FROM SCAVENGER TO FILMMAKER
Heuv Nhanh spent five years living and working on a garbage dump as a child and never believed he would leave. With the support of Cambodian Children’s Fund, he did make it out and is now carving out a career in filmmaking
“I’ve lived here for so long. I guess it’s my destiny, I was born to be poor.”
Heuv Nhanh was a young boy, aged around nine or 10 years old, when he said this to a camera crew filming on Phnom Penh’s notorious landfill site, a sprawling 11 hectares of decaying trash, which he called home.
Dressed in a grubby black T-shirt and baseball cap, Nhanh, then aged around nine or 10, blinks into the searing sunlight as he talks directly to the camera.
Taken in 2005, Nhanh had been living and working on the garbage dump for almost five years, along with his seven siblings – the youngest, a brother, aged only two – and was resigned to never leaving.
He would rise at 6am every morning and start working on the dump, picking through the mounds of rotting rubbish to find items to sell. He did this seven days a week.
Today, Nhanh is now 24, a tall and confident young man who talks of a future that includes becoming a famous filmmaker one day and having a family of his own.
“When I think about the past, when I was living on the dumpsite, I cannot believe how much things have changed,” says Nhanh.
“When I was there, I thought I would be a garbage picker for life. I didn’t think I had a future. I thought I would die there.”
Around 1,500 children were estimated to be living and working on the garbage dump around the same time as Nhanh, who was just five or six years old when he first moved there with his family from a rural province.
Like many families from the country struggling to earn a living, his parents – a rice farmer and fisherman – were seeking work and a new life in the city.
They ended up, like many families taking the same route, in the dump at Steung Meanchey, then the largest landfill site in Southeast Asia and one of the most dangerous, toxic environments.
“It was like the apocalypse,” is how Scott Neeson, the founder of Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), described his experience of first stepping foot on it in 2003, speaking in the 2017 RT documentary ‘Cambodia’s Hollywood Dad’.
“You are looking at 11 hectares of stinking garbage. Temperatures between 50-55 degrees Celsius all the time. The sun is hot and the ground was burning because as it [rubbish] decomposes, it gives off methane and methane burns.
“There were sinkholes. You couldn’t see them, but if you step in there, it’s horrendous, you can sink right down.”
In these conditions, Nhanh and his brothers and sisters lived and worked at the place he called “the rubbish mountain.”
“Living on the dumpsite was very tough, it was a dirty and scary place,” says Nhanh now.
“We had no food, proper shelter or education. We had nothing.
“We would eat what we found in the garbage, bits of old fruit. It would have worms in it but we didn’t care. We just wanted to survive.
“It becomes part of your life and you don’t think about it.”
Trawling through the mounds of garbage, even clad in rubber boots, was treacherous, all the while breathing in the noxious fumes.
“There were needles, bits of glass and metal. Some part of the dump would be burning and there would be smoke, hurting your breathing and your lungs,” says Nhanh.
He has also spoken of finding the bodies of babies, often from hospital waste, which also used to be deposited on the dump.
“I would bury them, treat them as family,” he said.
“I bury them so the trucks cannot run over them.”
Nhahn made just 0.50 to 0.75 cents a day. It was spent buying rice for the family.
At night, the family would squeeze into a makeshift tent – made up of material slung between bits of old wood – where the rain would come in at night.
Nhanh remembers a little girl, in a distinctive red hat, who lived and worked on the garbage dump at the same time as him.
That girl was Sophy Ron, who, along with Nhanh, became one of CCF’s first students when Scott Neeson first set up the Cambodian Children’s Fund in 2004.
Sophy has gone on to win a scholarship to study at the University of Melbourne, where she is just about to embark on an Art’s degree, a remarkable achievement and story which recently attracted attention around the world.
“I remember Sophy. When I lived at the dumpsite, she was with her family there too,” says Nhahn.
“We were part of the same generation of kids on the dumpsite.”
Like Sophy, Nhanh’s life was transformed after he met Scott one day amidst the rubbish. His youngest sister had already joined CCF and Nhanh saw his way out too.
“I remember grabbing Scott’s leg and not letting go. I told him that I wanted to study and he said yes. I was overwhelmed. I went to tell my parents and the next day, I went to CCF and started school.”
Nhanh stayed in CCF’s residential facilities but would return to the dumpsite every Saturday or Sunday to see his parents.
Then aged 12 or 13, he had a lot of catching up to do in the classroom but with determination, and supported by CCF, he seized every chance that came along, enrolling in the Leadership Program and embracing the opportunity to learn anything new.
The boy who not that long ago couldn’t speak a word of English, was now teaching English to younger students at CCF.
“I was very happy because I was learning,” says Nhanh.
“CCF taught me so much. They raised us like leaders, they encouraged leadership and they made us braver.”
This confidence also gave him the courage to speak to his dad about his excessive drinking, which was causing problems in the family.
“I told him that I loved him,” says Nhanh.
“I said he was a good man and that he had done so much for us and that if he drank less, everything would be better. That was when he really wept.”
Today, Nhanh says that his dad is still not drinking.
A few years ago, Nhahn was earning enough money to build his parents a house back in the province they left almost 15 years ago, so they could finally move away from the area around the former dumpsite (which closed in 2009).
“I still support my family, with my younger brother and sister,” he says.
“They were very happy with the house, especially my father, but now I want to build a bigger house for them.”
Nhanh, who at one time studied Interior Design at college in Phnom Penh, is First Assistant Director at Hang Meas, a renowned Cambodian entertainment television channel, and wants to be a filmmaker, famous both internationally and at home. One day, he hopes to make a film of his own life to show the wider world the struggles of children in Cambodia.
He is very open with his friends and colleagues about his past life.
“I work with stars [film and television] and I never hide my past. This is who I am.
“I am proud that I have been through a tough time to get where I am today. It was hard, my parents were poor, we didn’t have money or food.
“But I do not hide my true self. I want to share my story with everyone”
He credits Scott Neeson, his “hero”, and CCF for changing his life’s path.
“If I didn’t know Scott [Neeson], I didn’t know CCF, I think I would be in a very different place,” he says.
“I wouldn’t speak English, I wouldn’t have gone to college and I couldn’t help my family and I couldn’t have so many friends.”
The nine-year-old boy, covered in dirt, standing on the dump and talking of his destiny to never leave the “rubbish mountain” is long gone.
“I remember saying that, talking about my destiny to be a garbage picker,” says Nhanh.
“But now I can say that if you have an opportunity, like I was given to study, then you take it and that is your chance to change your destiny.
“You cannot change the past but you can change the future.”
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