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The Dump Children
Life After the Landfill, Phnom Penh
"You are my only outside friend," Ravuth told me as a handful of tiny lavender petals were tossed into the air, briefly grazing my face before landing in soft puddles on the floor. We were watching a traditional Khmer Apsara performed by the younger girls of the children's home, a welcome dance for the foreigners who'd just arrived with gifts and supplies. Tinny music played from a cassette player as the dancers moved in slow precision, each balancing a bronze bowl in one hand, throwing flowers with the other. The room filled with an explosion of laughter as fragrant lavender petals sailed through the air and were caught by excited hands of the children in the audience. A flower fight was brewing. Ravuth and I gathered up the drifts that had collected around us and joined in the battle.
I met Ravuth at the Center for Children to Happiness (CCH), a home for children previously known as 'Dump Children' and 'Garbage Pickers'. Before coming to live at CCH, they worked at Phnom Penh's city dump, Steung Meanchey, toiling in noxious fumes of smoke and piles of rubbish, picking out plastic and other items to sell to recycling businesses in order to earn money, usually less than $1.00 per day. Some of the children come from poor single-parent families, but most are orphans who labored in the landfill instead of going to school, sometimes without food or shoes to wear on their feet as they scavenged through piles of trash with hazards like medical waste, needles, glass, and sharp metal.
I was there for one week, along with my boyfriend, Benjamin, teaching the kids computer graphics. I found CCH online and with a single email to the center's founder and director, Mech Sokha, we were signed up to volunteer. Benjamin and I'd been traveling throughout Asia for nearly 5 months and wanted to do something less 'self-centered', if travel can be considered as such, and settle into a place for a period of time, get to know the people, and give something back to a country that captured our hearts during previous travels.
We first visited Cambodia several years ago and returned home haunted by memories of the people we met, their stories, and their spirit. I was touched by their friendly manner and capacity to overcome a volatile history and genocide. And there is something enchanting about the landscapes - flat horizons, fringed with sugar palms and coconut trees, that separate a cerulean sky from bright green fields; It's in the gentle breeze that ripples through rice paddies, giving the impression that the stalks wave 'hello, goodbye', just like the children who shout this greeting from the side of the road. It's in the slow pace, the rich redness of the dirt roads, the gilded temples, the vibrant markets, and the faded elegance of colonial years. But Cambodia has a dark side, too, afflicted by scars from the Khmer Rouge years, corruption, poverty, AIDS, landmines, inadequate health care, a deficient education system, and the sexual exploitation of children. It is a country fraught with troubles that have kept Cambodians among the poorest in Asia, as the children at the Center know all too well.
To be honest, I was a little anxious about teaching at the Center at first. While I did truly want to volunteer when I sent my initial email, I got nervous upon receiving Sokha's reply. The subject title read, "We need your volunteer on graphic design," and the contents of the email, while using formalities such as, "Your cooperation in these matters would be much appreciated," were warm and unassuming, even cute - he wrote, "Little by little the bird born it nests." I took this to mean, 'little by little, the baby bird builds its nest'. So what was I worried about? The language barrier, for one thing. From Sokha's email, I got the impression that English may be an issue (and at times, it was... but that's another story). I was also worried about the facilities (3 working computers for 6 students), and my own lack of teaching experience. "What do we do for a whole week?" I wondered.
I knew the children that we would be teaching had some computer training, but I had no idea what they'd learned or if our 6 students were equally proficient. I realized that my normal way of doing things might be too... organized. I sometimes fall into a trap of 'not doing' because it isn't the 'right' way. So, Benjamin and I came up with a loose plan to split the kids into two teams, each of which would design a website and everything else, we figured, would fall into place when the time came. That said, I did have a bulleted 'to do' list for the first day - line items like, 'introduce ourselves', 'learn the students' names', and other things one shouldn't normally need reminding of.
But, as usual, all the time I spent fretting was for naught - my anxieties melted away the moment we arrived at the Center. All 33 children came running out to welcome us, placing their hands together and bowing their heads in the traditional Khmer greeting, their voices chiming in unison, "Hello! How are you? What is your name?" They held onto our hands and put their arms around us, jockeying for space to get closer so they could touch an arm, climb on our backs, or simply get a better look at us. It was the warmest welcome I've ever received and you couldn't have pried the smile off my face with a crow bar if you tried. Simply being there was enough for them and while I did want to teach the kids something of some value, they were just happy for the attention.
"I have lived here for three years," Ravuth told me when we first met. His father died when he was young and before coming to the Center, he lived with his mother at the dump. Numbers are uncertain, but roughly 2000 people live at Steung Meanchey in makeshift huts that surround the 6-hectare property. Benjamin and I visited the landfill one day. Before we left, Ravuth inquired if I had a mask to wear. "Do I need one?" I asked. He didn't respond with words, but instead gave me the kind of look one would give a person who asked if they needed a hose to fight a fire.
Walking into the Steung Meanchey dump was surreal, like when dreams cross the threshold of nightmares. It appeared to be endless: a massive, stinking, smoldering pile of refuse. The dump is nicknamed 'Smoky Mountain' because of the constant drifts of smoke given off from methane that has ignited in the waste. At times, it was impossible to see anything farther than 20 feet in front of me - blurry silhouettes of people would emerge from gray smoke like apparitions. Other times, the smoke would get caught in the wind and part like theater curtains, exposing blue skies and countless human figures in the landscape: bending, crouching, lifting, scavenging. We didn't stay at the dump very long; the acrid smoke was choking and nauseating. It's hard to comprehend how the garbage pickers at the dump can handle it, day in and day out. Many of them wear kramas (traditional Khmer scarves) wrapped around their faces and heads, which give them the appearance of mummies or terrorists - furthering the image in my mind of having walked into a nightmare. The kids who are lucky enough to leave the dump and live at the Center undergo weeks of respiratory treatments to fix the damage caused by the smoke.
Ravuth was waiting for us when we returned, wanting to know how we were. He'd opened up a lot in only a few days; at first he was a bit reserved, but attentive - I would always find him sitting near me, at times struggling to make small talk. Later that day, he took me on an outdoor tour of the Center, along a path that cuts through a garden full of orchids, past a flock of ducks, and ends, to my surprise, next to a pen with two colossal pigs the size of small, European cars. "Do you eat them?" I asked. "No, to sell," he told me. Later, I learned from Sokha that CCH raises and sells pigs to help pay operational costs. A large pig, such as the two I saw in the pen, go for $60.00 - enough money to send 2 kids to school for one year (and by the looks of it, feed a small village tribe for a decade).
As we got to know each other better, I learned that Ravuth's nervous smile and averted gaze was not a product of shyness, but a reaction to questions he didn't know how to answer. Eventually he would tell me, "I'm sorry. I don't know how to say in English..." I would laugh and reply, "I am sorry that I don't know how to ask in Khmer." It was a wonder we were able to teach the kids as much as we did - half the time, I don't think they knew what we were talking about. The other half of the time, I would catch them doing things on the computer that I knew nothing about. But like any other self-respecting teacher, I kept that one to myself.
One evening, mid-week, Benjamin and I were busy at work, planning our lesson for the next day. We decided to extend our teaching commitment a few days. Not only because we were having such a good time working with the kids, but also because we wanted them to finish their projects. We'd arrived to the center that afternoon to find that none of our students were there. I was surprised at how disappointed I was to see their empty seats. There was a communication issue with the schedule and, we learned, our students were off-site, at an organization that teaches them Japanese. "I miss them already," Benjamin told me. He had something special planned that day for Narun and Sayorn, two of the boys that had taken a special shine to him.
Narun, an artistic boy of 16 years, came to the Center with his sister. They were born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, and lived with their father in the dump before coming to CCH. Their mother suffers from mental illness, as do many women of her age. According to some sources, three quarters of the adult population who lived through the KR years suffer from stress disorders and mental health care is almost non-existent. Sayorn, a very mature 10-year-old, is an orphan; his mother died in childbirth and his father lost his life to a landmine. An estimated 4 to 6 million landmines are still hidden in Cambodia's soil and many victims are farmers, wounded or killed while clearing or planting their fields. Mines shift in the monsoon season, making a field that was safe one year dangerous the next. Our other students included children orphaned by AIDS. According to Sokha, there are more than 45,000 AIDS orphans living on the streets of Phnom Penh. He expects the number to double in the next year.
Each day, Benjamin and I would arrive to the Center with all the fanfare of that first day. It was hard not to feel like a superstar with all the affection and attention bestowed upon us. When we were done with our lesson, we would play with the kids - hide and seek was a popular game with the girls, while the boys preferred to climb all over Benjamin as if he were a jungle gym. And when it was time for us to leave, our students would clasp our hands and tell us, "Thank you for teaching me today." Once, in a rare moment of quiet, Sayorn confided, "When you come here, I feel good inside." I assured him that I felt the same way. As the end of the week neared, I was feeling sad that we'd have to say good-bye to the kids. Benjamin tried to hatch a plan with Narun: his mission was to drop subtle hints to Sokha like, "Say, wouldn't a field trip to Angkor Wat with Cheryn and Benjamin be a great way to learn about Khmer history?" Ravuth, Sayorn, and some of the others had other tactics - perhaps if they didn't let go of our hands, we wouldn't be able to leave. But the time came to say our good-byes and one by one, our students and the rest of the children wished us luck and thanked us for the time we spent with them. "I will miss you," they told us. And we knew we would miss them, too.
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