Children studying at Mith Samlanh’s education centre in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 2016: With tears in her eyes, Reaksmey*, 13, recalled the time her mother was arrested due to suspicion of her being involved in drug dealing. Her mother was later found to be innocent and released after more than one month in confinement. “I often went to visit her by myself,” Reaksmey said. “Because there was nobody to take us to visit her.”
With the detention of her mother, and her stepfather abroad, Reaksmey decided to go to Mith Samlanh for help. She had heard about the organization in Toul Kork, in Phnom Penh, where a woman saw her selling fried potatoes and chicken wings and asked if she was going to school. Informed about her situation, at that time, Mith Samlanh provided Reaksmey and her siblings with food, and covered the costs of rent, water and electricity for their home. Reaksmey was also enrolled in the remedial classes run by the organization.
During her mother’s imprisonment, Reaksmey used some money from her allowance to buy food and clothes for her mother whenever Reaksmey went to visit her in prison. “Back then it was really tough. I had to buy groceries, look after my siblings and study at the same time,” she said.
This was not the first time Reaksmey had been separated from her mother. When her mother left to find work in Phnom Penh, Reaksmey stayed behind, living with her grandmother. Eventually she moved to Phnom Penh to be with her mother.
Now that they are reunited, Reaksmey has been able to focus on studying. Before leaving for Phnom Penh, she was only able to study until the end of fourth grade.
“The school didn’t teach me much,” she said. “When I first started [the remedial classes], I didn’t know numbers very well.”
With the help of Mith Samlanh’s remedial classes, which prepare out-of-school children and those who have never been to school to be integrated into public schools, Reaksmey is one month away from entering public school again. She will be starting in fifth grade, where she had left off.
“My best subject is Khmer literature, but my favourite subject is math,” she said. “Even though I’m not really good at it, I love solving math problems.”
Mith Samlanh’s remedial education focuses on core subjects such as mathematics, Khmer literature and the sciences. Students can enrol any time, as opposed to public schools which have set enrolment dates. New students are tested to find the baseline of their knowledge, and arranged into the appropriate levels.
“I can really see their passion for learning grow,” said Cheam Lorn who has been teaching at Mith Samlanh for 14 years. “They’ve never cared much about studying before, but now they understand it’s important.”
With a smile on his kind face, Mr. Cheam continued, “The way we teach here is different from public schools. We go along with the children’s pace, making sure that they master what they are learning before moving on.”
Each year, more than 200 children ranging from 3 years to 14 years are taken into the remedial classes. They include street children, children who sell goods and children living in poor communities. Around 40 per cent of these children are successfully integrated into public schools.
“The way it works is that the children are tested before their entrance into public school, to show what grade would suit them,” said Sem Sonsomkosal, the project coordinator. “Then, the public school tests them one more time to make sure which grade the children should be placed in. This replaces the usual school reports that schools look at to judge the students’ capacities.”
“Sometimes these children miss school for only about a month, so they can easily go back. But others have missed out for three to four months, in which case the school does not allow them to go back in,” Mr. Sem said. “So Mith Samlanh also works directly with them at their location to prepare them.”
As part of its support to the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children (known as 3 PC), a network of non-governmental and community-based partners working together with the Government and UNICEF to strengthen child protection systems, UNICEF is supporting Mith Samlanh’s remedial education programme that continually provides children with the opportunity to further their education.
Through the implementation of this programme, children such as Reaksmey are able to talk about their favourite subjects and receive the education they need to work towards their dreams. For Reaksmey, being a teacher is what she is aiming for.
“I really want to be teaching someday. And studying here has given me hope that I can pursue it,” she said.
*Name changed to protect identity