When Being an Orphan is the Only Way for the Brighter Future

Sheila Yuanjiahuan

Photo Credit: Yuan Xiaole

He had no idea where they were heading.

His mother was keeping silent. His two younger bothers rested their heads on his shoulders, all he can hear was the loud engine sound from the tuk-tuk. Sopheak Satya didn’t know it was the night that would change his life track. The three siblings were dropped off at Countryside Children Organization (CCO), a non-government organization which also serves as an orphanage center, located in Siem Reap.

Eight years later, Sopheak speaks fluent English, and his out-standing grades accessed him to a foreign sponsor, who gave financial support to him for attending an exchange program in Canada and transferred him to an international school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s political and economic center. But all the chances he has received should be ascribed to a label — Orphan.

“I’m happy here. Get a better education and learn different languages from volunteers,” the 18-year-old boy said with a bright smile. Like many Cambodians who live in poor conditions, Sopheak’s mother believes living in residential care centers for better education is the only way to help her children to get rid of the swirl of poverty.

Sopheak is not the only one who has parents but lives in an orphanage. But he is one of the lucky few.

A recent study unveils by Columbia University and USAID that an estimated 48775 children are living in residential care centers in Cambodia — equal to nearly one of every 100 children in the state is living in these institutions. Like Sopheak Satya, the considerable majority of these children are not real orphans — almost 80 percent have at least one living parent, research shows.

With rich historical and cultural heritage, Cambodia has been one of the most popular travel destinations, more than two millions of tourist yearly influx into the war-torn land. Most come with a beautiful wish — be volunteers in local schools or orphanages to send knowledge for the children. According to a survey, the country ranked the fifth most searched in term of volunteer tourism (voluntourism). Over the past decades, the flourish of voluntourism industry has spawned the skyrocket of the number of so-called “orphanages”.

Photo credit: Yuan Xiaole

Due to lack of sound regulations and the un-transparent legal system, most of the child residential care institutions in Cambodia are unregistered or non-compliant. One of the reports released by the UNICEF indicates that more than half of these institutions are unregistered in five high-populated provinces of Cambodia — Battambang, Kandal, Phnom Penh, Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap.

As a journalist at Asian Correspondent, Alexandra Demetrianova, reported, “With such practice, authorities have no way of checking the facilities, having oversight of their practices and identifying abuse or child trafficking.”

Cambodia has been infamous as a heaven for the pedophile and sex tourists for a long time. In the year of 2017 only, three western men were jailed for the child sex crime. In spite of such predicament, many orphanages are still accessible for all strangers, without identifications, without any appointments.

But for Sopheak, he has never regretted being an “orphan” at CCO. The organization seems to offer him a brighter future — cover his living expenditures, pay his school tuition, and even help him to find a kind Canadian sponsor.

“I always miss my mom. But if I didn’t come here, I would be a cowboy in my hometown,” Sopheak smiled.

Poverty and education are considered as two primary reasons parents send their kids to the orphanages in Cambodia.

Born in a remote village near Phnom Penh, Soung Borey, who has lived in CCO for six years, had faced plight of the inequivalent and fragile national education system before. He enrolled school until he was ten years old.

“I want to study, and my other four siblings need to work for supporting the family,” Soung said.

“He is the smartest one. His father and I do want him to continue his study, so we sent him to CCO,” Phola, Soung’s mother, said.

After the civil war, school education in Cambodia has been a part-time affair at best, taking up about four hours per day. Students need to pay 25 to 30 USD per month for extra classes, where they could get more detailed explanations or even test-related answers.

“They (teachers) forcefully threat students to go for the extra class to get the full understanding of the lesson. All exam questions will be taught in extra courses, not at official classes,” said Sopheak Pheana, a journalism master student from Cambodia.

Same as Sopheak, Soung also gets much support from CCO. The organization gives him something which his family cannot afford, as spending $25 to $30 for the extra courses per month, could live his family poverty-stricken.

“Everyday, I can get one to two dollars from mom(the chairwoman of CCO), and I save it for the extra classes,” said Soung.

However, like many profit-driven orphanages, CCO also runs orphanage tourism. It has cooperated with some travel agencies in Japan and South Korea and does transfusion of Chinese volunteer weekly.

“What can I do?” said Reaksa Phon, co-founder of CCO. “The organization needs funds to keep up. But at least, I can promise to protect the children from crimes and trafficking. “

It is true children at CCO are well-protected, but some psychologists concern the short-term voluntourism would have a lingering influence on a child. The endless broke relationship may contribute psychological instability.

“I always cried when volunteers left, but now I’m getting used to it,” said Soung.

“Many volunteers promised children would come back, but they never really do it,” said Piseth Vothana, a social worker at CCO. “They may think promises would comfort children’s depression, but it hurts them more as hope shatters after that.”

After many eye-opening reports were released, the huge statistics had stunned the international community. Under the pressure of the United Nations, the Cambodia government has launched a campaign with the aim of returning 30 percent of the total population of the “orphans” home before the end of 2018.

But the process is slow-moving. According to the Phnom Penh Post, it has only sent 500 children back home in two years, as many children are undocumented.

Have been living in CCO for almost six years, Knen Leat, the 19 years old boy is good at English and Chinese. Last year, Phon introduced Leat to a local hotel where he works as a part-time receptionist with 80 dollars salary per month. The high-school student has many plans for his future, he said studying and working for the part time job is only the first step.

However, when asked if he could choose again, would he pick the same choice six years ago? The boy shook head with his eyes red and watery.

“I really want to stay with my family, but my mom wants me to continue study, no choice,” said Leat.

@UN in Cambodia/MA in International Journalism Studies/ Cosmopolitanism/ World traveler and volunteer