Phymean Noun is the founder of the People Improvement Organisation, which for nearly 15 years has connected homeless children to education. Phymean was born in Kampong Cham in 1971. She dreamt of pursuing higher education but instead suffered under the shadow of the Khmer Rouge. Before her mother passed away in 1987, she told her: “Although you are poor, you have to finish school.” This week, she spoke with Vandy Muong about the places and things in Phnom Penh that remain important to her dream of helping young people and where she escapes to clear her head
The riverside is my favourite place in town, and I always used to pack lunch to eat there to see the river view. In 2002, I went to riverside in front of the Royal Palace for lunch. Suddenly, I saw a lot of young people who sleep on the street, and some of them were asking for money from tourists. While I was eating there, they asked me for my food, but I told them to wait until I had cleaned my hands. When I threw my leftover meat in the rubbish bin, many of them came to take it to eat. I felt so bad for them and tears came to my eyes immediately because I was reminded of the Pol Pot regime when people were starving. I told them to sit and bought food for them as they told their stories. Their families came from the provinces to work as scavengers and asked for money from tourists. Today, there are not many of them at the riverside, but there are still poor people.
Stung Meanchey dumpsite
I always heard about Stung Meanchey dumpsite, which is called “Trash Mountain” by local people, but back then I’d never been there. The homeless children told me that their parents were working there to get some money. I asked those children how to help, and they told me to visit the dumpsite to see that a lot of people were working in a risky environment. I was touched that those homeless children wanted education. My dream was to finish school since I was poor, so why not help them to achieve their dreams as well? Then, I tried to work hard and save money to help them without free time. I also invited some relatives to study in the house. After I quit my job, I created the People Improvement Organization in 2002, which has done a lot of work focusing on the struggles in Stung Meanchey.
I never get tired of meeting children, but I also need time to relax, and Areyksat [across from Koh Pich] is one of my favourite places to stay. I mostly go there every day because I like to relax along the riverside. The environment and landscape are nice, fresh and quiet, and it is naturally windy. It is not far from the city but being there gives me a different feeling. Now, I have a house there, so I can drive around to look for poor children who could not attend school. If I can help, I will help them. I want to see how it changes from day to day, and from what I can see now, there are not many children who beg or sleep outside like before. It only takes a half hour to drive without traffic from Areyksat ferry at Diamond Island (Koh Pich) to my workplace in Stung Meanchey.
Royal University of Fine Arts
Students at PIO have different backgrounds from students who study in state or private schools. They used to live in dumpsites or on the street, and they never had a chance to visit different places in Phnom Penh or the provinces. Therefore, we often organise field trips to the provinces and Phnom Penh, such as to the Royal Palace, National Museum, Tuol Sleng and RUFA, because we want them to learn from new places and to do research after they graduate. RUFA has many things to offer, and the children can research about history; at the same time, it improves their knowledge through the trip.
PIO souvenir shop
PIO shop was created to empower poor women and children who attended vocational training and make souvenirs and recycled products such as bags, wallets, necklaces, clothes and so on. Eight years ago, we were selling them in Russian Market, but we have only one shop now at PIO Stung Meanchey, because we didn’t want to spend much on rent. We get money to help more than one thousand students in our organisation because we offer everything for free, such as study materials, bags, clothes, health care, food and shelter for some children.