My past was difficult to say the least, but it has made me strong and resilient. I was a begging kid on the streets of Bangkok, but today, I intern as a counsellor at Flame in Phnom Penh, and because I know poverty first hand, I can inspire these slum living kids to dream and excel.
I was born on 9th September 1990 in Poipet, a town on the Thai Cambodian border. I have 5 siblings and I am #2 in the family. Two of my sisters are married already and I have 1 niece and 1 nephew. From when I was between 3 and 5 years old, I had many illnesses and when I was 5, I got polio.
My mum and dad had a small business selling Khmer noodles and fresh spring rolls. Every day we woke up at 3am to prepare all the vegetables, because we needed to be out of the house and on the road by 5am. Me and my sisters would cut the vegetables and dice up the meat, and my mum would cook. It was always dark, and in the cool season it was really cold. Being in a wheelchair was difficult in the rainy season because I would get stuck. I do have some really positive memories from my childhood, but also some scary ones, because actually, the environment wasn’t that good.
Dad was a lot older than Mum and was an engineer. He was famous in Poipet. My Grandma said, “Whoever puts the money in the box can have my daughter” and my father put the money there first, so he got my Mother. Dad died when I was 22. Nobody from my family joined his funeral. He and my Mum were separated and he lived with his friend, near the Laos border. When he died they didn't tell my family for 2 months. I was really angry with my family that they didn't join the funeral, but they just didn't know.
I felt so bad because my family became poor because of me. In Cambodia, people say that if you have a disabled child, you will be poor. So, this was why when a broker came and offered to take me to Thailand, I said yes. She had come to the house many times and convinced me that I could help my family. She said the conditions would be really nice, and that I could make good money, but she lied. I went with the lady broker to Thailand when I was about 10 years old. I was alone. In my town, Poipet, many people go to Thailand because we are on the Thai border. The broker would promise nice accommodation and that most of the money I earned would go back to my family but actually only about 30% went back to my Mum. I had to get a minimum amount each day and if not, I was beaten. Sometimes I would sleep alone on a street corner, sometimes I was afraid, but sometimes not. The broker would take out her frustration on me and hit me, with her hands or a wooden stick. I was an easy target because I couldn’t fight back.
I would work from 5am until 6pm, sitting and asking for money. Someone felt sorry for me once, and made me a chair that I could sit on and move around on. The broker saw the chair and said that if I had that kind of chair, people wouldn’t feel so sorry for me, so often I wasn’t allowed to use it. Some kind Thai people wanted to adopt me, but I didn’t agree, because I felt bad for my mum. The broker found out and she was scared that I would leave, so she chained me to the place where I begged. She would say to me “You have people to feed you, so you don’t need me to feed you!” I spent a lot of my time hungry.
When the Thai Police caught me, they would put me in the car and then take me to a Detention Centre. From there I would go back to Poipet. I would stay for about one month, then go back to Thailand again. I was deported back to Cambodia about 4-5 times. They got sick of sending me back, so the last time they sent me to Battambang where I stayed for about 3 years at an organization called the International Organization for Migration. My mum wanted me to run away and go back to Thailand, but it was too far from BTB and I couldn’t.
While I was in BTB I learned circus tricks and music and went to Primary School. At that time, I had a special friend. He had some kind of neck problem, where he couldn’t move his neck properly. He would piggyback me to school. One day he took me to the lake and we swam together. I went back first because I was hungry but he stayed back at the lakeside. He collected fruit for me because he knew that I liked a certain kind of fruit that grew hanging over the water. He fell from the tree above the lake and drowned. His body was found and that night I slept beside him, hugging him.
IOM then asked me what I wanted to do and I told them that I really wanted to study. They told me about Hagar so I chose to go there, so in 2003, I went to Hagar and it was a strange, new place for me. At IOM there were only about 30 kids but at Hagar, there were about 80 kids, and I was scared. They gave me the choice to live either with abandoned kids or with disabled kids. I am so glad that I chose the abandoned kids.
People would talk about my legs and I would be angry. I was an angry kid; nobody could talk about me without me getting angry. I would break things around me when I was angry. I wouldn't listen; I fought the little kids and used bad words. I copied what I saw in Thailand, the fighting and violent gang behaviour. 5 kids came with me to Hagar and 3 of them are still there now. The other 2 are in an organization caring for HIV kids. All of us were Khmer kids begging in Thailand.
When I met the counsellor and participated in activities, I went to play not learn. There was this one man, the project manager of creative art, and his kindness and patience changed my life. He really loved me. I wanted to be like Mr Vanthy, so I decided to try and change. God also helped me a lot. I tried to listen to God and let Him lead me. During my school years, I always felt embarrassed and looked down on myself because of my disability. When I saw people who could walk or run or play, I felt really bad. One time Mr Vanthy asked me to be a leader at the camp and that was a huge change for me.
In Grade 7, I realised I was like others because I could think, I had skills and I could learn like other people. This was a turning point. In Grade 9, I volunteered with Hagar and felt like a real person. I was a mentor for Hagar in the Boys program. I changed a lot when I was a mentor. I thought a lot about what I said and what I did. When I was in Grade 12, I decided that I never wanted to give up my studies. I was 23 years old in Grade 12 and the others in my class were a lot younger than me. I was so embarrassed. People at that age usually have a job and they study in university. One day a teacher who was my exact age came to my school, and I felt really sad because I knew I was still at school when he had a job already.
When Hagar moved me into the semi-independent program, sometimes I felt scared and I was hungry too. When I was sick, there was nobody there to help me. Then I moved in with Sue Hanna. She became my second mum, she always understood and respected me. She loved me and I knew it. It was so warm and like I became part of a family. I can do things now, I can ask for things and mostly I get them. I feel like a lucky man. It is like I have two different life stories. I have a motorbike, I have a phone now and I have time to go to training and learn more about society. I feel free and calm and know that my life will make a difference.
Now I am half way through getting my Bachelor Degree in Psychology. In my spare time, I am doing another degree in English so I can access the best research material. I won a scholarship to the Royal University of Phnom Penh and I will keep going for my Masters and I dream about a PhD. Maybe I won’t go that far, but definitely I want to get my Masters Degree.
I want to help kids like me who have a traumatic background. I can understand trauma and be an excellent counsellor. I am already working for Flame, as the Leader in the Boys Leadership Academy, as well as counselling kids, alongside this I am very focused on my degrees! I can see myself helping establish a new Counselling Centre at Flame. My vision is to help many children from the slum communities, but also, to provide further training for Cambodian counsellors, that they can grow in their expertise and experience, that we reach more people in need.
I came from a tough background, I did not let this define me. I am able to inspire many others to dream big like I do, and to change their world, one person at a time. Please consider partnering with us.