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Railway children on fast track to learning


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About 25 children at a time cram into the one tiny classroom beside the rail tracks in Boeung Salang slum. All Photos Derek Stout

ATE afternoon rings with the shouts of children playing along the railway tracks in northern Phnom Penh. No trains have run along these rails for years, but the tracks are still used as a highway, the main street of Boeung Salang slum.

And while others play volleyball or marbles after the official school day ends, about 25 children aged eight to 12 are sitting on plastic stools, three or four sharing a tiny desk, inside a stiflingly hot wooden room that serves as a classroom in this Russey Keo district slum.

Lack of textbooks, paper and pens don’t deter them from taking their first steps to learn the English language. These kids are from families that are crowded into flimsy wooden shacks lining both sides of the railway tracks. They ignore the blaring Cambo pop screeching from a radio across the road and concentrate intently on their exercise books.

Some are street children or orphans, fighting for a corner of the world to lay their heads down each night. Others have families with health problems such as HIV and malnutrition. But dreams of a better life drive them to classes at this little school run by 28-year-old Em Tinath, who knows the stench of poverty intimately.

He grew up in Prey Veng province but moved around the country and came to Phnom Penh as a teenager with his family. “When I was at high school my family could not afford my studies, as my father was a soldier, so I had to stop studying in grade 12 and didn’t get my high school certificate,” says Em Tinath. That didn’t stop him saving some of his meagre wages as a moto driver and tour guide to pay for three years of English lessons at a private school.

“I started teaching about 10 kids at my home – that’s how it all began back in 2002,” explains Em Tinath, sitting on a plastic stool on the veranda outside the classroom, two friendly dogs panting in the shade. Puppies play in the dirt nearby and several curious children and their parents come to eavesdrop on our conversation.

“It was very difficult at first because my English wasn’t perfect but I wanted to share my knowledge with other poor people here.”

He lives with his parents in the heart of the slum that straddles the rail tracks, but their first few days in the settlement were terrifying, he recalls.

“When I first came here I was so scared I wanted to run away. On our first night after moving here, there were a lot of people drunk and fighting on the street. They came over to make trouble,” says Em Tinath.

“There used to be so many problems with drugs and alcohol in this village. But I knew that I could give people a free education – not just English lessons but also general knowledge and good advice, showing them how to eat properly, to get enough sleep, brush their teeth, take care of their health, take them away from drugs, smoking and alcohol.

“Now any student who comes to my school must promise not to drink, smoke or go gambling – that’s what I’ve always said from the very beginning. Life is a lot better in the village now.”

Children vastly outnumber the adults in this friendly community of some 8000 people, living in flimsy shacks made of tin, wood or tarpaulins. Most families have a shop of sorts in their front room – a couple of chairs and mirrors serving as a hairdresser, or a few sewing machines to run a tailoring business. The spirit of enterprise flourishes.

Chickens peck under ramps and steps leading to front doors while mothers sit on stoops, some nursing two or three toddlers. A bitch with large hanging teats pants lazily in a patch of shade, two of her puppies rolling around by her paws.

As children return home from school, walking in groups of two or three, older teenage boys are playing volleyball on a self-made court. Four or five boys are crouched over a marbles game marked out in the dust beside the tracks and market traders are swatting flies away languidly from their tables of fresh vegetables, fruit or drying fish.

Since 2009, free lessons have been held in one wooden room with bare walls, three metres by three metres, where a total of 160 students come for eight classes a day in English and Khmer, huddling together on plastic stools around the tiny desks.

A plaque above the door carries the school’s name: Tinath New Generation Academy. It’s a grand name for such a small space but the school has grown more than Em Tinath could have dreamed in the early days.

“At public school, they have to pay for the teacher or extra for test papers. In primary school it costs about 500 riel for one child for each day. That’s why some poor people cannot afford to send their children to school, and parents send them out to work because of the situation of the family,” Em Tinath says, explaining why his classes remain free for children aged between six and 12.

“Most families in this village have very poor living standards. Most fathers are construction workers and mothers work in garment factories but they don’t get paid very much.

“When they have a lot of children it’s hard for them to afford to send them to the government school, and that’s when children are forced to earn money. That’s why I wanted to open a school for uneducated people. When I was small I was poor. Now I’m older, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the world, so I want to pass that on.

“Learning English is really important in Cambodia, especially to work with tourists,” Em Tinath says, his voice growing animated as he tries to explain his passion. “Everywhere you work in Cambodia now, whether it’s in a bank, or as a cleaner, or a moto taxi driver, you have to speak English. It’s the international language so I’m very happy that now some of my children can speak English well and maybe in the future they will find a good job.

“At the beginning, I was the only teacher. Now we have 160 students, I hired two more teachers, so we have to pay them $50 each a month,” he says. Some of the costs are covered by private sponsors – and Em Tinath earns extra money each weekend by touting for business as a tour guide with his moto on Riverside or teaching Khmer to business visitors. In addition, he has a fourth job working at a small orphanage near Phnom Penh airport, but he still worries about meeting the building’s rent, $100 a month.

“Sometimes I bring tourists here to show them the school and they give money for supplies like pens and paper,” he says. But the pressure of earning extra money has forced him to temporarily drop out of a one-year diploma in English at Pannasastra University.

“I need English books, teaching materials, notebooks, pens, pencils, markers … We’d also like to put pictures of volunteer sponsors who visit the school on the wall,” he says. “I’d really like the school to get bigger some day.”

That could mean going through the paperwork to formally register as an NGO, but the strict requirements and fees – about $400 – have so far deterred Em Tinath from taking this next step to growth.

“I know that if people want to donate money they want everything clearly set out, how much we pay each month for everything. Now I need to find sponsors. But most sponsors need us to be an NGO. So it’s difficult,” he says.

“However, some of my former pupils have done really well – one family moved to Australia, two more are in France and a couple are studying in Canada. Parents are happy that this school is good.”

Tinath expects to remain here for as long as the shacks do, before progress and development sees the families forced to resettle elsewhere. He hopes that could be as much as five years away – enough time to extend a helping hand to hundreds more children who are hoping to escape the cycle of poverty.

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