Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 20 May 2020 – I’s a sunny morning, around 9 AM, at the Building Futures Center, located near a railway station in one of the urban slums of Phnom Penh. This is one of the Drop in Centers (DIC) run by Mith Samlanh in the Russei Keo area. The atmosphere of the center was vibrant when the UNICEF team visited, as students lined up, two-meters apart from each other, to submit their homework and get their new assignment. The social workers were busy reminding the children to maintain social distance beforetheir names were called. Students were happy to receive their new exercises and excited about their new study materials including pens, pencils and books.
Choun Virak, an 11-year-old boy, is one of the children who always comes to this centre. When Virak saw the UNICEF team, he greeted them warmly, with a friendly smile. He was happy to share his story and his secret of why he enjoys spending time at the child friendly center.
Living in a small house situated in the urban slum urban along the railway line, his family have always been poor. Life is hard for them, with nine family members under one roof. Virak is the second son of five; his father is hairdresser that doesn’t have a stable income, so his mother, grandma and grandpa sell street foods like spicy fried shell. Every day is a fight for survival for their family.
The physical environment of this urban poor community itself presents many challenges, particularly to children. Virak studies at grade five in the nearby Neakvorn primary school. He has nowhere to go after school, besides coming to DIC where he can access educational materials for learning and toys for playing. He can join in with the fun activities that the social workers run, such as energizing games, where he learns to socialize, dance and sing songs. This helps prevent him spending time on the streets where he is at danger of exploitation, harassment or abuse. Mith Samlanh’s social workers teach the young people about their rights, child protection, personal hygiene, nutrition, drug prevention and social skills.
Before coming to the DIC, Virak did not like his work, teachers or classmates at school. His grades were poor for both numeracy and literacy. When Virak met social worker Mr. Mork Rithy, his life changed for good. Rithy is always there for him, teaching and mentoring Virak to be confident in himself. Virak said “At DIC, I like teacher Rithy the most, he is very funny and friendly.” The DIC offered Virak after-school support classes and helped him to improve at school. Virak has found he really enjoys reading storybooks. “I am good at literacy subject in school and love my class teacher,” said Virak. He has found a character in the cartoon movies and comic books he watches, called ‘Goat Ninja’. Virak relates to him because he looks small and weak like himself, but this character is brave and always challenging himself to do the best things. “I want to be like the little Goat, he is small but strong and he can help others,” said Virak.
Thanks to the DIC centre and the social workers, Virak has started showing positive behaviours at home: He is very kind and helpful, respecting and following his parents and elders advice. His grandma, Yeay Yong, aged 60 years old, was impressed with the change she has seen in her grandson. Now , he makes the family proud. “Before, he didn’t like to go to school but after attending DIC, he is very courageous, and he always go to his class,” Said Yea Yong. She added that Virak has been helping to teach his younger brothers and sisters. If there are some points that he does not understand, he always asks his father to help explain or he brings to ask Mith Samlanh’s teachers the next day.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Virak has not been able to go to his school for several months. Like other children and families in urban communities, Virak stayed at home. DIC has remained open during this difficult time to provide vulnerable children with access to services, taking preventive measures into account and ensuring the protection of children from infection. They are supporting students for their distance-learning while they cannot go to school.
However, the closure of schools has exacerbated other risks. Mr. Mork Rithy said, “the children and families who live in slum community are facing risks like illegal drug use, working on the streets and crime.” The children that come consistently to DIC have the time to learn the mindset and life skills that will help them to mitigate these risks and stay safe.
With more 22 years’ experience of working in this community, Rithy has the knowledge and skills to help different children. Building a good relationship to gain the trust of children is the core of his work every day. He really loves his work and feels proud of what he has achieved. Rithy said “Children are born differently, some rich, some poor, they are all as capable as other children, if we teach them right, they can reach full potential. And they can become good students. And have a perfect future.”
Under the Partnership Program for the Protection of Children (3PC), led by Friends International, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and UNICEF, three child friendly spaces (Drop in Centers, DICs) have been set up in Phnom Penh and run by one of the 3PC partners, Mith Samlanh They provide a range of child protection services and parenting support on site or through referral. A total of 727 children and youths (including 442 females) have been reached through the DICs. Of them, 467 children and youths (including 260 females) have benefited from various child protection referral services such as vocational skill training, placed in employment, self-employment or education support to remain in school. This achievement was made possible with the generous contributions from the German Committee for UNICEF.