SOEURNG Sovannaroath, 26, is just one reason why the NGO Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE, or A Child’s Smile) exists.
From a poor family with eight siblings in Kampong Speu province, he set out to seek his fortune in Phnom Penh in 2004, four years after his father died and left the burden of feeding the family on his mother.
Like many others flocking from grinding poverty, he took menial jobs to survive – working as a parking lot guard for 30,000 riel (US$ 7.40), 60,000 riel as a garage worker or as a garment worker, because he had no skills nor education.
He asked for help from PSE in 2007 as he heard from friends it could offer him free training and skills. “I really wanted to learn like other children too,” he told an audience of 1,000 people this week.
“I couldn’t believe that an NGO offered me free food, free meals, free accommodation, and free vocational skills. I couldn’t believe I also had a chance like other teenagers to have an education,” said Soeurng Sovannaroath at his graduation ceremony from PSE.
Soon after he completed his training in hospitality skills last year, he gained a job as a receptionist at Phnom Penh’s Royal Inn hotel.
Now he, along with 293 other youngsters, have received their graduation certificates from PSE founder Christian des Pallières. Three years of vocational training – plus education in maintaining good health and hygiene – have paid off for these hard-working students.
The affection Soeurng Sovannaroath feels for des Pallières is evident, calling the founder “pappy” and his wife Marie-France “mammy” because they took care of him as if he were their own son.
Handing out certificates, des Pallières pointed out that many graduates had gained jobs soon after their training. However, he appealed for more help to aid the thousand or so children still learning at PSE.
So far, PSE has trained more than 2,000 youngsters in skills such as cooking, service, waiting and housekeeping, as well as mechanics, information technology, business, construction and gardening. However, PSE still has a big burden to provide homes for 450 children and provide 9,000 meals to children every day.
Des Pallières said he hoped private companies would judge PSE by the work of its graduates. He also announced new classes in film production, to broaden the experiences and chances for jobs for PSE children.
PSE was founded by des Pallières in 1996 after he saw Cambodian children scavenging among rubbish to find waste cans and paper to sell at the Stung Meanchey dump. His organisation has stopped children from having to do such risky work by providing food and accommodation, as well as vocational skills.