One of my readers has asked some very interesting questions, so rather than reply privately, I've decided to answer them by posting a blog since I thought it might provide some good information for everyone. I tend to forget that travel brochures and Wikipedia don't give you inside info, and I confess, after I've been here for a while I've begun to assume that people know this stuff (but how would you?). When I bog, I just write what's on my mind, and I'm not ever sure if I'm grabbing your interest until I get questions, so I want to thank the people who have emailed me personally, or who have left comments here.
Here are the questions, with the answers to the best of my knowledge. I especially want to thank Chhunly (the manager of Honour Village), for filling in a lot of blanks and providing me with so much insight.
1) Where were all of these kids before the orphanage opened?
These 32 children have come from many villages and many situations. Each story is different. Most of the stories are sad or desperate, some are downright frightful. I hope to elaborate on the background of some of these kids in upcoming blogs, so keep posted.
It's hard to believe that the first two children came to Honour Village just a mere few months ago, near the end of November 2010. When the orphanage first opened its doors, Sue and Chhunly went to the neighbouring villages and spoke to the village chiefs, and announced that they were a new NGO who was offering a home to needy children who were hungry and poor, and whose families were unable to provide the basics (including education). They also made themselves known to neighbouring NGO's that were filled to capacity in hopes that they would refer some kids forward.
With three houses in place, Honour Village can comfortably accommodate 45 children, so there is still plenty of room (and a lot of love) for more kids. There are plans to add a fourth house, which would easily increase their capacity to 60 children.
2) Does Cambodia have the equivilent of a foster parent program or a system where children are "wards of the state", as we do in Canada? Who are their legal guardians?
In a word, 'No'. There is no tax base to support any kind of social programs. It is up to the 'family unit' to take care of their own. In Cambodia, the nuclear family is quite extensive, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, etc. The kids often go to an aunt or uncle or grandparent, but if that person cannot cope with the extra burden, the children will go on to an orphanage.
Nobody is a 'legal guardian' as far as I can determine. In a country where some children don't even have birth certificates, the focus isn't on legal matters as much as it is on survival. It might be surprising to learn that most children who end up in 'orphanages' are not really orphans in the true sense of the word. They may actually have one or both parents still living. When a child becomes orphaned or loses a parent, it all comes down to who can feed an extra mouth or two. Very often, one parent dies and the other parent either cannot feed all the children, or has to go to work at a distance and cannot take care of the kids. Sometimes the family just has too many kids to feed. Sometimes the widowed parent remarries and the new spouse also has kids, so again there are too many mouths to feed. It seems to me that the rule here is that the new wife's kids get priority, which reminds me of back home in some ways.
3) Do Cambodian children have "summer break" like we do in Canada?
The system is not exactly the same. First of all, Cambodian school kids (up to high school) go to school 6 days a week, 4 hours a day, either from 7 to 11 am or from 1 to 4 pm.
Here's what I read in the Tourism of Cambodia official website: There are 5 term breaks in the year for schools throughout Cambodia. The term breaks vary slightly from state to state. However, they fall roughly during the later part of the months of January (1 week), March (2 weeks), May (3 weeks), August (1week), October (4 weeks). I do know that they also have a few days holiday during April which is the Khmer New Year - a BIG celebration here.
4) I wonder if it is disruptive in the lives of these kids to have volunteers come and go , or is some attention from strangers better than regular, but perhaps limited attention from adults?
Chhunly did tell me that they prefer to have long term volunteers, and I am certain this is the primary reason for choosing to have Project Trust volunteers doing their gap year at Honour Village. Stability is important to these kids, considering they have just come from situations where they have been shunted around, and probably feel pretty rejected. Honour Village asks for a minimum commitment of 4 weeks. Chhunly tells me that the kids often cry after the volunteers leave, so he tells them they will be coming back. I'm not sure if that's always the entire truth, but in our case, he's right.
5) At what age are children no longer allowed to live at the orphanage (18 y/o)? What then?
As a rule, Honour Village would prefer to accept new children up to the age of ten, but there have been some exceptions, which I will explain when I start to go into the history of these kids in later blogs (there are currently at least 4 or 5 older children up to age 14) . Their reason for taking kids at a young age is so that they will have time enough to give them a head start in life, along with a good education, both of which take more than a few short years. At this point, the age at which they expect the children to be ready for living on their own is approximately 18 y/o, given the hope they will have received a good education and some vocational training during their stay at HVC. Chhunly plans to set up onsite vocational training for cooking and hospitality, which he was employed in for many years before joining Honour Village as their manager.
6) Are children ever adopted to families?
No. Cambodian people who want to adopt children will go to the hospital and get a newborn, not to orphanages (Not too much different than in the western world, really). Once upon a time, westerners were allowed to adopt Cambodian children from orphanages, however the Cambodian government closed the adoption doors to westerners a few years ago. As I mentioned earlier, so many of the children in orphanages may have one or both parents still living, and technically are not orphans at all, yet they were being adopted. This certainly wasn't fair to the children or their families. It makes me wonder how Angelina Jolie recently managed to adopt a Cambodian child. Here is a scary story about Cambodian adoption.
7) Are there post-secondary schools? What percentage of people have a post secondary education? How expensive is it?
It would be good to know that their school system is not too different than the North American system, in that primary school goes to grade 6, then lower secondary school is grade 7&8, and high school goes to grade 12. Up to grade 12, education is free. The only stipulations are that the child must wear a uniform, provide their own school supplies, and must be able to get to school. All of these can be a huge challenge, especially if the family is so poor they cannot afford the $20 or less (per year) that it costs for school uniforms and supplies. More challenging can be getting to secondary school. There are many rural schools, but less high schools, which many mean the child has to travel a great distance, and may need a bicycle, another expense. Sometimes they may need to stay in another village closer to the high school....all these things cost money. In a country where the parents are looking for an able body to work in the fields or at a job to feed the family, it is a constant challenge to get children to go to school beyond 6th grade, let alone go on to high school or university. The percentage of children who go on to secondary school is very small, so the percentage that go to university is probably miniscule. Here is a statement I read on a website about Cambodian education: The percentage of children completing primary school was also low, at 48%, and for completing lower secondary school was lower still at 21%. I wonder if that is the percentage of children who enrol, or the percentage of children period. School is not cumpulsory.
There are many universities in Cambodia. I have friends who are attending university in Siem Reap (Build Bright University and Angkor University), and if you google 'University Siem Reap', you will come across at least a couple more. Cost of university is between $350 and $400 USD per year. Books cost about $20 per semester. Considering that a decent salary in Cambodia is probably about $300 per year, the cost of university is quite prohibitive, and I believe a lot of university students rely heavily on sponsorship.
During the Pol Pot era, more than 2 million people were killed. Almost all of these were the educated people, which threw this country backward with a huge whallop. At present, approximately half the population of Cambodia is under 30 years old, (I think the mean age is 22), so there are a lot of young, bright minds eager to learn, but it not happen overnight.
One thing is certain. Education is the key to moving this third world country forward. This takes time, patience and money. It is organizations like Honour Village Cambodia, whose focus is on education, that offer promise for this country's future.....one step at a time, one child at a time.