In Cambodia's Biggest Dump, School Offers Hope

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Today
September 12, 2003
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 refuse—recyclables 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."

"It's very important for nonprofit organizations to develop schools in Cambodia," said Mom Thany, executive director of the Child Rights Foundation in Phnom Penh. "We are a very poor country, and there are not enough schools here."

Even in public schools, families pay informal fees to teachers, according to Eva Galabru, a French human rights activist who has worked in Cambodia for a decade. "An organization like For a Smile of a Child is giving the trash dump kids their only shot at an education," Galabru said.

Opening Minds

In today's physics class, students who grew up without electricity are studying the properties of light.

The teacher flashes a small laser beam though smoke wafting up from a stick of incense. Students crowd around, watching the beam bounce off angled mirrors. "We're putting into practice what they're studying in class," explains Prosper Rigot, another volunteer from France. "The objective is to make them curious about what happens around them."

Nearby in the school's kitchen, large soup pots full of chopped vegetables simmer for lunch.

"When students arrive here, you can see in the color and thinness of their hair that they have malnutrition problems," explains French volunteer Amelie Thibierge, who's worked at the school for a year. "Many of them don't eat much in their homes, only what they scavenge, so we provide breakfast and lunch everyday."

During class breaks, kids are also given soy milk and fruit snacks. They play boisterous games of tag and soccer. There is always the sound of laughter, something conspicuously absent at the dump.

A Hard Sell

When the des Pallieres' school first opened, families resisted letting their children attend—and sacrifice the income they'd earn as scavengers.

"It was very difficult to make the parents understand their kids had to stop working completely," said Thibierge. "At first, parents made their kids work at night. As you can imagine, they were coming to school exhausted."

To compensate for lost income, the school donates 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of rice every week to each family.

Besides academic courses, the school also offers vocational programs for older students. Philipe Carpentier, a French chef from Paris, is preparing students for hotel jobs in Phnom Penh or near Angkar Wat, Cambodia's main tourist attraction.

In Carpentier's kitchen, students in white aprons and puffy chef's hats hover over the stove, sautéing sliced pumpkin in brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon—a favorite treat.

Kim Sopheap, 21, a star pupil in the school's two-year business program, is about to graduate, with knowledge of computers and general accounting. Sopheap hopes to work at a travel agency.

"I came from a very poor family," Sopheap said. "We had nothing."

The founding des Pallieres are redeeming lives at Stung Meanchey.

"The children at our school come from this horrible poverty, but at the end of their school they can have a job, a real job," said Madame des Pallieres. "They are learning and playing and growing—seeing that growth is the best part of our work."

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