Siem Reap Central is exactly what you’d imagine the perfect camp to look like: a large airy kitchen with a big wooden table, cool indoor activity rooms, playing fields and shady trees, as well as pretty little houses where the Khmer and European monitors sleep. From one side of the camp to the other, you hear the sound of children singing, laughing, screaming in delight, as well as the friendly chatter of the service team, cutting vegetables with Sampoa, the camp’s much-loved cook.
The children at the camp predominantly come from one of two places: a small village called Aranh, and the Siem Reap dumpsite, which is a 45min drive away. “Most children live in difficult and violent environments but the ones from the dumpsite suffer the most. They are forced by their families to work in inhuman conditions to try and find pieces of plastic among tons of filthy garbage to earn a few hundred riels a day. The camp is the only place where they are allowed to feel and act like real children, and I’m proud to say that those ones are always the most joyful and willing to participate.” Benjamin has been coordinating the Siem Reap camps for two years now, and he takes care of the logistics of both the paillote and the central camp. He works hard to insure that the food, material and people are where they need to be at the right time, and also focuses on the well-being of the 40-person Siem Reap team, to make sure that everyone gives the best of themselves for the “kmei-kmei”.
Romain, a French first-year monitor, realised the harsh reality of the children when he saw one arrive on the second day of camp, who he had seen working barefoot in the dumpsite a few days before when he went to visit. When he participated in the rice distribution in the villages, organised by PSE every weekend, one specific image stuck with him: “there was a little girl, 50m away, arms outstretched, running towards me as fast as she could to get rice.”
We also spoke to Sem Sovath, who manages the Siem Reap PSE Centre during the year and works closely with the social services and EE department. To find the families that PSE takes under its wing, the social services “get in touch with the authorities, the police and the community to understand which families are most in need of help”. Once the families are assessed by a selection committee they begin one of the PSE programs. During the summer camps, the EE department also helps to recruit more children from surrounding schools, by speaking to teachers and taking time to explain what the camps are and why the children should go.
Sary Sok, the Khmer coordinator of the camp, has been working in the camps for five consecutive years. He is very moved to work with the European team every year: “I learn a lot from the Europeans. They spend a lot of money out of their pockets to fly to Cambodia to play and be kind with Cambodian children. I am Cambodian, why wouldn’t I do the same?” He explains that as the children from the dumpsite are most in danger, he always tells his Khmer monitors to be very responsible with them, to treat all the children the same no matter where they come from. “We do activities all together, like a family. We come here, we smile, we are happy and we release the stress, release the violence, release everything that’s happened to us. That is our purpose.”