A girl fervently writes down notes during a first-grade language class before picking up a water pail and carrying it to a vegetable and mushroom patch nearby. Her shyness is disarming, and her smile hides a pain she is perhaps too young to understand. She doesn’t know her parents; she doesn’t even know her age.
But she likes it here, regardless.
“Yep” is all her shy personality is able to muster when asked if she likes learning. Another
“yep” comes when asked if she likes watering the fields. Srey Moum, the girl without an age, has been here at Battambang-based NGO Komar Rikreay children’s shelter for three months, and will most likely stay here for many more. Her parents haven’t been found, despite ongoing efforts by officials to reunite her with them.
Sadly, hers is a story all too common in Cambodia. Prom Kim Chheng is the executive director of Komar Rikreay, an NGO that provides shelter, medical support and education for street children and all trafficking victims under the age of 18 years. Founded in June 1998, the brainchild of former Enfant Refugiées du Monde coordinator Rose-Anne Papavero has seen no less that 502 children come through its doors.
“They stay in the centre for six months to a year,” said Prom Kim Chheng. “We try to keep them at the centre, we provide non-formal education, and we contact public schools and refer them.”
Originally established to provide night-time housing for street children in the Battambang area, the organisation has slowly but surely spread to assist other children in great need. In conjunction with a transit centre created by both UNICEF and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2000, the shelter now assists Cambodian children repatriated from Thailand. Many of these children are arrested by Thai authorities after being found begging and working, even in jobs as demanding as construction work.
But sometimes assistance is an uphill battle – not just for trafficked children but also for street children, who often have a hard time believing that someone would be out there who actually cares about their wellbeing.
“Some children are not easy to work with,” she said. “The kind of children [we find] on the streets have difficulty behaving, a difficult attitude. And they don’t want to stay in the centre; they want to stay on the streets.”
“They don’t [have any] trust,” she explains. “They don’t believe they can improve their lives, so they don’t want to stay.”
This is despite being offered room to stay, food and a medical check, a necessary procedure, as some children come to the shelter with diseases such as hepatitis. Rim Banlim has been a caretaker for five years at the shelter and agrees that some children don’t trust in anyone’s willingness to assist them.
“I pay the most attention to troubled kids; they can create problems,” he said. “Most troubled kids have learned a lot of tricks from Thailand, but I still pity them because they come from troubled families.”
Once they stay for an extended period, however, they learn not only to behave, but trust. “The children improve generally; they can be reintegrated with their families,” he said.
It is the reintegration of children with parents or close relatives that remains the major aim of the centre. Children come to the shelter and meet with case managers, who in turn start an exhaustive search for family. If found, they are reunited under several conditions agreed to by those receiving the children, and local authorities: They must promise to keep the children at home, refer them to schools and look after their health.
But as the old saying goes, some promises are made to be broken. Prom Kim Chheng said that some children have returned “two or three times”, often after parents, relatives or traffickers take hold of the children again and return them to the exact same problem they faced initially. For children like this, there are further options.
“We have had to create a foster care programme,” she said, where children are temporarily or permanently placed with a family willing to look after them.
There are also kinship programmes, where children stay with relatives under the watch of the organisation, and independence programmes, where children stay with other street children but are supported by Komar Rikreay.
Vocational programmes are provided in certain cases to provide training for the families of children so they are able to support them. Children who work at garbage dumps are offered scholarships to schools. Children at the shelter are taught how to farm such products as mushrooms and chickens, the end result of which can be sold at the markets and provide a small dose of self-sustainability for the shelter.
Far from being just a shelter for kids with no other options, Komar Rikreay staff members say they are attempting to provide children with the ability to create their own choices. Ideally, it’s a centre that shouldn’t have to exist, but it is one that has become essential to reintegrating abandoned children into society.
“The suggestion of the Ministry of Social Affairs is that the centre is the last choice for the children; they want the children to stay in the community, not the centre,” said Prom Kim Chheng.
But for children like Srey Moum, the girl without an age, the shelter is literally the only choice. Her smile reflects the work of the shelter in giving her something the streets don’t provide: a roof, an education and a chance.