Raging fire cannot destroy the new lives being built by a Maryknoll Sisters’ project in Cambodia.
Earlier this year Maryknoll Sister Mary Little proudly walked me through the neighborhood of Chak Angre in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, to the new pre-school the Maryknoll Sisters had opened only three months earlier. Sister Little, from Stratford, Conn., chatted with friendly stallholders in the market alley leading to a small house, where in a second-floor classroom 25 Vietnamese children, shoes off, sat on a linoleum floor avidly reading Khmer (Cambodian) books or contentedly playing. Nobody could have imagined how drastically the scene would change just a week later.
On February 8 a gust of wind knocked over a burning candle in this impoverished neighborhood, igniting a fire that quickly spread, destroying some 100 humble dwellings and the pre-school.
“People ran with just the clothes on their backs,” Sister Little said, describing the panic the blaze incited. “Fire trucks came as far as the main road but could not get down the narrow alley. By the time the firemen got to the fire, a third of the houses in Chak Angre had burned.”
Thankful no lives were lost, Sister Little lamented the destruction, but a month later she was able to say, “The government has given permission for the people to rebuild. The alley will be widened … the people have started to repair or reconstruct their homes. We have temporarily rented a wooden house as a stand-in school. The rebuilding of our damaged building has begun.”
The pre-school in Chak Angre is just one part of the Boeung Tum Pun Community and Education Project that Sister Little currently oversees with Maryknoll Lay Missioner Suzanne (Sami) Scott and Philippine Catholic Lay Missioner Olga Pacumbaba.
The project, Sister Little says, serves the poorest families of both Vietnamese and Cambodian origin by increasing their children’s chances for a better education. The Vietnamese pre-schoolers in Chak Angre, for instance, were learning Khmer, enabling them to communicate in the language they will need in Cambodian schools. The project also includes a pre-school in the neighborhood of Tu Taing, from which the first 20 students graduated in September 2015 and are now attending first grade in the government school.
“In conjunction with the Catholic Church’s effort to help Vietnamese children who were born in Cambodia get an education in the government schools, we began the pre-school as a means of preparing the students to enter grade one with a knowledge of the Khmer language, alphabet and culture,” Sister Little explains. “After two years, they can recognize the letters of the alphabet, sing songs in Khmer and talk with Khmer teachers and friends.”
Explaining why such assistance is so important for the Vietnamese minority who are living in Cambodia, Sister Little says, “The ethnic Vietnamese are stateless. Their families have been in Cambodia for generations except for the time of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979. They have residence papers for neither Vietnam nor Cambodia.”
For poor students of Cambodian ethnic origin, she says, the Boeung Tum Pun project provides the chance for a leg-up through the school assistance program that supports both elementary and secondary school. Maryknoll Sister Ann Sherman teaches English to students in grades three through six, enabling them to feel more confident in school, where English is taught because it is considered key to getting a good job later.
The Boeung Tum Pun project has been successful in encouraging secondary school students to remain in school. Some have even gone on to university. Seven now are on work-study scholarships that the project provides. They are provided with tuition, books, supplies and a small monthly stipend for university, and they help younger children in the project 12 hours a week.
The project also offers health and nutrition classes in government schools and neighborhoods as well as two centers where children can be safe while their parents are at work. One center is in Prek Ta Kong, one of the poorest areas of Phnom Penh. There, beside a large lake, houses sit on stilts to avoid flooding. Hazardous materials are everywhere. The children’s center is like an oasis here, says Sister Little. “Children have the chance to make jigsaw puzzles, build houses or anything with Legos, dance and sing,” she says. “Since there are no books or toys in their houses, they love to come to just play and have a good time together.”
Leang Phall and her family live in Prek Ta Kong. When Leang Phall lost her husband to colon cancer, she was left alone to raise her three daughters. She supports them by growing drakuen, a local form of morning glory, which is a water-borne vegetable in Cambodia. She says she has high hopes for her three girls because they are able to go to school and receive additional tutoring through the Boeung Tum Pun project.
Meanwhile the pre-school in Chak Angre continues to be rebuilt, this time with bricks instead of wood. As one flame wreaked havoc, another flame burns brightly, that is the hope in people’s hearts for a brighter future in Cambodia because of the work of Maryknoll Sisters like Mary Little.