Thursday, June 14, 2018

Turning over a new leaf: A journey to happiness and schooling

By Ayphalla Te

Sixteen-year-old Ang Meng Eang with the cart he used
when scavenging with his mother.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Ayphalla Te

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 2018 – Growing up without a father is very hard for any child but imagine if you were in sixteen-year-old Ang Meng Eang and his two siblings’ shoes, a group of children who have endured an exceptionally tough life. 


They live with their mother in a slum community next to a refuse site in Phnom Penh. The family make a living from scavenging and the children did not attend school until six months ago. This situation stressed out their mother and caused her to beat and mistreat them.

Their father abandoned the family long ago and for years Meng Eang had to work alongside his mother for over ten hours a day, seven days a week, to scavenge for saleable items and pull a heavy cart in Cambodia’s unforgiving tropical climate.

Out in the hot sun all day, mother and son ate lunch on the streets of Phnom Penh, making just a few dollars a day, barely enough to survive on. This deprived the children of their basic right to an education.

Meng Eng’s mother, Yem Bunlong, 44, is from Kompong Cham province and her life has also been arduous. She never attended school, has no relatives in Phnom Penh to seek support from, does not own land or a house in her hometown, and has been constantly moving from one province to another in search of work before settling in the capital four years ago.

Bunlong admitted she sometimes acted violently towards her children and often left them alone when she worked at night. She said she was worried but had no other choice. One night she returned home to find her six-year-old daughter Chheng Leang missing.

Yem Bunlong and Meng Eang alongside their refuse collection cart.© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Ayphalla Te

“It was dark. We had no electricity because we had no money to pay the bill. I moved my hands all over the bed and looked around but I could only find the two boys who were already asleep.

“My daughter was missing. I felt so scared. I slapped my eldest child [Meng Eang] very hard and he asked me why.”

It was only later that Bunlong’s neighbour came to say Chheng Leang had been sleeping at their house.

Fortunately for the family, their unsettled life changed for the better when a neighbour introduced Bunlong to an NGO.

This occurred when a social worker from the Samatapheap Khnom Organization (SKO) visited their community in May 2017 to identify vulnerable families. SKO’s intervention focuses on family visits from a social worker and subsequent referrals to support services.

For the next nine months, the SKO social worker met Bunlong once a week to assess the ongoing needs of her family and offer her appropriate assistance. Through this intervention, she was introduced to a local charity school which enabled her children to start their education.

“When I told the children that they could go to school tomorrow, they were so happy. They kept asking what time they could go and when tomorrow would come,” Bunlong said with excitement.

Meng Eang and his brother and sister, Meng Yi, 12, and Chheng Leang, 6.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Ayphalla Te 

The children now attend school five days a week, with an additional weekend morning class. The school is free and supports the provision of learning materials, uniforms and free breakfast and lunch.

This change has given Meng Eang and his siblings a new life rhythm; each day is about preparation for school, eating, learning, playing, and then arriving home at 6pm to the cradle of their mother who ends her working day at the same time.

Bunlong can now work with peace of mind knowing that her children are safe, learning, receiving meals at school twice a day, and improving their life opportunities.

Through the social worker’s counselling, she no longer abuses her children and has expressed remorse for her past violent behaviour.

“I cried to myself because I felt sorry for the children that I previously beat and abused them so much,” she said.

SKO’s intervention has also enabled Bunlong to receive free medication for her joint pain.
Bunlong is now determined to keep her children in school and improve their life chances. Six months on, Meng Eang now can read and write and complete simple calculations. He said he is very happy that his mother no longer beats or scolds him nor his siblings. He also enjoys going to school and has a dream for the future:

“I want to be a car mechanic. I like cars.” he said.

Bunlong and her children outside their home.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Ayphalla Te

The children’s resilience in such a challenging environment provides tremendous encouragement to both SKO and UNICEF, which supports SKO as part of the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children (3PC).

Led by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY), in collaboration with UNICEF and Friends International, and implemented in partnership with nine civil society organizations, 3PC’s goal is to strengthen child protection systems in Cambodia to prevent and respond to violence, exploitation, abuse and unnecessary family separation.

Started in 2011, with funding from USAID, the partnership has since provided protection and support to over 49,187 children, with UNICEF’s technical assistance contributing to the partnership’s ongoing operations and success.

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