A tray of chocolate croissants - daily fare at PSEís cooking school.
When he was twelve, Kim Sopheak's family moved to Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey municipality
garbage dump. There he would spend his days rifling through mounds of trash along
with dozens of others, looking for bits and pieces he could sell for a few hundred
riel to support his family.
Seven years on he is neatly dressed and is learning to be a cook at a vocational
training center run by a French NGO. In short, Sopheak now expects more from life.
"My clothes smelled terrible and were always dirty," he says of the old
days. "I didn't know what would happen to me. Sometimes I cut myself on disposed
needles and broken glass. These days my parents are very proud of me."
In 1996 Sopheak was accepted for schooling at Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (PSE). The
French NGO's name translates as 'For the Smile of a Child', and educates around 3,000
children from the area.
Sopheak finished Grade 9 last year, and has chosen to learn European and Asian cookery.
"I feel so happy now," says the grinning 19-year-old. "Now I always
wear smart clothes. I wanted to be cook because it will earn me a high salary. Now
I know how to cook many types of European foods."
Sopheak is one of 56 students benefiting from PSE's hotel and catering school, which
was launched in November last year. The course provides them with 18 months of professional
instruction in either cooking, pastry, restaurant service, house-keeping or laundry.
Most of the students come from the Stung Meanchey dump site. For many it is the only
Christian Palliers founded PSE in 1996 after visiting the dump site the previous
year. He signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education allowing him to establish
a school to provide the hundreds of children scavenging on the dump with an intensive
However, he felt they needed more than simply a high school education, and PSE began
offering vocational training in secretarial, administration and hairdressing.
A subsequent survey showed the tourism industry was set for rapid growth, encouraging
PSE to establish the new hotel and catering school. The potential job opportunities
set tourism apart from other options.
The coordinator of the hotel and catering school, Amélie Thibierge, says the
tourism course is 60 percent practical, with experience gained at the center's modern
The training team combines French chefs and Khmer coordinators. It is not cheap,
and costs PSE around $90 a month per student in uniforms, fees and food. The NGO
ensured high-standard equipment giving the students the chance to work with that
found in high-class hotels.
There are two fully-equipped kitchens, a restaurant called Le Lotus Blanc serving
French and Asian cuisine, and a bar where the students practice mixing drinks. There
is also a four-room hotel, a laundry and a bakery where the students make breads
and pastries for the restaurant.
Some of the 56 students working towards a future in tourism.
PSE's relationship with the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap hotel associations, says Thibierge,
means the students have a good chance of finding work when they finish studying.
"The school has a strong and lively link in Siem Reap," says Thibierge.
"We have a center in Siem Reap which welcomes young people for internships and
jobs. This center has developed strong relationships with hotels in Siem Reap."
In addition to the training, the students also get the opportunity to learn at events.
On January 24, for instance, seven of them served food and drinks to guests at a
reception for the ASEAN Tourism Forum, which was organized by the five-star Hotel
Le Royal in Phnom Penh.
Eric Blomeyer, food and beverage manager at Le Royal, says he heard positive feedback
from the guests about the quality of service.
"In general the students are disciplined, they are eager to learn, and they
are committed to the job," Blomeyer says. "We are happy to have them there."
That may be the case, but not all of the parents are so pleased at the prospect of
foregoing the money their child can earn now, for the promise of a reasonable salary
in the future. In past years, says Thibierge, many complained that allowing their
children to study at PSE would cut the family's income. The NGO provides rice to
compensate the families, which goes some way to helping.
"There were many such problems at the beginning," she says. "Many
thought they would lose money, but now families start to understand because they
have heard some [students] have now got jobs."
Mol Sangha, a PSE student who is learning to be a waiter, says his mother used to
criticize him for going to the school. Sangha is the oldest of nine children, which
made him the main breadwinner.
"My mother did not want me to come to study here," says Sangha. "She
did not understand how important education is, and was angry with me every day. She
used to tell me I would be better off collecting rubbish to support the family, but
now she is happy."
But such relative good fortune does not come to all, and the grinding poverty most
of the students return to each night still claims some. Fifteen-year-old Han Srey
Than, for example, was in Grade Five at PSE until her mother broke her leg in an
accident. The young girl was forced to quit school to support her.
And despite PSE's efforts, dozens of children still work the Stung Meanchey dump.
Trucks full of trash turn up, drawing recyclers, young and old, in a frantic search
for items of value.
Working on the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in the midday sun. PSE provides youngsters a chance to escape such surroundings and, say students, gives them confidence in a better future.
Un Vuthy, the child labor program manager for World Vision, says the 200 children
working at the dump are far more vulnerable than the adults. They have no protective
gear, and in past years several have been crushed by the bulldozers that constantly
level the garbage.
Other NGO workers speak of children drowning in the wet season, sucked beneath the
acres of trash.
That is a familiar story to 22-year-old Kim Sopheap. He used to work at Stung Meanchey
picking rubbish before he was trained at PSE, first at the school, then in secretarial
and administration skills.
Now he works as a cashier and salesman at the duty-free shop at Phnom Penh International
Airport. The company chose him above 300 other candidates.
"Even though cashier and sales work were not among my subjects, I am so happy,
because I can make use of my French and English skills. And of course there is the
salary," Sopheap says. Not surprisingly, he has far more confidence in his future
His younger brother is Sopheak, who is learning cookery at PSE. Their mother, Meas
Mao, 51, says what her sons have achieved has made her very proud.
Initially, she explains, they all worked as recyclers. Now only the youngest son
is still on the dump. Sopheak, whose monthly income of $115 supports the entire family,
hopes his brother will also get accepted into PSE.
"I am very happy with my children - now they have jobs to do," says Mao.
"My children are moving forward and have a bright future. When they worked at
the dump I felt so sorry for them, but what could I do? They had to work simply to
help feed the family."