Despite his young age, Horm Narith has seen much in his 18 years. He has little memory of the Thai refugee camp he was born in, but remembers clearly the many moves between provinces his family made in the search for work and a place to build a home on their return to Cambodia. Many of the families returning from the camps received land and housing but the Horm family was not so fortunate.
At the age of 7, then living on heavily mined forested land by the Vietnam border, Horm Narith had his first opportunity to attend school. Despite an absence of basic materials or a proper classroom, this early taste of education inspired him to begin an academic struggle that has led him from working day and night and sleeping in a cattle barn to a scholarship in one of Australia's top private boys' schools. After completing year 11, Narith spoke to Education & Careers on his first visit back home.
What was life like for your family on your return to Cambodia from the border camps?
We had no land, so we moved around a lot. When my father found work he would build shelter for us in the forest, but at the time there was still a lot of fighting and many land mines. I saw with my own eyes a lot of people lose their limbs and eyes from stepping on mines. When I was small I almost stepped on one but an old lady from the village grabbed me and pulled me back just one step from the mine.
My mother used to cook banana cakes and me and my sister would walk about 7 kilometers to sell them. We'd leave about 7am and come back at 5pm. We could make about 5,000 riels in a day. I was about three years old and my sister was 6. We would also go into the forest to search for wild fruit for the family to eat. One place where we collected mangos was an old village from the Pol Pot time. No one lived there. There were a lot of bones everywhere from the people that were killed.
I never had enough food to eat. I would eat one time a day, just a little bit to help me survive. I was never full.
How did you come to be separated from your family?
I was living with my mother and sister near the Vietnam border. My sister and I worked picking chilis for 1,500 riels a day, but sometimes I got to go to school there. My father had been working in Battambang but he had become sick [with lung cancer] and couldn't work so my family moved together to another area. My parents couldn't afford to look after all of us and I wanted to study, so I had to stay alone and look after myself. I was 13.
I lived in a barn with the cows in return for working around the house. I carried water, collected wood, looked after the animals and in return I could sleep in the barn. I would also do a lot of work for the neighbours and I could make about 300 riels per day. I used that to buy rice. I never had enough food to eat. I would eat one time a day, just a little bit to help me survive. I was never full. I saved up 2,500 riels to pay for my school but I had no time to practise my study. Outside of school I had to work morning and night just to eat.
At 15 you began living in a children's centre with your four younger brothers and sisters. How did this change your life?
The medicine for my father had been expensive, and my mother couldn't afford to look after all the kids alone. She also had problems with gangsters. One time they put my mother and sister in the hospital. After this she applied to send my younger brothers and sisters to stay at the Sunrise Children's Village, which was close to her house in Takhmao. When I heard that, I was very scared for them. I thought there would be a lot of gangsters there and someone might hurt my family. I wanted to go with them to protect them.
After a week at Sunrise I felt very happy. I made a lot of friends and I had everything I wanted - books, pens, English lessons, computers. My first day at school I felt so happy.
When I heard the older boys speaking English I felt so jealous. I had never had the chance to learn English before, so I tried so hard. Everywhere I went I took my study books to practise. Life for me after that was absolutely different. There were so many opportunities. I loved it.
Before at night I had to go out to find food, but here I could concentrate on my study. I could study with my friends and we could learn from each other and have a lot of fun.
After six months I was top of the class in English study, Khmer and computers. Last year, with my high marks I had the opportunity to apply for a scholarship with Blackfriars private boy's school in Adelaide. After being shortlisted to the top 10, I had an interview and tests, and I was chosen.
How have you found life in Australia so far?
From the beginning it was so difficult - different language, different lifestyle, different system of schooling. It took about six months to feel comfortable and get used to everything new. I still miss all the kids here and my family very much. I feel a bit lonely in Australia but it's OK, it's for my future so I have to.
You are now looking toward studying business in an Australian university next year. What are your plans when you reach the end of your degree?
I really want to come back and give some advice to the kids here; show them what a difference a good education can make. I want to encourage them to study hard. I really want to see all of them have a good job and a good life.
It makes me sad to see some kids that have an opportunity for a great future but throw it away. They don't think about their future, about their family, or the places like Sunrise who paid for everything for them to study. When you come from a poor background you should never forget what life was like in the past and appreciate the opportunities you have now.