Behind the scenes
of our family visits

In January 2017, over 280,000 tourists visited Angkor. This figure keeps on growing in this country which has been targeting self-sufficiency since the 80s. To do so, many Khmers have tried benefiting from the direct or indirect touristic flow (indeed, elephant pants and fresh coconuts can be negotiated at every corner). Everyone here is familiar with the half-sleeping tuk-tuks, the wooden shops and the dense and wild forest beyond the touristic areas. The average visit stops there. However, close to those huge trees and temples, over 100,000 inhabitants live in 112 villages. Away from the tourists and their smartphones, those villagers still have a very precarious way of living.
Located within the Angkor area, Bayon School has a special bond with those families. Because it is completely free of charge (unlike public schools for which books, uniforms and many others items are to be bought), our NGO is well-known by the local families, who see in us hope for their children’s future. Education and health don’t stop at the doors of our school; social work and follow-up are priorities for us and we need to know in which environment our students live.
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Work position, family situation, wages, health… the criteria we observe are precise and often require that we dig into the the families’ privacy. Yet they are really important to adjust our help to the children’s needs. Indeed, thanks to that we were able to offer a job to a widowed single mom, or help parents with disabled children, or protect families with orphans. These are a few examples. Soki, our social worker, works every day with the families to understand their needs and support them. A tough work which seems like a huge challenge when seen by Westerners’ eyes.
In one family, a big brother went to the capital city to try and get a better future. In another one, the big sister just came back. We discuss births, weddings and divorces. We discuss death. Here, like elsewhere, we discuss life, love, death and money. The houses are made of wood just cut off from the surrounding forest. Welcomed as a friend, Soki goes from hut to hut until the last one, the furthest of the village. She takes a deep breath, looks up at the sky and walks towards this last visit, knowing it will be a difficult one.

Sokreï and Bissec are respectively 65 and 67 years old. After having lost their only son, those grandparents saw the mother of their grandchildren leave for a new husband and a new life. The tired couple now needs to feed and support 5 children, aged from 8 to 14. As they become old enough, they go and try to cut wood to sell it around to the neighbors. A few riels here and a few dollars there… These children’s lives go on with the bare minimum. The two youngest are now studying in Grade 2 and 3 at Bayon School. The older ones didn’t get the chance to go to school so they hope to join a vocational training. The luckiest will become tour guides or drivers, the others will be construction workers of farmers. Luckily, the house, with its light straw roof, is large and comfortable. It is built on piers; it’s the only thing left from the father. No walls beneath the main level, but a small shade area, which serves as a playground for the dogs, the children and the chicken. A short ladder allows to go upstairs but it is extremely hot in there during daytime. All the family will gather inside at night time when snakes, cockroaches and rats start to lay hold of the ground. Meanwhile they live outside, under the sun and the trees.

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When Soki gets there that morning, the family invites her to go upstairs — the rainy season is just starting. The grandparents are proud to show the children’s new bed; a mattress lies on the floor for the 3 older ones. A few meters from there, the younger ones share an old, worn mattress with their grandparents. It is then time to pray for the deceased son, whose picture takes pride of place on an old wooden board covered in incense and dust. We sit despite the heat and we ask questions about the children. Quick chat and discussion in between toothless smiles and suddenly a distant noise echoes. It is the tell-tale sound of rain on metal. The more fortunate houses are protected with metal roofs, of which the loud noise serves as a rain alert for the rest of the village.

All the children run outside at the behest of their grandmother. They scurry along to fetch the clothes and fabrics hanging on a clothesline and they gather everything to put it inside the house. Alerted by the children’s laughter, the dogs and the chicken run under the house. In the spade of a few seconds, heavy showers are falling; they wipe everything that remains outside. The wild rain does not seem to bother the family. The discussion is picked up where it was left. Mud puddles expand on the wet ground as we discuss money and tiny rivers spread as we talk about the children. A small, forgotten sock is floating. The water is gradually getting in the house through the light roof, surprising the sleeping geckos. The children are playing with Soki’s keys as she finishes to take her notes in her grey notebook. Long minutes go by and the rain disappears as fast as it came.

The children run out to hang the clothes back on the line as we say goodbye. The sun will dry the land even before Soki reaches the school. Tomorrow, who knows, the little boy might come to school with only a sock, but for sure, he will arrive with a smile on his face.

, 29 June 2018