Street Kid Becomes Leader: Houn Thy’s Story

Some of my earliest memories are about being on the street, empty belly aching. I was constantly hungry and became obsessed with finding food, but it wasn’t always like that.

I understand poverty because I have lived it

My father died when I was little, I don’t remember when, and my mother looked after me and my four brothers as best she could. She worked in the jungle cooking for soldiers and would visit us about once a month. I became an orphan when I was quite little, I suppose I was about six. My mum was cutting long grass and a landmine exploded and killed her. I was devastated. Our eldest brother became the head of the home and took charge of us, venting his anger on us, ruling over us with an iron fist.  He was downright mean and violent, and hit us and threw things at us. I was scared of him, so after a while I just took off.

I ran away and lived near the market where I would scavenge for food or beg from the stall owners. I slept wherever I could, sometimes in front of peoples shops under the eaves. Some people were quite kind and gave me edible bits and pieces. I remember being woken up with a bucket of water, being shooed away like a stray dog. A gang of big boys found me and threatened to burn me with cigarette butts or punch me if I didn’t find money for them, so I had to up my game and get smart, or get hurt. I figured out how to steal car insignia and sold them so I would have money to give the gang. I still have scars where they burned me when I didn’t manage to find the money. When I was living on the street, I made friends with another boy and we became like brothers, we would beg and find food together.  He told me about a modern place in Phnom Penh where they gave food away to street kids, there was a place to live and it was safe, but I was too scared to actually go. My life was pretty bad, but at least I knew where I was!  Later he suggested again that we go to the big city together on the train, tempting me with stories of limitless food and a comfy bed. Although I was scared at the idea of leaving everything familiar to me, I was so hungry all the time, I decided to risk it and go.

We went on the train together, and split up to beg and look for food on the long overnight journey. I totally panicked when the train finally pulled into the station at Phnom Penh and I was still separated from my friend. I got off the train with my heart beating loudly in my little chest, an ocean of people pouring onto the platform before me. I was totally lost and afraid. I hung around at the train station and slept there, hoping to find my friend. The next day, I asked a random stranger about a place that gave away food to street kids and he had heard of it, and told me where to go. I wandered along, but got lost and ended up at Central Market and lived around the market for a while, sleeping wherever I could, eating from the discarded leftovers in the rubbish heaps by the street. I was miserable, and at 7 years old, the city seemed huge and unfriendly. Wondering around the market on my daily food route, I looked up, and saw my friend! I could not believe it was him! I was SO happy to see him! He took me straight away to the organization with the free food (World Vision) and it wasn’t even that far away from where I was! There was free food and a clean bed and the freedom to go looking for money during the day, with the comfort of a meal and bed for the night.

I was longing for parents who would love me, like a real child

My friend had heard of some kids who had been put with real families, with parents they could call Mum and Dad who would love them… and there was nothing I wanted more. It had been such a long time since I had been able to say the words Mum and Dad to anyone and I was longing for parents who would love me, like a real child. I asked if I could be transferred to that kind of program and within a few months was placed with a family in the countryside.

This was a period in my life where I have such happy memories. The foster mum and dad were kind to me and treated like their own son. I felt loved and valued. There were other foster kids in the home too, who were sometimes mean to me, but the foster parents protected me and stood up for me. This show of kindness touched my heart in a very deep place. I attended school during the day and helped wherever I could at home. I went to the fields in watermelon season and looked after cattle when I wasn’t in school. I felt so happy, like I belonged. Sometimes to help, I would spend all night in the watermelon field, and when this came to the attention of the caseworker, I was removed from the family and sent back to Phnom Penh. My foster parents really did love me, they said that I could decide where I lived, and I could stay with them and be like a real son. This wasn’t quite true, in the end, I was not asked or given any choice in the matter, I was torn from the people who loved me and sent to the city again. I still go back and visit them back in the countryside when I can, and they still feel like family to me. There was food every day, and when I came in the door there was a warm welcome, and I was able to go to school… I loved it there.

Back in Phnom Penh, I moved into another organization (Hagar) and lived with one mother, one father and a big bunch of kids. It was like a real family, with brothers and sisters and we went to school. We could learn music and computer, go on outings and even go camping. It was safe, and I was not hungry anymore. I was taken to visit my Uncle and cousins and brothers back in the countryside, which was about a 10 hour drive. When I was there, my uncle offered for me to live with him. My two older brothers had joined the army, but my two younger brothers were there and I spent the night with them. I knew that if I chose to be with my uncle, I wouldn’t be able to study, and would have to work, so at 9, I decided to go back to Phnom Penh and live with my new foster family, and continue my studies.

Suddenly my life was not like it had been. I had never thought about my future before, only day to day, hour to hour, desperate for food, worried where I would sleep. When you live in the street, you have no goals, no idea about what you could do with your life. It is a hard life, full of fear, with no hope. Sometimes I would hear someone else call to their mother, “Mum!” or “Dad!” and I would turn away and cry. It was so hard being alone. Thinking about it now, I still get all choked up. I suppose these kinds of wounds don’t heal quickly.

I continued to study hard and worked my way through Grade 12 and entered university with a scholarship from my church. The first year of my degree was horrid. I was living in a dorm and my scholarship was only $40 per month, which simply wasn’t enough to get by on. I didn’t have enough to eat, so again, I was hungry every day and miserable. I would choose which meal I would eat, one day it might be breakfast, another day it might be lunch… I didn’t have enough to buy food to eat three meals a day.

One of my foster brothers, Rithy, had moved into a home where Sue (the founder of Flame) was living. She was working at Hagar, and we had all known her for a long time. Rithy suggested that I move in too. A new chapter began to unfold, and in my second year I moved in and was given another family. I remember her looking at me with her big blue eyes and eyebrows up telling me to help myself to the food in the fridge. I could eat all the rice I wanted and was no longer hungry from that day. I lived with Sue and some of the other boys who had been my brothers at Hagar until I got married in 2015.

Now I have a job I love at the Flame Activity Centre at Sensok. I work with slum living kids, and love on them, teach them and share my story with them. I keep telling them that they should never let their past determine their future, that they can finish school, go to university and help in their communities to make Cambodia a better place for kids to grow up in.

I live in my own home with my wife and a baby boy, and I love them dearly. As soon as my son is old enough to understand, I will tell him my story. I want him to become a good person who will help the world be a better place. After finishing my first degree in IT, I have gone on with my studies and am now almost finished my Business Management degree. It is my dream to use my education to continue help others who are like I used to be. I understand poverty because I have lived it. I know that I am still learning, growing and changing, and am so thankful to the people who came alongside me when I was a poor street kid and helped me on the journey.

As soon as my son is old enough to understand, I will tell him my story