Education can change lives in ways that seem almost magical, breaking generational cycles of poverty and opening doors to unimaginable opportunities. 

This is vividly demonstrated in the lives of sisters Oark Nayhouy and Oark Nayheang, whose journey from the Steung Meanchey garbage site to university graduates and professionals is a testament to the transformative power of education and determination.

“I first met the sisters in 2004 in the most squalid environment. They never saw themselves as victims; they saw only opportunity. We are very fortunate to have had them in CCF,” says Scott Neeson, Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) founder and executive director.

“They are a great example of the power of education; the generational cycle of poverty has been broken,” he adds.

The girls’ parents placed a high value on education, having missed the chance at much schooling for themselves. 

They wanted a better future for their daughters. Living in a small village in Kandal province, they knew opportunities were limited, so they decided to send their daughters to Phnom Penh, where public schools were better.

In search of a better education, Nayheang and her older sister Nayhouy left their village for the first time and moved to Phnom Penh with their father, where they lived with an aunt they had never met. 

However, the aunt, already burdened with her own family, expected the girls to work in exchange for housing and food. 

Instead of going to school, they were put to work on the notorious Steung Meanchey dumpsite, scavenging through rotting rubbish to earn money for their new family.

The former dumpsite at Steung Meanchey, one of the largest dumpsites in Southeast Asia. Supplied

Nayheang, just nine years old, and her sister, only a year older, found themselves picking through hospital waste, industrial metals, and rotting food on 'garbage mountain'—one of Southeast Asia's largest dumpsites. 

Despite the harsh conditions, they adapted, working hard to repay their aunt.

Their lives seemed destined to remain tied to the dump until one day in 2004, they met Scott Neeson, who had recently founded CCF to help children get off the dumpsite and into school. 

Neeson found Nayheang scavenging in a tattered pink dress and asked if she wanted to go to school. The answer was a resounding yes.

Nayheang enrolled in grade 1 full-time with CCF, moving with her sister to CCF accommodation. 

Their aunt moved away shortly after, and the girls lost contact with her. However, they maintained regular contact with their parents.

A quick learner, Nayheang excelled in school. Reflecting on her early education, she fondly remembers her favorite subject, English, which she discovered a passion for in high school.

"CCF changed my life. I couldn't imagine going to school, let alone receiving a full education, food, clothes, and shelter," she tells The Post.

CCF founder Scott Neeson poses for a photo with Nayheang during her graduation in 2018. Supplied

“CCF was my new home and my new family - it was like a second family for me. They always cared and always advised me if I did something wrong. They always encouraged me, and not just me, but the other students too.” 

Nayheang's hard work paid off when she was admitted to the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) to study Tourism Management on a CCF scholarship. 

Despite the pressures and challenges, she persevered, motivated by her dreams and the memory of her younger self scavenging through rubbish.

“There were times I wanted to stop, but I pushed myself hard and graduated,” Nayheang says proudly. She graduated in 2018, alongside her sister Nayhouy, both making their parents proud.

Nayheang is no stranger to public speaking. A confident young woman, she laughs easily about how much she enjoys it.

“Since I studied with, and worked for CCF, I have had the chance to travel to the US, Australia, and Hong Kong [for CCF fundraising events].”

“I loved Australia, I visited Sydney for the Australian Gala. I was not afraid of public speaking because I had done it on stage many times and I have Scott [Neeson] to stand by me,” she says.

Nayheang and Nayhouy with their parents during their 2018 graduation ceremony. Supplied

When she worked as a Sponsor Relations Officer at CCF, Nayheang managed communications between children and sponsors, translating emails, coordinating visits, and making celebrations special for the children. She loved her job and the opportunity to give back to CCF.

“I love children and want to show them what they can learn from me,” she says.

Nayheang, now 28, lives with friends in a shared house. She dreams of founding her own NGO for children one day, inspired by Scott Neeson. 

Her advice to anyone struggling with their education is simple: “Don’t give up and always have hope.”

Now Nayheang is working for another NGO while Nayhouy, 29, continues to work with CCF in the sponsorship department.

The two sisters have been part of CCF since 2004. As they celebrate 20 years with CCF, their journey has been extraordinary.

 “We couldn't be prouder of Nayhouy and Nayheang for their commitment to pursuing their dreams,” says Neeson.

“Their unwavering dedication and hard work stand as a true inspiration to us all,” he adds.