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
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
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
"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.