Finding a future
Trapped in a life of poverty as a child, there seemed little hope for Soem Sonoeurn to break free. With CCF’s help, she escaped and made it to university, opening up a whole new world of opportunities
If a single photograph can tell a story, the one taken of Soem Sonoeurn and her sister Sony as children is particularly powerful.
Surrounded by piles of rotting garbage stretching into the distance, the two girls are at work.
Wearing grubby clothes and hats to protect them from the searing sun, they comb through the rubbish hoping to find items to sell so that they can eat that night. Underfoot, is a shifting toxic mass - including hospital waste - that made the Steung Meanchey dump one of the most dangerous environments in the world at the time.
“I’m the one on the left holding the big bag over my shoulder,” says Sonoeurn, pointing to herself in the photo.
“The bag is filled with cans and bottles that I picked up on the dump. I’m not sure how old I am, maybe 10.
This was our life. We worked on that dump from morning until night, day after day. You cannot imagine what it was like there. We thought we would never get out, that we would work there forever.
Now, 27, Sonoeurn not only made it away from the dump, where she lived and worked, but is now studying for a degree in business management and already has her sights set on completing a Master’s.
It’s hard to imagine that the young women she is now, educated and ambitious, and the girl on the dump, are one and the same. Their lives and futures are world’s apart.
The youngest of four children, Sonoeurn was born into a poor family in rural Cambodia.
“Life from the beginning was hard,” she says.
When she was around seven, the family moved to another province, Koh Kong, for a better life. It didn’t last long. Her father, a fisherman, died from an infection, leaving Sonoeurn’s mother alone with the four children.
“We could not survive there with little opportunities for work so we went to Phnom Penh, where we would as garbage pickers around Steung Meanchey,” recalls Sonoeurn.
“Life became very difficult after that. Although it was a long time ago, I remember everything from that time. I could not go to school because there wasn’t enough money and I had to work to help my family.”
While her brother and one sister managed to get into school supported by a local NGO, Sonoeurn and her sister were not so lucky. Their days were spent on the mound of garbage - which sprawled across 100 acres, or almost six hectares - with their mother, who also worked scavenging through the rubbish.
“We made very little money, at most $3 a day,” says Sonoeurn.
“We had to look for cans and bottles. We would pick them up and put them in the bag. It was very physical work, very hard. It was really hot and the dump was disgusting, this smell was horrible.
“I wore the same clothes for months, I didn’t have anything else to wear.”
It was not only dirty work, it was dangerous too. Large trucks bringing more loads of rubbish to the landfill site would arrive all day long and the pickers would fight to get the best of the new spoils.
When the big trucks came, we would all go round the truck and wait for the garbage to come out. Once, I almost got covered in all the garbage as it fell on top of me and a truck almost fell on my mum one time.
Home was whatever makeshift shelter the family managed to build on or close to the dump, and they never stayed in one place long.
If there wasn’t enough money to buy food (rice and vegetables), they would eat discarded food they scavenged from the garbage.
Listening to Sonoeurn, it’s hard to comprehend a 10-year-old child living and working in such conditions. Harder still to think that a child had accepted this was to be her life. There were hundreds of other children working on the dump at the same time as Sonoeurn.
Sonoeurn is in no doubt that without the intervention of CCF, she would never have escaped from the cycle of poverty that kept so many on the garbage dump.
In 2006, CCF Founder, Scott Neeson, came across Sonoeurn and her sister Sony working on the dumpsite during his daily visits to help the children of “Smokey Mountain”, as the dumpsite was nicknamed locally.
“He asked me if I wanted to study and asked permission to speak to my mum. I was so excited,” says Sonoeurn.
“I moved off the garbage dump to live at CCF - and that’s when I started my life.
“CCF gave me everything: I got an education, clothes, food and friends. All the things that I needed and didn’t have. It was a gift."
Even having something like a fried egg felt so special to me, it was like having a steak.
“My mum was so happy that I was going to school.”
Sonoeurn would visit her mum every week. She would also catch up with her sister who remained working on the dumpsite until their mother died in 2007.
“My mum was a strong woman and had to work so hard to try and support the whole family,” says Sonoeurn, who was 14 when she lost her mother.
“It was not easy for her. She had a lot of pressure and was depressed. Her solution was to get drunk every day until she died.
“She was a lovely mum but she could not cope with the situation she ended up in, on her own having to look after four children.”
After her mother’s death, Sonoeurn’s sister joined her at CCF.
Having been starved of an education, the girls made the most of every opportunity that came their way with Sonoeurn excelling academically.
“I loved studying,” says Sonoeurn. “I was curious about things, it was all new.”
In 2009, Sonoeurn was one of the students selected to represent CCF in California at the Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS), organised by The Tony Robbins Foundation.
Sonoeurn describes the experience as being like “all my dreams had come true.”
Before [living on the dump], I was like a frog in a pond. I never thought the world was so big.
It inspired her to strive even harder and gain a place studying business management at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). The achievement was tinged with sadness that her mother never got to see her youngest daughter’s success.
After two years, Sonoeurn put her studies on hold to gain experience in the workplace and save money to help fund the rest of her degree. She also worked part-time as a radio DJ at local station Love FM Phnom Penh, where she had her own two-hour show on a Sunday.
Now, with the continuing support of CCF, she is back at university for her final year, combined with working as an English teacher for a Phnom Penh-based grassroots organisation providing education to children living in slum communities.
“I feel like I am giving something back to the world,” says Sonoeurn, of her teaching work. “The kids are like I once was. Education can change their lives, like it changed mine.”
Her sister Sony, now 29, also works as an English teacher at a local private school.
Sonoeurn talks of studying for a Master’s in business abroad, perhaps in the U.S or Australia.
While her journey has taken her far away from the 10-year-old photographed on the dumpsite, she has never forgotten where she has come from.
“If I need motivation to work hard, I just look back to where I used to be,” says Sonoeurn. “If I look too far forward and get ahead of myself, I will fall down easily. I have to remember who I was before."
Some of my friends who did not join CCF are still working as garbage pickers. I see them every day. They did not have a chance like me.
“When I look at that photo now of my sister and I on the dump, it’s hard to think that was me and my life. If I had not been found by Scott and CCF, that could still be me.”
She mentions other children who worked with her on the dumpsite and also escaped thanks to CCF. “Now we all have a good future,” she says.
Qualities such as strong, determined and independent come to mind when meeting Sonoeurn and her undoubted tenacity should serve her well overcoming any obstacles in her future endeavours.
For now, she’s keeping her feet firmly on the ground.
As she says: “I am proud of how far I have come, but I also know how lucky I am.”