At nine years old Oark Nay Heang was sent by her mother from Kandal province to live with an aunt in Phnom Penh so that she could go to school. Living near a dumpsite, she collected cans from the dumpsite to earn money to give her aunt. However thanks to an NGO she has now graduated from university and has a steady job.
Oark Nay Heang is at a very different place today than when she was growing up.
She has just graduated from university and she’s excited about the next chapter of her life.
“When I was a child, I couldn’t dream about having a decent job in society,” Ms Nay Heang says. “Back then, I was covered in dirt from head to toe and I smelled bad too.”
“Now I have clean clothes to wear,” she says.
The 24-year-old was able to get an education after she received support from the Cambodia Children’s Fund, an NGO that focuses on impoverished children. Ms Nay Heang says it all began in 2004 at the dump in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey commune.
At nine years old, she and her sister Oark Nay Houy had just arrived from Kandal province to live with her aunt in the capital and receive an education. However, being from a poor family meant that they too had to work and earn their keep.
From the early morning hours to about noon, she worked in order to give about $2.50 to her aunt.
“I collected cans and sold them for 10,000 riels,” Ms Nay Heang says. “I did not dare to keep some for myself because my life depended on her.”
Life was quite different than what she was used to.
“My aunt lived near a dump and her house was surrounded by an mountain of rubbish,” Ms Nay Heang says. “It was different than the house in our hometown – which was surrounded by a nature.”
“We had fresh air there,” she adds. “Living near a dump became tiring, but we had no choice.”
One day, she and her sister were approached by a foreigner who told her that she can be much more in life.
“I was collecting rubbish when a foreigner named Scott approached me and asked where I was from,” Ms Nay Heang says. “He asked me about school and whether I wanted to come with him to his NGO.
“At the time I was afraid because I thought he would take me somewhere to sell me,” she says. However, both she and her sister decided to go against their fear and visit the CCF in order to be able to go to school.
“I didn’t even know what an NGO was, I just knew that I wanted to study,” Ms Nay Heang says. “But when I was taken in by CCF, I realise that I would also receive food and shelter.”
Since 2004, CCF has worked with impoverished communities in the Kingdom.
Its work revolves around about 2,000 students who are working towards the betterment of themselves.
Despite the dump being closed in 2009, CCF is still continuing its work in Stung Meanchey, which is considered to be an entry-point into Phnom Penh for destitute families with no options.
As for Ms Nay Heang and her sister, they would eventually stay with CCF until their graduation day.
“[CCF] taught me skills such as how to use computers, how to speak English, and how to sew – but the learning didn’t end there because I was able to attend school,” Ms Nay Heang says. “Then I went to university to learn about the tourism industry. Now I work for a tourism company.”
Now, with the money that she earns at the tourism company, Ms Nay Heang sends money back to Kandal in order to help her family.
“I could never have imagined that my life would be so different,” she says. “I changed from someone who had nothing – someone who was from a dump and had dirty clothes – to someone who now has a steady job.”
Ms Nay Heang’s mother Soun Sok Khim, 45, resides in Lvea Em district and tells a story about how she wanted her daughters to go to Phnom Penh in order to receive an education.
“I knew that the place where my daughters were living was surrounded by rubbish, but I still moved them there anyway because I wanted them to study and struggle in life,” Ms Sok Khim says. “My daughter lived there with her aunt so she can go to school in the city. I wanted her to learn from her aunt.”
“Luckily, she and her sister met Mr Scott, who was able to provide shelter,” she adds. “I was so happy to see that my child has become educated and employed.”
In December, CCF held a party to congratulate 30 university students who were under their wing.
CCF founder Scott Neeson says a majority of the children who were taken had worked as rubbish collectors, just like Ms Nay Heang.
“They came to have success in their lives. It’s hard to describe how they will be, but we are very proud of each of them,” Mr Neeson says.
He says he first came to the Kingdom in 2004 and scoured the rubbish dump in Stung Meanchey in order to find children to help.
“The horrors of these children […] they did not have enough food, no parents and lived in rubbish piles,” Mr Neeson says.
He says that most of the children have now come a long way from where they first began.
“These achievements are of great significance to the graduating students and to all other students, as well as the whole CCF family,” Mr Neeson says. “Their motivating factor was to see these achievements. Not just the kids got it, but their whole family as well. They will bring their families out of this tough place.”
Ms Nay Heang says she will always be grateful to Mr Neeson for giving her a chance in life.
“I thank the CCP, especially Mr Scott because he changed my life for the better,” Ms Nay Heang adds, noting that she also has a message for children who are going through what she went through.
“Only education can bring us a good future with a job,” she says. “The CCF didn’t only support me, but also many other children from Stung Meanchey and other poor children from [rural areas]. The CCF supports them to study in school so they will have a chance in life.”