question naturally posed by the above answers, and I believe, the most important question is: what can we do to help?
Well, for starters, we must educate ourselves and others about the situations that give rise to such sad events as the reign of the Khmer Rouge. There are countries all over the world suffering from the effects of oppressive dictatorships, some engaged, at this very moment, in ethnic cleansing and genocide. We must not relegate these stories to the past and allow present horrors to play out unchecked. We have the power to stop today’s events from becoming tragic bookmarks in the annals of history.
Much research can be done by the interested on the organizations named herein. There are many aspects of their work that have gone unmentioned due to restraints imposed by demands of brevity and simplicity, or simply as oversight on my part. I urge you to learn more about them and the full range of programs they offer. Further studies on Cambodia and other countries are easily conducted as well.
Along similar lines as those of better educating ourselves and our communities, it is imperative that we act with all consciousness and conscience when it comes to commerce and tourism. With all of the buying power commanded by the wealthier nations, we are well able to exert an influence over how workers are treated and paid, especially in the poorest countries. It is of the utmost importance that we support companies and countries that promote and exercise fair trade practices. We can no longer ignore the exploitation of voiceless victims in faraway countries.
We must recognize that slavery is, sadly, still very much a reality in many parts of the world, even in the 21st century. Every day children are sold into slavery, many in the form of forced prostitution. We cannot ignore this. There are groups all over the world working to end slavery and child sex rings. Get involved. Check out the more established and vocal groups like Amnesty International, and see what you can do to help. Give money, time, or even just write letters. The abolition of such activities should be a top priority of our foreign affairs agenda. True, the United States doesn’t have the most gleaming human rights record, but as we evolve, we must bring the rest of the world with us.
We must work to ban the production and use of landmines in warfare. These archaic and atrocious weapons are indiscriminate in their targeting, most victimizing the innocent long after the struggles they were deployed for are long finished. They cause unnecessary and heedless death and injury, and only add to countless hardships for millions. The United States is one of 40 countries that have yet to sign the 1997 Treaty to Ban Landmines. 153 countries have already signed, and it is imperative that we join them in their efforts. Please don’t misread my emphasis on landmines as support for other kinds of weaponry. There is no such thing as a good weapon. They should all be melted down and turned into toys. But landmines are a good place to start.
In a similar vein, we must push for an end to meaningless wars. Again, war is an abomination, but as the Second World War stands testament to, some wars must be fought. However, the Korean War, the American/Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq highlight the tendency of the United States to rush off to war as a reaction to a vague threat or in defense of an ideology. The vague threats often fail to materialize as anything more than a mild headache in the best case scenario and pure falsity in the worst. Is the world any worse off for the existence of a Socialist Republic of Vietnam? It’s harder to argue the case of North Korea, but you get the point. It is not up to us to dictate the nature of governments outside of our own. Hollow theories and scare tactics have forced us into many a battle that could not be won and should not have been staged in the first place. You cannot fight a philosophy.
As far as justifications for war go, we must bear in mind before we go off to fight for such an elusive notion as freedom the cost in that much more tangible, measurable, and all-important asset, life itself. How many lives can we justify taking and giving in defense of an idea? It is impossible to gauge the effects our military actions might have on the countries upon which they inflicted and within which they are staged. The fallout incurred in neighboring countries and the world at large are equally incalculable. As our vulgar mistreatment of the people of Cambodia, and the ease with which our history books glaze over the loss of life and standard of life suffered by the country as a result, show, we are capable of gross negligence of the value of human life. Despite all of our protests to the contrary, we must all be held accountable for the egregious errors executed by our leaders and the powers and resources at their command. It is too easy to use the excuse that they were not our decisions to make. We have the capability, starting right now, to do everything in our power to ensure that such tragedies do not unfold as tragically in the future.
In the case of Cambodia, there is much that each of us can do to help. The most obvious way is to visit the country and see it for yourself. The country relies on tourist dollars. Every day spent by a tourist in Cambodia helps numerous families gather the income they so desperately need.
Donate time and energy. There are many volunteer positions to be filled in Cambodia, including the teaching of English and other skills. Check out http://www.volunteerincambodia.org or research volunteer opportunities with The Global Child. Unlike many other organizations accepting volunteers, TGC does not charge the volunteers for the time spent, but only draws upon their expertise and the love that they have to give.
Donate money. I have provided a list of links to organizations doing great work in the country. Make a donation today to support their efforts. $30 goes a long way when that’s the country’s average monthly wage. $150 will cover the daily subsidy of every child enrolled at the Global Child School for a 6-day week. Considering the wanton spending habits of most Americans, this is a paltry sum indeed. Especially when considering the exponential beneficial effect that will transpire when all of these youngsters go on to help their country-men and -women in need. What better way to celebrate the Christmas spirit of giving than to give a real gift, a gift of life, of helping to enhance a whole country’s standard of living? My family might hate me for it, but these are the gifts they can expect to receive for a long time to come.
In the end the most important thing we can take from the story of Cambodia is the lesson of how lucky we are, each and every one of us. Many times in the past I have lamented my temporary misfortune, pathetic in relation to that suffered by many people in Cambodia and the world over. Born into a high standard of living and a life of relative luxury I am only now beginning to appreciate, I have been given countless gifts that were not necessarily mine to receive. The most I can hope to discover, having seen the other side of the coin, is a personal realization of my obligation to be of service to those less fortunate. And that, I’ve found, is the best work I can ever hope to do and the best gift I can ever hope to give.
•UNICEF’S Statistics on Cambodia
•Mith Samlanh’s Statistics and Info on Street Children
•SOLS 24/7’s Background on Cambodia:
•MSN’s Cambodia Facts and Figures:
•The Global Child
•The Green Gecko Project
•Mith Samlanh / Friends
•Childsafe Cambodia Network
•Ecole Paul Dubrule
•Science of Life Systems 24/7
•The Starfish Project
•The Starfish Football Federation
•Cambodia Federation of Rugby
•Kampot Traditional Music School
•National Center for Disabled Persons (NCDP):
•Rajana Cambodian Art and Craft Association
•Colours of Cambodia
•Information on Khemera and Wat Than Handicrafts can be found on the Global Exchange website:
OTHER GROUPS OF NOTE
•Family Care Cambodia (helping abandoned children and orphans)
•Epic Arts (a U.K.-based organization offering workshops and performance outlets for disabled Cambodians in the arts)
•Terre Des Hommes (an international organization working to stop child trafficking)
•Krousar Thmey (“New Family” in Khmer – working with and for street children)
•Villageworks (enabling disadvantaged villagers to make a living)
•The Boddhi Tree (a Childsafe supporter)
FOR MORE INFO ON LANDMINES
•The International Campaign to Ban Landmines
FOR MORE INFO ON CHILD SEX SLAVERY
•The Day My God Died
•International Justic Mission
***PLEASE FEEL FREE TO EMAIL ME APPROPRIATE LINKS TO BE ADDED***
THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ THIS!