As a general rule, you shouldn’t become attached to the people you are trying to help. Sometimes, it is difficult not to. You tend to take a vested interest in someone because you see the situation they are living in, and know they deserve better. This is how I felt about three siblings, who I will call A, B and C. These siblings lived near Human and Hope Association and we would see them collecting trash on a daily basis. Aged between four and thirteen, the two brothers and sisters were not in school. Their father sold bread with a mobile cart which he walked around in the mornings. Their mother took care of ducks at their home, and their eldest sister, 19, worked 12 – 14 hours a day at a food stall for a salary of $50USD a month.
A and B were the reason we began our Khmer language program in 2014. Our Education Manager frequently saw them on the road near the pagoda during school hours, and worried about their futures, he was compelled to help. He came to me and told me that teaching English to children who didn’t know their native language was pretty much impossible. He wanted to take on the responsibility of teaching the two older siblings Khmer language. I agreed this was the best way forward, so he approached A and B’s parents and promised to teach their children English and Khmer on the condition that when the new school year started, they would enrol them in public school. Their parents agreed, and A and B joined daily Khmer classes with four other students. You wouldn’t believe these two children had never attended school. They would always come to class early, treated their classmates and our staff with respect, and were incredibly committed to their studies. After class each day, they would spend time in our library, and on weekends they would attend art class with their younger brother. As time progressed, so did their knowledge, and when the new school year came around, our Education Manager registered them. The issue was, B didn’t have a birth certificate. Although the public school agreed to let her into class, B would face obstacles further down the track as having a birth certificate was a requirement of studying at public school.
We provided A and B with school uniforms, study supplies, and with the help of another NGO, a bicycle so they could ride to school. On the first day of public school, they came to Human and Hope Association to park their bike (as they couldn’t afford the five-cent parking fee at the public school) and ran all the way there. A short time later, they returned, having gotten their times mixed up. They were registered to study at school in the afternoon, not the morning! Seeing their excitement of finally attending school is one of the best memories I have during my time in Cambodia. Education is something so many people take for granted, yet this nine-year-old and thirteen-year-old grasped the opportunity as soon as it was presented to them.
We approached their parents about enrolling their youngest son, C, in our preschool program, as he had previously told us that he was four years old. As it actually turned out, he was seven. He should have been in our Khmer language program all along, and he should have already been attending public school. Our Education Manager jumped into action and enrolled C in the same public-school class as A and B.
Soon after, we moved to our new location in Sambour Commune. A, B and C studied in grade one at public school for half a day, and came to Human and Hope Association for the other half to study English and Khmer. Fortunately, their months of studying Khmer with us had paid off. They thrived in school, with A coming top of his class, and B and C in the top 10. Knowing that given his mature age, there was only so far that A would progress in school before he was forced to stop studying and work full time, I asked the Education Manager to talk with the Director at A’s public school and ask if he could skip a grade since he has progressed so much. The request was granted, and A skipped ahead to grade three, whilst B and C moved up to grade two.
Whilst all of this had been going on, we had provided a microfinance loan to the sibling’s father, D, so he could buy more ducks for his duck farm. This family lived in a shack on rented land, and their ducks were raised right beside their house; the odour and noise being quite unimaginable. We provided D with a budgeting workshop and provided a loan. All was going well until the ducks escaped, and most were never to be seen again. We put a hold on repayments and worked with D to determine if he wanted to receive training from another NGO, so he could develop a skill. Given D had always been interested in motorbikes, another NGO kindly offered to train him in motorbike repairs. However, D, without explanation, decided he didn’t want to learn motorbike repairs anymore. He went for work at a bakery for a month, then suddenly decided to quit. Another spanner was thrown into the works, with his wife finding out she was pregnant with her fifth child. She could no longer work as a trash picker, putting a heavier burden on the children.
A, B and C’s attendance at both public school and Human and Hope Association started to dwindle as they had to take responsibility for supporting their family. Once the baby was born, B, being female, stayed at home from school to look after the baby. Despite constant follow ups from our team, there was nothing we could do to convince this family to allow their children to be educated. Their attendance dropped off from Human and Hope Association altogether, and their attendance at public school continued to be sketchy at best. B still didn’t have her birth certificate to progress at public school.
On the day I left Cambodia, I saw B riding her bicycle with a cart of rubbish attached to it. I cried a little and couldn’t help feeling that I had failed her.