In Siem Reap, a very touristic population due to its proximity to the temples of Angkor, there are located two camps of the School Continuity Program, one of them in the Labor Insertion Center of PSE and the other in a small pagoda. Away from Phnom Penh, far from the rest of the school continuity monitors and children, there is only one thing to do: join together. And grow.
BEYOND PHNOM PENH
Everything green: green inside, the garden, and outside too, beyond the garden. Cheerful. Spacious. That is the first impression one receives when he arrives at the PSE Labor Insertion Center in Siem Reap —a center that welcomes PSE students who are doing hospitality and tourism practices throughout the year.
Here, during summer, takes place one of the camps of the School Continuity Program. Everything in this place is pleasant and welcoming when you first visit. The complex, spread over a huge natural garden, consists of several small two-story houses where the monitors sleep, with porches upstairs and downstairs and the clothes lying on the railing, a two-storey building with a large wooden roofed porch where the children take the nap and a semi-detached building where the kitchen is located —the space where Sampoa, the mother of Pisey, a Khmer monitor, prepares with simple ingredients foods that delight the monitors— with a large wooden table in the center, where breakfast and dinner is shared, all together, by the monitors. Everything in Siem Reap invites anyone to smile.
“The transfer of children is one of the main difficulties that we have to solve every day”
Siem Reap is a large, lively city, north of Cambodia, known for being the starting point for visiting the temples of Angkor, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992.
There, the PSE School Continuity Program maintains two camps: Central, which is developed in these facilities, and Prey Thom, which is developed very close, in a Buddhist pagoda, with a huge open space around, where children can play without any stress. “There is even too much space,” says Laura, the coordinator of this center, “sometimes we run out behind them in such a big space! But, it does not matter” she continues, smiling,” this place is absolutely original and charming “. She says that pointing to the pagoda, next to which, on a Cambodian platform, two old women cook for the monks.
CAMBODIANS AND EUROPEANS: LIVING TOGETHER JOIN PEOPLE
The monitors, Cambodians and European, from both programs, live together in Central Siem Reap: they sleep on the floor, distributed by the houses of two heights, they eat together in the kitchen the delights of Sampoa and they chat and sing at sunset, when kids have gone, on the large covered porch. It is inevitable: In Siem Reap there is a special union, generated by this coexistence, so close, so good: Europeans and Cambodians, all together. An incredible added value that is breathed permanently in the camps of Central and Prey Thom during the day.
WE OPEN AGAIN!
Developing this year these camps has been, in everyone’s opinion, very laborious. Last year it could not be carried out, so updating these centers to be used again by the children has required a great cleaning job, especially in Prey Thom. There, everything was very abandoned and dirty. “We have had to reinvent the shower area,” says Laura, “because there is only one water outlet that must supply separately the girls’ shower and the children’s shower; we have also dug a small ditch that serves to drain that area, and reinvent an efficient way to hoist the flag”. “We must bring every day several cans of water for the children, because there is no drinking water here.” she adds, “And for the meals, we had to look for a cook: Now, Lis, a woman from the village, prepares our food every day.” Two monitors will bring the food in a wheelbarrow.
THE CHILDREN OF SIEM REAP
Between the two centers there are more than six hundred children —about two hundred and thirty in Prey Thom and four hundred in Central— distributed between the morning and afternoon shifts.
The average age of children in Siem Reap, Central and Prey Thom is nine or ten years. But in the composition of the group, this year there have been surprises: in the group of Central about seventy children, each turn, between fourteen and seventeen years, are coming every day, something exceptional. “It is a little complicated to fit the activities so that they enjoy,” explains Martin, the coordinator of Central, “because they do not want to sweat, get wet or do anything that damages the image they have of themselves, but, contrary to what one could expect, they are especially kind and they behave incredibly well: it is a joy to have them here. ”
“They do not forget this center, nor how well they spend here. This year, their joy has been immense when they have seen us arrive.”
Kids from Central mostly come from the rubbish dump of Siem Reap and its surroundings —an hour by car from Central— and from Aranh —forty-five minutes by car from Central— while the children of the pagoda come from Prey Thom, a village very close to the temple from which the children access walking. The children of Prey Thom always wait at the entrance, squatting, before the hour, for the teacher to say their names —a teacher of the school where the children study, has offered herself to pass list—. Then Laura, at lunch time, will check list again, to verify the level of attendance of each child.
A BUS, TWO TRUCKS AND MUCH MISERY
“The transfer of children is one of the main difficulties that we have to solve every day” says Martin. Not for less: a bus and two people-carrying trucks are required every day. They will travel to Aranh and the garbage dump to bring and return both afternoon and morning shifts’ kids.
“I could not stop crying when I discovered this misery. Now, I have a new commitment to myself. I must change things. Just from now on.”
“All the efforts are worthwhile,” Martín says. Children from Central live in towns around the landfill, their parents are peasants who, from time to time, to complete their daily wage, are forced to work in the garbage dump. The government has been taking steps to help these families offering them work and helping them with housing. “Last year we could not come and kids were not taken care of during the summer: that is why it is fundamental to be here. They do not forget this center,” Martín continues,” nor how well they spend here. This year, their joy has been immense when they have seen us arrive.”
Esan is a Cambodian monitor assigned to Central. He is twenty years old. This is his first time in PSE, his first time in contact with the misery of Cambodia. “I did not know how to manage the emotion I felt when I knew this reality,” he says, “I could not stop crying when I discovered this misery. Now, I have a new commitment to myself. I must change things. Just from now on. It does not matter if I’m tired one day, or exhausted. We are here for the children. And we must work, we must help them. ” Esan says his engagement does not end here. “I have promised myself to continue working, in the future, to end this misery. I want to help them. ”
Like Esan, there are more monitors. What a wonderful news for Cambodia. And for the School Continuity Program. How much to learn, everyone from everyone.
LEARNING TO LOSE: A CHALLENGE THAT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE
There have been no surprises in the atmosphere of the Olympics, that have been played, as every Friday, in all the camps: the Olympics are an adventure absolutely fun and frantic everything, because nobody wants to lose!
Although here, as in other centers, the monitors form groups for the activities of the week, by age, when the Olympics arrive monitors make different groups in which the important issue is just the opposite: to mix the ages, so that all the teams have the same opportunities to win. In Siem Reap, the groups are formed by painting colorful faces of children.
And the competition starts from that very moment, because as no one wants to lose, many kids try to guess which team is going to be the winner and then, they remove the painting from the face sneaking and back in front of the monitor to paint the face of the color of the Super team that, they believe, will win.
Today, in Siem Reap, it was very hot, but no one seemed to notice. The children have participated in the games livening up each other as if they were risking their lives in each one of the activities; and, at the end of the activity, if they lost they felt really angry and if they won, the screams and laughter were listened everywhere. In Prey Thom and in Central, the cries and the laughter have occupied everything today. The Olympics are the funniest craziness of the week.
So much, that anyone would want to be a child again and be part of a team, even a non-winner. Afterwards, the prizes have been awarded, prizes for all. And the rice, a bag with two and a half kilos for each child. Fridays cannot be better!
Today, when the truck has left the last child of the landfill in his house, turned around and advanced along the dirty road to go back to the PSE center, the children ran behind it; they waved with their hands; they ran without stopping, for a long time; in the meanwhile, at the door of the houses, other children sang very loudly the songs they have learned in PSE and from the truck, the monitors gave back, singing even higher, the songs. There were children running and laughing behind the truck, on the dirty road, until their faces full of laughter and their funny voices have been lost in the distance.