This past weekend I had one of my favorite experiences in Cambodia so far. Along with Ross, a colleague of ours, and a friend of his, I went to visit the residence/weekend school of a bunch of high-school scholarship students. These students from Kampong Speu are selected from their village and given scholarships to attend high school in Phnom Penh. They are selected after they pass their year 9 exams, and the selection is based on academic performance, teacher and principal recommendations, leadership and learning potential, how they interact with others, and their socioeconomic status. Leaving their home 200km away, they live together in this building on the outskirts of the city, attending the local high school during the week, and taking additional classes in things like leadership and gender equality (something I was surprised by and found very progressive) at their residence on the weekends. The program is run by Sustained Schools International (SSI), which works with communities to build sustainable schools.
When we first got to the school, we had the opportunity to talk with a few of the people who help run the organization and hear about some of the challenges that they have had in establishing and maintaining schools. Breaking into a community and getting them involved is not easy and can take years. Even such simple things as getting a community to pick up trash (people just throw their trash wherever) is a monumental task as many see picking up trash as something that is beneath them. The educational system in general poses a number of challenges here—schools aren’t maintained, teachers receive such small salaries that they take other jobs and often don’t show up to teach/send someone else in their place, and most children drop out of primary school. So SSI helps supplement teacher salaries so that they feel that it is worthwhile for them to teach, and targets some of the youth to help give them extra education and training and turn them into future leaders.
And what an impressive group of students they have there. After talking to the “grown-ups” for a while, we went over and sat in on the students’ morning session. And by sat in, I mean interrupted. The “kids” were awesome! They ranged in age from 15 to 21, and were in 10th, 11th and 12th grades (there is one girl who just started university). They all went around and introduced themselves (some of them spoke quite excellent English), as did we. And then we asked each other questions. They wanted to know who we were and where we were from, and how long we’d been in Cambodia, and what did we like best here, and what sorts of things we have noticed and where we’ve been. When I made some comment about trying to learn Khmer, they wanted to hear what I knew, so I had to say a few phrases in Khmer (with many apologies for my horrible pronunciation) which they appreciated. We asked each of them what they wanted to be when they finished school, and I was so impressed with the responses. A couple of people wanted to be teachers, a couple wanted to do IT, a couple wanted to do banking or accounting, a couple of boys wanted to study/teach physics (we said they could start with us), a couple of girls wanted to be nurses and another a doctor, and the one that is perhaps most impressive here, there were two girls who wanted to be police officers (something that just isn’t done here). They all had such diverse interests and big ambitions, and I really hope that they get what they want. One can’t help but think that if others had the same opportunities and were encouraged to think big, what a transformative force they could be.
After a few of them showed off their singing talents, they turned the tables on us and asked us to sing for them. After warning them that they did not actually want to hear me sing, we agreed to do a group number. They chose Take Me to Your Heart, a song quite popular here (along with Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On), which none of us really knew but gave it our best shot. The four of us crowded around a cell phone, singing along with the YouTube karaoke, much to the delight of the students. Afterwards we played a game, and in the process taught a mini-English lesson. They were fun and engaging and they had the BEST smiles. When we were done, we all went up to the roof of the building to take photos. It was such a wonderful morning, and we were really sad to leave. But we definitely plan to take them up on their invitation to come back again this summer.
Our other interesting and different experience of the week was attending the UN Special Rapporteur’s press conference on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. Though they did not initially want to let us in as we were not press and did not have official office IDs, they eventually agreed to let us stand in the back of the room. There was a large table set up in the middle, with a spot for the Rapporteur at the front and a few chairs along the sides, and then the press standing and sitting around the edges of the room. After situating ourselves along the back wall, we were unexpectedly summoned to sit at the table, as they needed fillers. So that is how three American law students ended up going from wallflowers to sitting front and center at the “adult” table with the Special Rapporteur, the UNCHR-Cambodia representative, and six or seven other individuals who clearly had more reason to be there than we did. The Special Rapporteur read his nine page report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, focusing on such topics as judicial reform, electoral and parliamentary reform, reform of the Constitutional Council, land rights, labor rights, democratic space, calling for an independent national human rights institution, and addressing the situation of migrant workers repatriated from Thailand. It was an interesting and educational experience, and though the Q & A session was not as illuminating as one would hope, the whole event made for an exciting and unexpected afternoon.