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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Looking for a future, with a little help from friends

Looking for a future, with a little help from friends


N the grounds of a wooden shack, two girls are acting. One lies on the knees of

the other, who is crying over her mother's death. In the corner of the room, the

theater teacher seems in a trance. Eyes closed, he listens to the acting and singing

of the two children.

In another shack, ten kids are learning traditional dance. Nearby, in a crowded classroom

with no walls separating it from the street, pupils are studying the Khmer language.

The small wooden training center stands out amid all the grime and bustle of a squatter

community near the Bassac riverfront in central Phnom Penh. Across town, near the

Tuol Sleng museum, more children are arriving in the yard of a larger, three-storey

building. School bags over their shoulders, the older children head toward a line

of workshops. The younger ones walk to a school at the end of the street.

It's 9am and Tep Sao, 19, cleans his hands and brushes his hair before going to a

cookery class. He is excited: today he will learn how to cook fish with sour sauce.

"I have been here for a week. I want to find a job and I would rather learn

cooking than mechanics or anything else," he says.

Sao, who was jobless, jumped at the chance at being trained as a cook. With the little

English he speaks, he hopes he will be able to find a good job when he completes

his training.

Sao, who lives in the Bassac squatter area, is among dozens of streetkids learning

new skills at two training centers supported by the NGO Mith Samlanh, also known

as Little Friends.

The NGO was started in 1994 by three Westerners who used to feed the streetkids near

the Central Market.

"We were giving them some food and then we met Mark Turgersen, who was doing

the same," said Sébastien Marot and Barbara Adams.

After a while, the three decided to open a house for streetkids, with their own money

and that of their friends. In August 1994, the house was opened and about 17 children

used it. Some stayed for good, others just came a few nights and then left, some

coming back occasionally. Many didn't want to give up the freedom they had on the


Two years later - and with funding from AusAid, Save the Children Fund and UNDP -

the NGO runs a residential house for about 50 streetkids near Tuol Tom Pong market,

a training center and school near Tuol Sleng and has just launched another training

program in the Bassac squatter area.

There is also a "day hotel" near the Central Market, where children who

don't want to live in the residence can visit. They have to pay 500 riel to get a

free meal, a place to rest and counseling.

The Tuol Sleng training center offers mechanics, carpentry, krama and mat weaving,

and other workshops. The NGO offers the chance for kids to learn skills, think about

their futures and escape the hardships of the street.

"Everyday, I was made to give any money I had to the big boys," says Chan

Seng, 14, of the youth gangs who roam the streets.

"One day I met a child who told me about the center. I decided to come here.

I am very happy. I get a free meal, there is a godfather, a godmother and I can learn

a skill," says Seng, who arrived at the NGO's doors 10 months ago.

So Sayorn, supervisor of the residential house, says NGO staff go out at night and

tell streetkids about the center, but nobody is forced to come.

"We do not bring them to the center. They have to decide themselves to join

us. If they make the effort to come by themselves, it means that they want to stay."

It doesn't mean that they will stay forever. According to Marot and Sayorn, the children

are free to leave the center whenever they want.

It's all part of trying to encourage them to take responsibility for their lives,

and their futures, and make a voluntary commitment to improving themselves.

Today, by 11 am, tasty smells are wafting out from the kitchen where Sao and fellow

trainees are cutting, cooking and frying up their fish. They look like experts in

their aprons.

Upstairs in the white building, children are learning other skills. In one room are

mostly girls, learning how to sew.

There are few girls at the center, which concerns the staff.

"We are trying to be more persuasive with the girls to come and stay with us.

As soon as they are in the streets, the girls disappear very quickly," says

Marot in reference to the thriving sex trade in under-age girls.

At the gates to the center, a boy jumps on his bike and heads off. This is the Friends

Delivery Service, a courier service for NGOs and companies This is a special job,

offered to top-of-the-class kids to make extra money. The others earn a living by

selling the mats or kramas they make, offering mechanical services or even touting

for business in one of the NGO's two cyclos.

"One of the reasons why the street children flee from the center is because

they need money," says Marot.

As well as trying to help the children make a living, the NGO works to trace the

backgrounds of children and, if possible, reunite them with their family members.

Since 1994, about 100 children have been reintegrated into their families. "Sometimes

it can take six months, sometimes longer," says Sayorn.

Around 5pm, a red mini-van arrives at the Tuol Sleng center to collect those children

who want to be taken to stay in the residential house. There, they have a shower

and put on their new blue clothes before having dinner.

An hour later, it's time for a regular Monday evening meeting to discuss the problems

of the previous week.

At tonight's meeting, Keo Samon gets elected chairman for the month, and has already

prepared what he wants to say.

"The first issue is the boy who goes out of the center. He is lazy, he doesn't

want to work and he just goes to O'Russey market, where he got bitten by a dog.

"I just want to tell him that he should not act like this," he says.

He adds afterward that he didn't really want to be chairman, and doesn't like speaking

in public.

"I don't even get any more respect from the other children," he complains.

But, maybe, he has more respect for himself, which is what Mith Samlanh is all about.



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