In Cambodia, the term ‘orphan’ is loosely defined and most of the kids in the so-called orphanages are not really parentless children. But some of the NGO-run orphanages are actually giving these children a fair go as Sheila Yuanjiahuan found out.
He had no idea where they were heading.
His mother was silent. His two younger brothers rested their heads on his shoulders, and all he could hear was the loud engine sound from the tuk-tuk. Sopheak Satya didn’t know that this was the night that would change his life. The three siblings were dropped off at Countryside Children Organization (CCO), a non-governmental organization which also serves as an orphanage center, located in Siem Reap.
Eight years later, Sopheak speaks fluent English, and his outstanding grades have given him access to a foreign sponsor, who provided financial support for him to attend an exchange programme in Canada. After that, he was transferred to an international school in Phnom Penh. But all the chances he has received would not have been possible if he was not labelled an “orphan”.
“I’m happy here. I get a better education and learn different languages from volunteers,” the 18-year-old boy said with a bright smile. Like many Cambodians who live in poor conditions, Sopheak’s mother believes that living in residential care centers, which have better education than local public schools, is the only way to help her children get out of the poverty trap.
Sopheak is not the only one who has a mother but lives in an orphanage. And he is one of the lucky few.
A recent study by Columbia University and USAID estimates that 48,775 children live in residential care centers in Cambodia – equal to nearly one of every 100 children in the country. Like Sopheak, the considerable majority of these children are not real orphans – almost 80 percent have at least one living parent, the research shows.
With its rich historical and cultural heritage, Cambodia has been one of the most popular travel destinations, and more than two million tourists a year visiting the once war-torn land. Many come with an honourable wish – to be volunteers in local schools or orphanages to share their knowledge and skills for the betterment of the children. According to a survey, Cambodia ranked the fifth most searched country on the Internet, in terms of volunteer tourism (voluntourism). Over the past decades, flourishing of the voluntourism industry has resulted in so-called “orphanages” skyrocketing all over Cambodia.
Due to the lack of sound regulations and a lax legal system, most of the child residential care institutions in Cambodia are unregistered or non-compliant. One of the reports released by UNICEF indicates that more than half of these institutions are unregistered in five high-populated provinces of Cambodia –Battambang, Kandal, Phnom Penh, Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap.
As a journalist at Asian Correspondent, Alexandra Demetrianova, reported, “With such practice, authorities have no way of checking the facilities, having oversight of their practices and identifying abuse or child trafficking.”
Cambodia has been infamous as a heaven for pedophiles and sex tourists for a long time and every year, foreign men are jailed for child sex crimes. In spite of this predicament, many orphanages are still accessible to all strangers – without identification and without any appointments.
But Sopheak, says he has never regretted being an “orphan” at CCO. The organization seems to offer him a brighter future. It helps cover his living expenditures, pay his school tuition fees, and even help him find a kind Canadian sponsor.
“I always miss my mom. But if I didn’t come here, I would be herding cows in my hometown,” Sopheak says smilingly.
Poverty and education are considered the two main reasons parents send their children to orphanages in Cambodia.
Born in a remote village near Phnom Penh, Soung Borey, has lived in CCO for six years. He was only sent to school when he was 10.
“I want to study and my four other siblings agreed to work to help support the family,” says Soung.
Phola, Soung’s mother adds: “He is the smartest one. His father and I do want him to go to school, so we sent him to CCO.”
After the civil war, school education in Cambodia has been a part-time affair at best, taking up about four hours per day. But this is not enough. Students need to pay $25 to $30 per month directly to the teachers for supplementary classes.Teachers want the students to take these classes because the money paid by each student adds on to their meagre state salary of around $200 per month.
Like Sopheak, Soung also gets much support from CCO. The organization gives him something which his family cannot afford – the $25 to $30 for extra classes per month.
“Everyday, I get one to two dollars from ‘mom’ (the chairwoman of CCO), and I save it for the extra classes,” says Soung.
However, like many profit-driven orphanages, CCO also runs orphanage tourism. It has cooperated with some travel agencies in Japan and South Korea and also gets groups of Chinese volunteers every week who need to pay the NGO for a chance to volunteer.
“What can I do?” asks Reaksa Phon, co-founder of CCO. “The organization needs funds to keep it running. But at least, I can promise to protect the children from criminals and trafficking gangs.”
It is true children at CCO are well-protected from the worst dangers, but some psychologists are concerned about the lingering effects short-term voluntourism would have on a child.
“I always cried when volunteers left, but now I’m getting used to it,” says Soung.
According to Piseth Vothana, a social worker at CCO, “Many volunteers promise the children that they would come back but they never really do.”
“They may think that the promises would help comfort the children. But it hurts them more, if they are false promises. Their hopes are often shattered.”
A local NGO, the Cambodian Children’s Trust, worked with UNICEF Cambodia on a report in 2014 which suggested the optimal choice for these so-called “orphans” was integrating them in their own families with social and financial support.
With support from the UN, the Cambodian government has launched a campaign with the aim of returning 30 percent of the total population of “orphans” home before the end of 2018.
But the process has been slow-moving. According to media reports, only 500 children have been sent back home in two years, as many them remain undocumented.
Knen Leat, is 19 and he has been living in CCO for almost six years. He is good in both English and Chinese and goes to high school. Last year, CCO co-founder Phon introduced him to a local Siem Reap hotel where he now works as a part-time receptionist. His salary a month is about $80.
The high-school student has many plans for his future. He said studying and working part time job is only the first step.
When asked if he could go back in time, would he have agreed to come to the orphanage six years ago? Leat shakes his head as his eyes turn red and watery.
“I really wanted to stay with my family, but my mom wanted me to continue my studies. I had no choice.”