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Rays of Hope on Dark Streets in Phnom Penh

By Antonio Graceffo

Street children, Phnom Penh. Photo by Antonio Graceffo. "First you put the open can of glue in the plastic." Explained Thun, the leader of the three street kids I had stopped to interview. We were sitting on the dirty concrete in front of a strip of deserted shops, in down town Phnom Penh, late at night. It was raining, but the boys didn't seem to notice. Thun's tinny hands, were like delicate, sunburned matchstick. He was 15, but very small and malnourished. He could have passed for twelve or even younger. "Now, wrap the outside of the bag around your hand like this." He demonstrated. "And inhale." He plunged his face into the bag, and sucked the noxious vapors into his lungs. Even from where I sat, I could smell the deadly poison that was rotting the brains of the street kids. Self consciously, I took half a step back. The fumes were making me dizzy. Thun looked up from the bag, his face in a broad grin, as his eyes rolled back in his head.

"Me next!" Called out his friend, 13 year old Saem Jog Raen.

The boys told me that they could buy a large quantity of glue for only 5,000 Riels ($1.20 USD), which they could earn in a day of begging and shinning shoes. But if they didn't have the 5,000 Riels, there was a nice Khmer lady who purchased bottles of glue, and resold it in smaller containers for as little as 500 Riels. As if the fact that children lived on the street wasn't a bad enough, now there were people who profited from their misfortune. This would not be the last tale of exploitation I would hear during my research.

When I later asked Sebastian Marot, the coordinator of the Friends NGO, in Phnom Penh, about the glue, he told me. "79% of the kids are hooked on something. It used to be glue. But now glues is falling off in popularity. Yaba (methyl amphetamine) is now the most popular drug, with heroine making a huge climb in recent years."

Sebastian also told me that there was a kind of mafia, who took part of the boys earnings. Other exploiters were a new phenomenon of middle class gangster teenagers, called Bon Tom, who would rob, rape and beat the weaker street kids. Bon Toms were bigger, stronger, well fed, and most of all, they had political protection through their families. They could do whatever they wanted to the helpless street boys, and know that they would escape, unpunished.

All of the street kids I found and interviewed were boys. "Girls don't last very long on the streets." Explained Sebastian. "Someone will usually find them, and sell them to a brothel." He explained that many girls never even mad it to the streets, because at the moment that the family decided they didn't want their daughter, she could be sold into indentured servitude. The family would be paid a fee, which functioned as a "loan," which the girl would have to work off. Indentured servitude did not always occur in brothels. It could be that the girl had to work as domestic help in some rich person's house. But often, the girls were more valuable to the family, or to their new "owners," as prostitutes. Girls could also be re-sold, when their debt was nearly paid off. In this case, they would have to start over from zero again, working off the new debt. The abuses of girls were so diabolical and so varied that they would have to be the subject of a future article.

When you see children living on the streets the first question that comes to mind is "Why?" Of the twelve children I interviewed that night, almost all of them began by saying, "My friend introduced me to sniffing glue..." At that point, the stories began to deviate. I had prepared myself for the tales of abuse, and economic factors, like the lack of food at home. But the stories I hadn't anticipated were even more heartbreaking. Thun told me that his friend had lead him to Phnom Penh, two or three years earlier. But, when he decided to return home, he realized he didn't know the way back to his village. So, he remained on the streets of the capitol. A fifteen-year-old boy, named Mao, told me that his father had become disabled, so he and his mother came to the city to beg. At some point, his mother decided to go back to the village. Before she left, she told him to wait for her, and she would return to take him home. That was five years ago.

"So why don't you go home?" I asked. "Because I am waiting for my mother." Said Mao, annoyed that I hadn't listened to the first part of the story.

Mao lived on a side street, sleeping on a makeshift mattress, of cardboard, which he shared with about ten of his friends, ranging in age, with oldest being 20. Where the younger boys made money by polishing shoes, the older boys made money guarding cars. They all said that they were addicted to glue, and many sited this as the reason they couldn't return home.

Thun was always laughing and joking. But when I asked him if he missed his mother, he suddenly became teary eyed and whispered, "Don't ask me that. When I think about my mother I want to cry." That one question had converted him from a tough, street-smart hustler, to a hurt and lost child, which is what he was.

All of the boys grew quiet and emotional, probably thinking of home. The mood had changed from one of joking with the strange big foreigner with the camera, to one of depressed reflection.

"It's better here than at home." Blurted out Puk Gdai, breaking the silence. At 19 he was a six year veteran of the streets. "No one bothers us, and we can do what we want. Also we eat better than we did back in the village." All of the boys were so skinny that their ribs were showing. Taking in the damp, smelly alley where they slept, I thought, if this was better than home, I couldn't imagine what conditions were like back in the village.

Sebastian would later tell me that many boys preferred the streets, because they didn't have to do back-breaking farm work. They could come and go as they pleased. They had lots of friends, and they could get high as often as they wished.

The boys definitely confirmed Sebastian's assertion, that many preferred the streets. But there did seem to be some conflicting emotions, because when I asked them if they would like to live at home and go to school, if they could, they all said "yes." Most of them had only completed the second grade.

As much as the boys were all underweight, none of them looked like they were teetering on the brink of starvation. They were reasonably clean, considering where they lived, and many had recently had a hair cut. When I asked where they got their haircut, I heard the first glimmer of good news I had heard all night.

"There is a Khmer lady who cuts our hair and gives us 500 Riels." Said Mao.

Suddenly, the stars above the alley shone a bit brighter. Someone cared. Some faceless, nameless person had retained her humanity and compassion.

I tried to track this woman down, but was unsuccessful. I hoped, however that she was one of many people who took an interest in these children. Even if no one did anything for them, but at least stopped the exploitation, that would greatly improve their quality of life. But, if many people would do a little bit, the problem could be mitigated considerably.

The next good news I heard was when I asked the boys where they showered. "Friends NGO." They said. "And where do you eat breakfast?" "Friends NGO." "And where do you have lunch?" "Friends NGO."

Many street kids can't read or write. But when it comes to street smarts, they have a Masters degree from the university of life and a PHD from the school of hard knocks. With so many people out to scam them, the basic laws of social Darwinism suggest that the ones who survive must be brilliant judges of character. If the boys trusted the Friends NGO, then it was worth checking out. Thanks to these kids, I met my new friend, Sebastian, who is helping to lead the best NGO I had ever seen.

Friends is a huge complex, almost like a village, which includes a restaurant, a retail shop, a barber shop, beauticians, classrooms, work shops, a clinic, dormitories, and much more. I would later discover that all of these shops were run by street kids, who were completing job-training programs. The one thing that Friends did not have was a barbed wire fence. "We have an open door policy." Explained Sebastian. "The kids are not prisoners. They can come and go as they please."

The friends program included education in basic mathematics and written Khmer language. There were classes in English and French for more advanced learners. But the most important aspect of the program was the job training.

"To get kids off the streets we have to offer them real options, not bullshit options." Said Sebastian.

I appreciated his directness, and liked him immediately. The fiery young frenchman kept coming back to the point that the kids don't necessarily hate their life on the streets. You couldn't take the streets away, unless you gave them something in return.

"NGOs offer sewing classes." Said Sebastian. "We do too, because the kids asked for it. But that is an example of a bullshit option."

Given the choice between sewing in a dark factory ten hours a day, for forty dollars a month, and living on the streets, completely free, and earning thirty dollars, I would choose the streets. For the kids who had been involved with prostitution the choice was even easier. As freelance prostitutes they could earn much more money, and they got to wear nice clothes and go to bars at night. They even had the chance to meet some rich man who might take them away.

In keeping with Sebastian's policy of real options, Friends offered training in auto mechanics, motorcycle repair, hairdressing, barbering, electricity, and welding. "These are all jobs where the kids can make good money." Said Sebastian. "Especially welding, welding is very well paid."

Another important point about the job skills which Friends taught, they allowed the children to become entrepreneurs. "When they graduate, we help the children to open their own shops, because they would never get a fair chance working for someone else."

The training and schooling sounded great. But Sebastian and the boys had already told me how much they liked their freedom. "What percentage of the kids run away?" I asked.

"One hundred percent." Said Sebastian, seriously. He gave me a moment to digest this fact, then he explained. "This is not a prison. And it is not an orphanage. It is a center to help street kids. They can come and go as they please. Usually they come in a few times for a meal or a shower. Then they leave. They come back, spend a few nights, and then leave again. Maybe they start school, but then disappear for weeks. Eventually, hopefully, they will come back, and stay here until they complete a program. But the important point is that the kids have to do it when they are ready. No one can make them do it."

This was a different approach than any NGO I had heard of. In Thailand there are NGOs whose policies of not allowing the children to leave are actually brining accusations of kidnapping and imprisonment. Another issue in Thailand is that many of the residential NGOs don't allow the parents to see the children.

"We encourage family participation." Said Sebastian. "Some of these kids are not orphans. They are working on the streets, selling things or beginning, to help support the family. If the child goes into a full time program, the family will loose income which is feeding younger siblings or keeping them in school. With this in mind, we have programs to help the parents increase their income, so the child will be free to attend classes. We also have programs where kids can continue working the streets half the day, and come to class half the day."

One of the harshest criticisms about NGOs has been that they impose western values, morales, and religious ideas on the children. After a few years in a mission school, kids would normally not be able to return to their village, because they will have changed too much. Having familiar involvement helps ease the transition from NGO student, to productive member of society, and insures that the children remain a member of the family.

"But what about the parents who sold their daughter?" I asked, playing the devils advocate. ""What if they come to the door and want their daughter back, so they could sell her again?"

This was a hard question. In the west, we couldn't imagine a child feeling any allegiance to parents that had sold her, particularly if she had been sold to a brothel. But this was Asia, and the familiar hierarchy was much stronger. "If we were to tell the girl not to go back to the family, would this be imposing our culture on her?" I asked.

Sebastian deferred this question to Lek Sin Rithy, a former street kid, who is now an administrator with Friends NGO. He spoke excellent English and French, and took great pride in the help he and Freinds were able to give to the children. "Our culture is very strong." Explained Lek Sith Rithy. "And we must respect our parents, even if they do bad things." Lek went on to explained that the young generation of educated cambodians who worked at the center would encourage such a child to not allow herself to be sold again. "But it is a slow process. We have to undo centuries of cultural conditioning." When Lek said this, he could just as easily have meant a particular child had to change, or the Cambodian society as a whole had to change.

Of the more than 200 employees at the Friends center, there were only five foreigners. And these were employed in administrative jobs, where they would not have contact with the children. This was done to keep from imposing western culture on the children.

This all sounded good, far better than any program I had heard of in the past. But my question remained unanswered. "On the day that the mother comes here to take her daughter and sell her again, do you let her go?"

Sebastian had a fair answer. "Cambodia has signed international conventions regarding child prostitution and baring the exploitation of children. Where the culture may dictate otherwise, we are obligated to defer to the law." In Cambodia it is illegal to sell a human being.

Lek took me on a tour of the complex, which included a daycare center. "Some of the street children are caring for their younger siblings. They couldn't attend classes unless we could mind the babies."

An incredibly kind looking Khmer teacher walked around, directing the elementary children at break time. The whole while she held a malnourished baby, as if she would never let it go.

"When she first came here, this baby was so small." Explained Lek. "But now she has gained weight, and we are sure that she will survive."

The teacher smiled at me, and all of the small children sampaed (put their hands in prayer position as a sign of greeting and respect for an elder). The small children acted like small children everywhere. They played. They laughed. They smiled. Sometimes they were probably naughty. They didn't seem to know or care that they were considered street kids or homeless. At the Friends center, they were just kids. I looked at all of those happy faces and wondered how there could be people in the world who wouldn't want them. And even more, I wondered how there could be people in the world who would want to hurt them.

I thought my tour was over, but Lek insisted that I follow him on his motorcycle. He was obviously very excited to show me something in another part of town, so I went along with him. When we arrived at our destination, a hip-looking internet cafe, Lek's face was as bright as a boy on Christmas morning, proudly showing off his new bicycle. "This is our shop, and the kids run it." He said. Lek took me to two other restaurants which were run by street kids. We didn't make it to the fourth, which was a French restaurant, located at the Aliance Francaise, but I got the pictured. The kids had graduated. They weren't going back to the streets. They weren't going back to the brothels or back to the glue. They were ready to make money, to start a family, to reintegrate into society. And it was only possible because Friends wasn't offering them bullshit options.

Originally, I thought that my story about the street children would be another, incredibly depressing tale, which ended with me reaching for a whisky bottle. But instead, thanks to Friends NGO, Sebastian Marot, Lek Sin Rithy, and the nameless woman who cut hair, I walked away feeling hopeful. There were still good people in the world. There were still people who cared about their fellow men. There were people who gave of themselves, without hidden agendas.

As I drove home from Friends NGO, the small glimmer of stars I had seen in the alley, where the street boys lived, turned into a bright sun.

Contact the author at:
Contact Sebastian Marot of Friends:
Contact Lek Sin Rithy, Administrator:

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