At 9 years old, Oark Nayheang moved to Phnom Penh with her sister in the hope of getting a better education. Instead, they found themselves on the putrid Steung Meanchey garbage dump. With CCF’s help Nayheang got off the dump, graduated from university and is now working for CCF, giving back to those who helped her
Nayheang’s parents understood the value of a good education. Neither had been able to have much schooling when they were younger, and they wanted better for their two daughters.
But as a poor family living in a small village in Kandal province, southeast Cambodia, they knew the opportunities in the countryside were limited. They hoped that their two daughters, Nayheang and her older sister, would be able to get a better education in the city, where public schools were better, and took the decision to send them away.
So Nayheang and her older sister, Nayhouy, who had never left their home village before, were taken to Phnom Penh by their father to live with their aunt, who they had never met.
Nayheang's family thought her aunt could support the girls to go to a good school in the city. But their expectations were different. It turned out the aunt already had a family of her own, and she expected the new arrivals to work in return for housing and food.
Instead of going to school, they were put to work on the notorious Steung Meanchey dumpsite, scavenging through rotting rubbish, to make money for their new family.
Nayheang was just nine years old and her sister a year older.
“We worked picking up rubbish. I cannot describe how I felt. It was my first time picking rubbish and I had never worked like that before,” says Nayheang.
It was a new family for me and my sister. We didn’t know the aunt before. So, we adapted to the situation, and did whatever she wanted us to do. We could not say anything because we lived with her and she gave food to us, so we had to work to get money to pay her back.
It was a struggle, especially for the younger Nayheang.
She was used to life with her family in the province, where they lived on Barong, a small island in the Mekong. Now, she was forced to work all day on ‘garbage mountain’ - one of the biggest dumpsites in Southeast Asia at the time, sprawling over 100 acres.
Nayheang and Nayhouy days were spent picking through hospital waste, industrial metals, and rotting food. Large trucks were constantly coming and going, adding more and more rotten garbage to search through. It stank, and there was no end in sight.
Nayheang missed her parents and her old home desperately, but there was little she could do.
The girls’ seemed destined to never escape from the dump. But luckily, while out working one day they met CCF founder, Scott Neeson. It was 2004 and Scott had recently founded CCF, working tirelessly to help young children get off the dumpsite and into school.
Scott found Nayheang, dressed in a tattered and dirty pink dress, looking through scraps of metal to scavenge anything she could sell. When he asked if she wanted to go to school, the answer was clear.
Nayheang enrolled in Grade 1 full-time with CCF - moving with her sister to CCF accommodation. She lost contact with their aunt, who moved away shortly afterwards without telling her where they were going. She hasn’t spoken with her since.
The girls maintained regular contact with their parents.
A quick learner, Nayheang excelled in school, moving quickly through the grades. When you ask her what her favourite subject was, she laughs. “I was so young,” she says, “I couldn’t tell you what my favourite subject was as I was still learning everything. But when I moved to high school, English was my favourite.”
Looking back on her childhood with CCF, she smiles: “I got a good opportunity from CCF and it changed my life. I couldn’t imagine going to school so getting a full education, food, clothes, and shelter was so good.
CCF was my new house and my new family - it was like a second family for me. They always cared and always advised if I did something wrong. They always encouraged me - not just me, but the other students too.
It was with great pride that Nayheang was admitted to the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) when she passed her Grade 12 exams.
Studying Tourism Management at Cambodia’s most prestigious university on a scholarship through CCF, was so exciting. But quickly she found herself overwhelmed. It wasn’t like high school. There was a lot of pressure to succeed, and Nayheang was left wondering if university was really the pathway for her. It was too much. She watched on as several of her friends at RUPP dropped out of their courses in order to find work to help their families.
But as hard as she found it, Nayheang was committed to her dreams. She had to continue. It would be a waste to have come all this way and give up at the first hurdle. She owed it to her younger self, the nine-year-old girl in dirty tattered clothing forced to scavenge through rubbish to survive, to finish.
“There were a lot of subjects and assignments and I felt like I wanted to stop studying. It was too much for me,” explains Nayheang. “But I motivated myself and pushed myself so hard. I tried my best to finish university, and I did it, and I graduated.”
She graduated in 2018, walking with her head held high across the stage at the CCF Graduation celebration to make a speech to all the guests with her sister Nayhouy, who had also graduated from university the same year.
Their parents had travelled from Kandal province to celebrate with their daughters, and watched on proudly from their table.
Nayheang is no stranger to public speaking. A confident young woman, she laughs easily about how much she enjoys it.
“Since I studied with, and now work for CCF, I have had a chance to travel to the US, Australia, and Hong Kong [for CCF fundraising events]. I loved Australia, I visited Sydney for the Australian Gala. I’m not afraid of public speaking because I’ve done it on stage four times now and I have Scott [Neeson} to stand by me.”
With her love of English, Nayheang is now working as a Sponsor Relations Officer at CCF. She had applied for the role as she wanted to give back to CCF, and missed working with children.
“I love children. I like working with the students, I want to show what they can learn from me,” she says.
Managing 50 children’s accounts, Nayheang oversees communications between children and sponsors - translating emails, managing visits, and coordinating Skype calls.
Her favourite parts of the job are taking the children out on outings and making celebrations such as their birthdays special. She also sometimes visits students at their homes to translate their sponsor’s emails.
“I go to them at their house so I know what’s going on, I can see everything. I love doing that,” says Nayheang.
Nayheang, now 25, currently lives with friends in a shared house. She wants children of her own one day but that’s in the future.
Talking about long-term aims, she is self-assured and has big plans. She is taking everything one step at a time. Right now, she wants to focus on doing her job at CCF and helping her students, but in the future she wants to found and manage her own NGO for children - like Scott Neeson did.
“I do not want to see the kids stay at home or picking the rubbish or doing nothing. I want to make a small organisation or a centre they can visit to get an education,” says Nayheang.
Having had the same experiences as a lot of the children she works with, Nayheang is an excellent mentor and advisor. In university, she was often the person her friends turned to for advice. Many of them were struggling with their workloads and were considering dropping out of their courses. Asked what her advice would be to anyone struggling with their education, Nayheang considers for a moment.
Don’t give up and always have hope.