Having said our goodbye to our UWS colleagues in Bunlung, a small group of us took the long, slow, minibus trip back to the capital. After a night in a very comfortable hotel our final day in Phnom Penh prior to our flight out to Hong Kong was to be a relaxing one.
Our final call en route to the airport was to visit a local charity, the Centre for Children’s Happiness. I had experienced so many moving and memorable experiences during my short time in Cambodia and so it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that this continued right up to my last day.
The Centre is a Children’s Home, which, after starting off as an orphanage has now evolved into an excellent day school having received ongoing support from various international agencies and other donors. The school is a warm, supportive, caring environment with the children happily coming up to say hello when we arrived. Sadly, the story that brings these children here is completely the opposite.
In Phnom Penh there is a gigantic rubbish dump which each day receives tonnes of rubbish. We didn’t visit there; it sounds the most horrific place with garbage, trash, broken glass, human excrement, and plastic everywhere. Amid all of this, fires burn, causing toxic methane gas to be released. And amongst this landscape are hundreds of children, scavenging. They scavenge for materials they can sell on to raise a few cents. Some scavenge all day in the intense heat in order to collect money to support their family, who live in villages adjacent to the dump. Others scavenge, simply for themselves; living with the other orphans on the dump itself. With no established welfare system in the country what can young orphans do apart from following the trend, seeking to fend for themselves?
So, for many children in Phnom Penh, these dumps simply become their identity; their homes and not just their place of work, any thoughts of school or an education long gone .It’s hard to even imagine what kind of childhood that must be like. We didn’t have time in our schedule to make a visit. I’m not sure though that I would have wanted to.
Visiting the Centre and learning of these projects on my last day left me with very mixed emotions. It was impossible not to be blown away by the positive impact the Centre was so clearly having as well as the energy and enthusiasm of the children I met there. And yet, the fact that any environment such as the dump even exists in our modern times is of course hard to comprehend.
With such a problem persisting its not surprising that there other charities are also trying to address this horrendous problem. In addition to the Centre for Children’s Happiness, which was founded in 2002 by Mech Sokha who continues to lead the project, there has also been international acclaim for the work of former Hollywood Film Executive Scott Neeson. Scott, previously the President of 20th Century Fox International, first came across the situation in 2003 and within a year had resigned from his job in order to launch a charity, the Cambodian Children’s Fund.
You can read an article detailing Scott’s work here and the Centre for Children’s Happiness have produced a video relating to their work.