It is nearly lunch time when seven Khmer tuk-tuks, each loaded with seven to eight children, arrive at a restaurant which has provided free meals for nearly a decade to unfortunate youngsters.
Some children wear school uniforms, while the even less fortunate among them arrive in ragged clothing having come straight from begging on the street or scavenging in bins for things to sell.
Homeless or not, they all calmly queue for their food before walking to long tables and plastic chairs in the restaurant’s dining hall to enjoy their meals.
A simple nutritious meal, a privilege taken for granted by children the world over, makes these children extremely happy as they eat, chit-chat and laugh innocently.
The project is the brainchild of Yves Jacquin Depeyre and Ngauv Chhiv, who in 2010 decided to open Les Restaurants des Enfants in the Toul Tompoung area of Phnom Penh.
Speaking in the restaurant’s kitchen, grey haired and bespectacled 72-year-old Chhiv tells The Post: “Les Restaurants des Enfants was established on February 1, 2010, with the goal of filling the hunger of poor children who do not have enough food to eat, beg on the street and work and sell things to support their family. Some of them have no parents or guardians to provide them with a proper meal. We’re here to feed them so that they will grow healthy like other children.”
Les Restaurants des Enfants not only provides free breakfast and lunch for poor children, but it also helps poor families meet their basic needs beyond food.
Chhiv, the organisation’s director, maintains a strong belief that children must be able to enjoy their right to play, read, write and have good hygiene, even if they’re from a slum or rubbish field.
However, he says managing to bring many poor children to the restaurant is not an easy task.
“Before they started coming to Les Restaurants des Enfants, some of them slept in public parks. Some didn’t have proper house. Some were scavengers and beggars.
“I first started to learn about where they stayed, what they did and their background. After I got more information about their living conditions, I started to communicate with their parents or guardians. Some of the families didn’t even have a place to stay, so I would help them rent a room.
“Some families I had to provide 20 to 30kg of rice monthly, so they would be convinced and be happy to allow their children to eat at our organisation. And when they came for their daily meal, it was easier to convince them to go to school and get a proper education just like other children,” he says.
On top of providing food, the organisation also has a playground and a bathroom to get the children clean with the help of volunteers, while the children also receive clothing, nail trimming, haircuts and a quarterly health check.
“The disadvantaged children are provided with proper clothing, uniforms, study materials and daily pocket money. I provide these basic needs to the children and let them go to school as they should have what other children commonly have,” Chhiv says.
While the physical needs of the children are of great importance to Chhiv, he is also acutely aware of the importance of their emotional and psychological development as he himself suffered as a young man living in the midst of war.
“I was one of the victims during the Pol Pot regime. I’ve gone through hardship and bad treatment. So when they go to school, I hope no one learns that they’re from a homeless family and looks down upon them. I hope there is no bullying or discrimination at school as this sort of thing can psychologically affect the children,” says Chhiv, who grew up in a farming family in Takeo province.
He has long worked in education, first becoming a teacher in 1970. After the Khmer Rouge was toppled he returned to education, and eventually became a primary school director.
When he retired, he was convinced by French humanitarian worker Depeyre, who was volunteering with French NGO Enfants d’Asie-ASPECA, to open a kitchen for disadvantaged children.
“When I was working as a school director, we cooperated with the founder of Enfants d’Asie-ASPECA.
“When I retired, one of the Enfants d’Asie-ASPECA volunteers [Depeyre] suggested that I should not stay idle. He suggested that I could make good use of my time by helping to cook rice for child scavengers. I was convinced by his request. Initially, he was the only one responsible for covering all the costs of the food for the children.”
With Depeyre’s help, the kitchen started receiving support from donors in Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium and Cambodia.
Local patrons help by donating vegetables, meat, kitchen utensils and spices. For instance, livestock company CP Cambodia sponsors 65kg of meat that is delivered weekly. To allow children to take food back to their home, the organisation also gets bread and cake donated by the TSL Bakery.
In total, the organisation spends some $250 per day feeding the children.
Les Restaurants des Enfants initially only provided food for children aged 6-14, but Chhiv said he noticed that the children had many younger siblings at home also struggling to eat.
“I decided to accept children of a younger age and even babies by providing milk formula for women who cannot breastfeed due to diseases or other health problems.”
Now the organisation has seven locations offering free food to children. Three are in Phnom Penh, three are in Kampong Speu province and one in Kandal province. In total they provide food for 533 children (266 boys and 267 girls).
After nearly a decade, Les Restaurants des Enfants has provided some 620,000 free meals to children.
“I have managed to send some of the children who have come here to a good school and they’ve graduated successfully. Three students from the first batch of graduates work here in our organisation office, while others run a small business or have found employment elsewhere.
The second batch of students sent to school have not completed their studies yet, but they can speak English fluently and some Italian. When they’re finished with school, they will come to help look after the children at the organisation. The third batch of students speak good English but have not yet picked up Italian,” Chhiv says.
Leak Sorita, a 19-year-old who was part of the organisation’s second batch of students, says it changed her life.
“I came to know this organisation six years ago from my friend. We were child scavengers until I was 13; I was homeless and used to sleep in the park in front of Naga World.
“Nearly one year after I came to this organisation, they helped me to go to school and rent a house. My family received monthly support, such as a rice bag. I was provided with study materials and pocket money to go to school. Now, my dream is to become a tour guide,” she says.
Chhiv says despite the organisation’s many supporters and donors, it has insufficient funds to expand its projects. His desire to end suffering among Cambodia’s poorest children remains limitless though.
“I only hope that in the future, children will not be seen sleeping in public parks or at rubbish fields. I don’t want to see children working as scavengers. They deserve to get an education and find a good job. I pray for the children to stop suffering with these miserable jobs. I hope the misery ends here and is not passed on to the next generation after I’m gone,” he says.
Today, the 72-year-old is slowing down, taking a well earned break as he adopts a more hands-off role in the organisation.
“For me, I don’t do much work here now. As I’m old I spend my time sitting on the sofa and watching the children eating and chatting happily. Just seeing their laughs and smiles, I feel joyful and content,” he says.
Les Restaurants des Enfants can be contacted on Facebook (@LRDECambodia) or via their website (www.lesrestaurantsdesenfants.org).