National Geographic Today
Knee deep in trash, Phnom Penh's poorest families struggle to build a life from what others throw away. They are scavengers, living amid mountains of garbage in Stung Meanchey, the largest trash dump in Cambodia.
Their village, Preak Torl, a cluster of plywood shacks, clings to the dump's edge. Fumes from sewage and burning garbage fill the air. Pigs forage in the village's dirt lanes.
At the dump, garbage trucks plow in and out. When they lift and tilt their basins, it rains trash. People swarm underneath, bags open, competing for the best bits of refuserecyclables like plastic and aluminum to resell. The pay is 5,000 rial per hour, about 50 cents.
"They work from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes until ten o'clock at night," said Sy Sam, a Cambodian social worker who monitors the dump. "It's most dangerous at night when they can't see what they're grabbing or where they're stepping."
Some children as young as seven-years-old accompany their parents to the dump, becoming scavengers to help support their families.
Sam works with a French organization, For the Smile of Child, that's trying to change that. They set up a nearby school in 1996 to give the kids of Steang Meanchey a way out.
A Fresh Start
More than 800 students attend the school, wearing white uniforms with dark blue trim. They study math, history, geography, science, Khmer, English, and French. Recreational classes like painting and basketball are big favorites. The education is free of charge to the students' families.
Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres founded the school after he retired from IBM in France. The couple moved to Cambodia, hoping to do volunteer work. The sight of children in Stung Meanchey changed their lives.
"In 1994 we first saw the children scavengers, and we didn't know what to do. We didn't know how to help them," Madame des Pallieres said. "We thought, OK, we can start a program to provide education."
They returned home, raised money, and signed an agreement with the Cambodian Ministry of Education.
"We had three or four teachers when we started," Madame des Pallieres said. "Now there are 60 or 70. Our school keeps growing. That's a result of necessity, because there is so much need here."
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