SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia – As a child, Chim Ponleu took comfort in art. She loved working with all the colours to create something beautiful.
Chim practiced her art nearly every day at a local drop-in centre, called Let Us Create, an MCC partner in the Cambodian province of Kampong Saum. Chim also learned English, Khmer reading and writing, and computer skills there. (In Cambodia, family names are used first.)
But at an early age she began feeling the pressure to contribute to her family’s meager income.
Chim grew up living with her grandparents and five siblings, of which she is one of the oldest. She says she felt responsible for them and worried her grandparents worked too hard.
“I feel sad at that time because I want to study, but I cannot do that because I see my family needs money,” Chim says. At 15 she dropped out of school to find a job.
According to Kong Sopheap, the national director of Let Us Create (LUC), this is a common theme for many children in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, many children leave school by the age of 15 to help run a family business or farm, find a job or take care of the family. Some never even finish primary school.
Kong says the cycle of poverty continues because the older generation doesn’t see the value of education since they never went to school.
Less than 40 years ago, Cambodia emerged from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime resulting in a total destruction of all schools and most of the country’s educated people. The country is still trying to catch up to its neighbours in many respects, including education.
Young people like Chim suffer these consequences, even decades later.
“No one inspired her or motivated [Chim]. Nobody studied or set a good example for her. They just thought we need money,” Kong says.
That is until LUC stepped in. The organization’s social worker spent time with Chim’s family to explain how important education was for her and their whole family’s future. As a result, the family agreed that she could attend Don Bosco Hotel School instead of working.
Chim is one of several talented young people in the province that LUC supported through technical school, while many children continue to come to the drop-in centre to express themselves through art, study and receive mentorship.
Skills for life
At Don Bosco, Chim studied basic education as well as cooking, food and beverage, housekeeping and front office skills. It wasn’t easy, though. She doubted herself and worried about her family, but the staff at LUC encouraged her to continue working hard for her future.
According to Kong, finding a sustainable livelihood in Cambodia is challenging, even for young people who graduate from high school.
“It’s difficult to find a good job because education in Cambodia isn’t quality. So it’s important to learn a skill as well,” Kong says.
Chim, now 18, graduated in early March with three job offers.
Chim just started work as manager of Cafe Awaken in Sihanoukville. Thanks to her education at Don Bosco and the work of MCC through LUC, she earns above-average wages in the field. Chim even helped decorate the establishment with her art.
Not only will Chim earn a living wage for herself, but she will also be able to provide for her young siblings and grandparents who are now too old to work.
“I feel happy I can help my family and myself,” she says. “Every month I will give to my grandmother and grandfather.”
Chim’s dreams don’t stop here, though. She plans to learn Chinese after work and hopes to go back to school one day to become a lawyer.
“I like to speak a lot, and I like to tell people when something is wrong. I know if I work like this, I can help my family,” she says.
Kong says she’s proud of Chim’s achievements, but above all else she’s glad Chim has gained the confidence to dream.
“It’s not just about getting a high level of education or a good job,” Kong says. “What I believe in is self-respect and valuing yourself.”
Rachel Bergen is a participant with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program in Cambodia. She is from Abbotsford, British Columbia.