Cambodia is home to numerous indigenous groups, with many living far from the capital and lacking access to education. However, these challenges do not stop indigenous youths who are seeking higher education to improve their livelihoods.
Thean Sokrey left her home in Preah Vihear province two years ago to study at a university in the capital, a move made possible through the support of the Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association.
Ms Sokrey, 21, is one of 23 students of various ethnicities who came from different provinces across the Kingdom to further their education in Phnom Penh while staying in lodgings provided by CIYA.
The way Ms Sokrey dresses and speaks does not make her stand out from any other Khmer person, but she is actually of Kuoy ethnicity.
“My parents do not have the ability to support me to go to university in the capital, where living expenses are high,” Ms Sokrey says. “But they have never stopped me from continuing my studies. Luckily, CIYA provides free accommodation, and I also took an exam to get a full scholarship at Preah Sihamoniraja Buddhist University.”
Ms Sokrey says she did not want to stay home and do housework, as many women of her previous generations did. She studied hard to finish high school and moved away in order to attend university, all in pursuit of obtaining a good education and getting a job that can help her community in her province.
“I want to be a businesswoman when I graduate,” Ms Sokrey says.
Indigenous people in Cambodia mostly live in remote areas and highlands across the Kingdom, especially in the northeast regions, including in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie, and Preah Vihear, as well as in the southwest along the Cardamom Mountains.
Cambodia is home to numerous indigenous groups, such as Jarai, Kachak, Kavet, Koang, Kuoy, Kreung, Krol, Bunong, Suoy, and Tumpoun.
Ms Sokrey says she is happy and feels lucky that she gets to study at university, as many of her fellow ethnic youths from her province are not able to do so.
According to CIYA, indigenous people have poor access to education at any level. However, with the support of humanitarian programmes and private sponsors, some indigenous youths are able to access funding to study in Phnom Penh.
CIYA, established by a group of 11 Cambodian indigenous students in Phnom Penh in 2005, offers such programmes.
Ngach Samin, 31, one of its founders, says the organisation was recognised by the government in 2008.
“It is the first association that was established for indigenous youth.” says Mr Samin, who has just recently finished serving as CIYA’s director and is now an advisor to the organisation.
He says CIYA noted that indigenous youths who come to the city to continue their studies often faced financial difficulties. Therefore, he and his friends decided to come together to find a solution to help them, starting with helping them find a place to live.
“Because we have the same vision, we created CIYA together in 2005 and it was registered with the Interior Ministry in 2008.” Mr Samin says.
He says CIYA now has more than 100 members. However, the centre has limited space at its Meanchey district headquarters, where 23 youths are staying in a housing complex while others find their own accommodation or live in their school dormitory.
“We have accommodation, but space remains an issue,” Mr Samin says. “It’s small and it may not be comfortable for all to stay there, but those who stay there live free of charge for water, electricity and internet use.”
He adds that the students help each other with food as they strive to complete university, a feat he estimates only1,000 indigenous youth have accomplished in the past 10 years.
CIYA has a strong focus on helping to improve indigenous youth’s access to education, as well as helping with capacity building for them to gain further professional experience whilst still upholding the importance of their customs and traditions.
Mr Samin says that between 30 to 45 percent of the indigenous youth’s parents understand the value of studying and allow their children to continue at university.
“I see that most parents are still worried about their children’s safety, especially if they have daughters,” he says. “They are worried about things such as travelling, accommodation and other issues. They worry about everything when their children are far from home.”
“However, one of the most important concerns is financial issues. Some parents are open to their children studying at university, but they worry about the funds to support it,” Mr Samin adds.
Mr Samin says assistance from various sources have enabled more indigenous youths to get a degree in the capital.
Moreover, he adds that the government encourages people with disabilities, as well as indigenous youths, to apply to work in various ministries or state institutions.
The Ministry of Land Management announced earlier this month that it has 47 job openings and would prioritise disabled people and indigenous people.
“It is really good news for our indigenous youths that they can have the chance to work with the ministry as well as in the society in general,” Mr Samin says.
He adds that some indigenous youth who find it difficult to get a job in the capital would often choose to return to their communities to work.
Mr Samin’s vision for CIYA is that it grows to be a large centre focusing on indigenous youth development, especially through education and counselling.
Vorn Chantha, 24, another Kuoy indigenous student staying with CIYA, says that he plans to go back to his province and help his community after he graduates.
“It is not difficult here and I have not spent as much as I thought I would before I came to study in Phnom Penh,” Mr Chantha says. “I have a full scholarship. If I did not get it, I would not be able to continue my studies at university because my parents do not have the money to fund my education and living expenses in the city.”
Mr Chantha says he spends about $500 per year because he does not need to pay for university, accommodation and other expenses covered by CIYA.
“We are lucky to have a warm place that is free of charge to stay during our studies,” Mr Chantha adds. “When I graduate, I will spend some years to work in Phnom Penh before I return to work to help my community.”
Sitting next to Mr Chantha, Ms Sokrey adds that despite living in a modern city with high technology, she cannot forget her hometown and her roots.
“There are some [non-ethnic] people who say bad things to me about studying in Phnom Penh,” Ms Sokrey notes. “But I have never paid much attention to their words because they do not understand me.”