Families living in a dumpsite in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district once lived with many uncertainties in their lives, causing many rubbish collectors to enlist the help of their children instead of sending them to school. But things began to change when Scott Neeson’s Cambodia Children’s Fund came into the picture in 2013. Now what was once a compound littered with rubbish and make-shift tents is a vibrant community with wooden homes.
Rin Sokna, a rubbish collector who lived in a tent near the Stung Meanchey dump for more than 20 years, says she never dreamed of owning a home.
“I used to live in a tent near the dump. It started when I was a child living with my parent. The place was dirty and when it rained, mud flowed, and along came bad smells, insects and snakes,” Ms Sokna, 31, says. “It was scary living out there.”
She says that one day, the Cambodia Children’s Fund came to where she lived and built homes for her and other families living near the dump.
Though the homes are modest, and she must pay $20 per month to a landlord, Ms Sokna says she is grateful for her three by six metre wooden home.
“It’s not a big house, but it’s decent for us. We appreciate it,” she says. “We are rubbish collectors, we do not have money to buy a house in the city.”
She says CCF has done a lot for her family. Aside from the home, CCF offered to pay for the education of her two children, and provided medical services and food. By doing so, Ms Sokna says CCF made a difference in her community.
“Before we ate rice alongside flies, and defecated anywhere near the dump,” she says. “Now hygiene comes into consideration when we clean, cook and eat food. We also have a bathroom and toilet. Our living conditions are better.”
Toch Neang, 51, says CCF built a house for her, and her two children were given an opportunity to go to school.
Ms Neang says her two children managed to graduate from high school, and are now working to help support the family.
“I wanted to get a house to live in, and I encouraged my children to go to school. I did not bring them to collect rubbish with me every day,” Ms Neang says. “I wanted them to have a good future. CCF sees that I try to support and take care of my family. I urged them to go to school and CCF helped build a house for me.”
“Living in a tent was hard on our daughters. There was only one room, and we had no bathroom. It wasn’t safe,” she adds. “But now we live in a house, and now my daughters are old enough to work to support the family.”
Ms Neang says she does not want her children to follow in her footsteps.
“I do not want my children to be rubbish collectors like me,” she says. “I could only earn $5 per day for food and to support my children.”
“I always encourage them to go to school,” Ms Neang adds. “I am happy when I see them able to live decently in a house, study and obtain an education.”
Tes Sophal, community chief, says things were different 15 years ago.
“Before, there were no homes and shelters, we had no clothes and did not have enough food to eat,” Mr Sophal says. “We lived with flies, and when it rained, it was difficult.”
He says that the Stung Meanchey dump community is now full of people living decently.
“When they have homes to live in and jobs, most people will not migrate elsewhere,” Mr Sophal says. “They are living in a safe and developing community.”
Last week, CCF celebrated 15 years of service with a day-long celebration and street festival at the Stung Meanchey community.
In a report, CCF said that in 15 years, it has helped 3,364 students to go to school. It also said that 260 students were able to receive higher education.
It noted that among 200 students who were given an education in 2004, 68 percent of them are either now studying in university or have graduated.
It added that in 15 years, CCF has been able to help about 6,590 families with healthcare and food, while it was able to provide 460 homes to 2,500 families.
CCF staffer Nai Cheang says she’s tasked with looking after the well-being of the children in the community.
“The families are poor and their children live with them at the dump. Many of them lived in unhygienic conditions and did not receive an education, but most of them are now living in homes supported by the CCF,” Ms Cheang says. “For many families, the CCF has educated their children, and now their lives are better.”
She says that CCF wants communities to be free from alcohol, violence and drugs as it envisions lifting communities out of poverty through education.
This stance has garnered not only strong support from families who are benefiting from CCF’s initiative but also local officials.
Touch Sam Ol, chief of Stung Meanchey II commune, says CCF has made a difference in the community.
“CCF has done a lot to change the community – it extended education to reach many impoverished children,” Mr Sam Ol says. “Before the CCF, children had to scavenge for rubbish – they had no chance to get an education. Now children have access to schools.”
“Most people who live there are rubbish collectors, and they do not have wooden homes – many live in small tents,” he says. “But in the last five years, more and more people are beginning to live in decent houses at the dump.”
Scott Neeson, CCF founder and its executive director, says in order to qualify for the CCF’s housing programme, parents must send their children to school.
“They must send their children to go to school to get educated, then CCF will build a house for them,” he says, adding that the community must also abide by certain rules. “This community must be free of drugs, alcohol and violence.”
Mr Neeson says that after 15 years of operating, CCF was able to transform the Stung Meanchey community from a dumpsite to a place where people can find safety, education and good hygiene.
“We are proud to change this community. It has changed a lot,” he says. “We changed them from living in tents to living in decent houses.”