By Sorita Heng
Young people receive electrical training at Mith Samlanh’s vocational training centre in Phnom Penh.
Bona* was 14 years old when he left home in 2013 and joined thousands of other children living on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Bona had run away from his home after his father, who was having an affair, became violent towards his mother. The night before Bona’s Grade 9 National Exam, his father not only beat up his mother but also his siblings, causing Bona to miss his exam the next day.
Soon after, his house caught fire and his parents got divorced. His father moved to Phnom Penh and his mother moved to her sister’s house. Ashamed by his family and depressed, Bona took a bus to Phnom Penh.
“I was very young then and I had no idea where to look for jobs,” Bona said. “So I went straight to the Riverside. I managed to feed myself with money that was left over from when I had come to Phnom Penh. But when it got dark, I was pretty scared,” he added.
“I did not feel safe at all. I had to sleep in different places, like gardens or on sidewalks or on the quay near the Mekong River, which was cold at night. I had no blanket or any other clothes with me.”
One day, Bona was attacked and beaten up by a gang and forced to hand over all his money. He had to dig for food scraps in bins, beg for money and drink water from the river. Fortunately, when he was begging on the street one day, a university student told him about Mith Samlanh and took him there the next morning.
“When I got to the centre I was given the warmest welcome by the staff,” Bona said. “I liked this place as soon as I entered.”
Bona met a case manager who showed him around the centre, which offered seven types of vocational training to choose from and many other necessary services.
“I decided to be part of their programme and I was placed in a temporary transitional home as I did not have any relatives in Phnom Penh,” Bona said. “The home provided me with all my daily needs, as well as the warmest care from the social workers. I felt so close to them that I used to call them mother and father.”
After living in the streets of Phnom Penh the centre was where Bona learned to hope again.
“I chose to learn cooking and I also got an opportunity to do non-formal education and learn English, which were very useful as I had dropped out of school a few years ago,” he said. “I enjoyed every single day in the training centre and I participated in fun activities, especially arts, and I have made many new friends.”
Mith Samlanh also reunited Bona with his family. He now visits his mother, brothers and sisters twice per year. He was provided accommodation and food as part of a group living programme.
“This arrangement is very interesting as it teaches me a lot about how to live on my own and how to be responsible,” Bona said.
Sometimes, children are stranded on the streets for long periods of time and get into trouble before being rescued. Narin* is one of those children. Narin was around 13 years old when he started scavenging.
After his father died, his mother was left to support the family by picking trokoun or water morning glory. To help her, Narin walked around the neighbourhood, carrying a bag and scrounging for bottles or scraps–anything he could find to make some money.
Tragically, Narin’s mother also died and his family fell apart, with his siblings all going separate ways. Narin was left without a family or a home, and wandered the streets begging for food and a place to stay. Some neighbours who knew his parents pitied him and allowed him in.
“They took me in and let me stay at the back of the house, usually near the bathroom. And I helped clean it,” Narin said. “All the while, I continued scavenging to support myself.”
However, Narin became addicted to drugs, and he used any money he made to buy them. He also became involved in drug dealing. “I no longer cared about myself,” he said. “I couldn’t control the addiction, and I never had any education, so I just sank completely into it. The people who gave me the drugs, sometimes they ordered me to deliver them, and I just did what I was told.”
Earlier this year, a social worker went to Narin’s village to meet him. Narin, now 27 years old, had just been released from prison and was living on the streets again. The social worker told him about Mith Samlanh, an organization where he would be housed and fed, but Narin found the existence of such a place hard to believe.
“I decided to go with the worker,” Narin said. “There was nothing left for me to lose. And I thought, if I’m going to die, just die.”
First, Narin had to agree to get off drugs. Spending two months in ‘Green House’, Mith Samlanh’s rehabilitation centre, he worked hard to battle his addiction. He succeeded and was moved to live in the main compound. Narin joined the vocational training programme at Mith Samlanh, which provides training on seven different skills: beauty, hairdressing, electricity, motor mechanics, welding, cooking and sewing. Narin decided to study electricity, as the job market is good. Four months into the training, he has now finished the first of three levels.
“Being here, I’m changing into a better person,” he said. “I’ve been given an opportunity to make something of myself. I’m given food, clothes and a place to stay. I just want to do my best [in class] and not let this chance go to waste.”
In addition to the core skills, the programme also provides students with classes on Khmer literature, English and computer skills. “For the core skills, we focus a lot more on practice than on theory. Around 60 to 70 per cent,” said Rort Thomonunh, the project coordinator. “The supplementary skills are also important. For example, if students work in salons with foreign customers, they can communicate easily. Basic computer skills such as sending emails or creating CVs are also useful.”
Enrolment in the training is open daily, which means there are constantly new students in the classes. As of September 2016, there were 220 youths in training. They are divided according to their levels of knowledge, and it is common for senior students to tutor newcomers. Their age range is from 15 to 24 years, although there are exceptions, such as in Narin’s case. When students have completed the training, they are required to take a ‘job preparation’ class, which teaches them the necessary soft skills needed for jobs such as preparing for interviews. For students interested in opening their own business, the programme provides a ‘self-employed’ class to assist them with getting the business successfully up and running.
In 2015, some 229 youths were employed, while in the first six months of 2016, some 146 youths have entered the workforce.
Young people in a cooking class at Mith Samlanh’s vocational training centre in Phnom Penh
Bona graduated from his cooking course in April 2016 and has been working as a cook at a restaurant in Phnom Penh. He is earning a salary of $250 per month, and is slowly able to support himself and his family. Mith Samlanh supports Bona by regularly visiting him, which will continue for at least one year, to ensure that he is satisfied with his job and receives any additional support he may need.
Now, through the vocational training programme, other disadvantaged youth like Narin have the opportunity to be employed and become financially independent.
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 to continue the vocational training programme, so that these youths can have the resources they need to join the workforce.
“I am filled with so much joy. I can’t describe it,” Narin said, his eyes tearing up. “Talking about it I just want to cry, but I try to hold it in,” he laughed.
*Names changed to protect identities
*This story was complemented by excerpts on Bona provided by Mith Samlanh.