kompong cham town – This was a family celebration with food and good cheer, similar to thousands of others that will take place throughout Cambodia later this week to mark Khmer New Year.
Except that in this case, the “family” was particularly large: 1,354 children and youngsters and hundreds of teachers, plus former students and guests.
For the fifth time since 1998, Krousar Thmey, or “new family,” held its special brand of Khmer New Year festivities last week here, on the grounds of the NGO’s School for Blind Children.
The three-day affair, which started with King Norodom Sihamoni inaugurating a new building at the school on Thursday, included sports, music and singing, plus quizzes on knowledge of Cambodia and Asean in which children from Krousar Thmey’s schools and centers competed, said Benoit Duchateau-Arminjon, the NGO’s founding president.
But the event’s goal was more than a series of activities. “We’re in a country in which the family is very important,” serving as a support system on which Cambodians rely throughout their lives, Duchateau-Arminjon said.
The reunion, held every two years, aims to help give roots and a “family” network to the 1,092 orphans or children at risk cared for by Krousar Thmey, and to the blind and deaf students who attend its specialized schools, Duchateau-Arminjon said. “If those youngsters don’t build up strong relationships, one day they will find themselves alone,” he said.
Since relationships take time to develop, the NGO has them spend three days together every two years, he said.
“This is a chance to meet old friends,” said Phin Veth, who was among the first children Krousar Thmey repatriated to Cambodia in 1992. As part of an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Krousar Thmey was to take charge of Cambodian children abandoned at the Site Two refugee camp on the Thai border, where it had opened a child-protection center in 1991.
Phin Veth, who now works at the guesthouse La Noria in Siem Reap province, was 11 at the time.
“Without Krousar Thmey, we would have had nothing,” he said. “We now could learn and go to school, and we ate three times a day—we had not eaten three times a day at the camp. Now, we could live a normal life.”
On Thursday, classical dancers performed for the King. The fact that they were deaf, and that several of the celebration’s speakers and its interpreter were blind, was unnoticeable.
Under the NGO’s program, deaf and blind students divide their days between Krousar Thmey schools and public schools so that they can be part of their community.
Ieng Sovannara, a 20-year-old student in grade 11, said that it took him about a year to feel comfortable in public school in Phnom Penh.
“At first, I didn’t know anyone,” he said. But he soon made friends, he added. Speaking English fluently, he hopes to either become an English teacher or specialize in computer sciences.
Krousar Thmey opened its first schools for the blind in 1994 with eight students, and for the deaf in 1997 with 43 students. Today, there are 234 students in four schools for the blind and 672 students in four schools for the deaf.
“When we started the school for blind children, it was very difficult to find blind children because families tend to hide them because they are ashamed. [Physical handicaps] are viewed as bad karma caused by dreadful actions committed in previous lives,” Duchateau-Arminjon said.
But attitudes are changing, he added. Today, the NGO’s school for blind students in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov I commune in Meanchey district is not big enough to meet demand.
In addition, the facility may soon have to shut down, because it is threatened by the possibility of falling into the Tonle Bassac due to erosion. The NGO is still waiting for the land promised by the Cambodian government two years ago to relocate it, Duchateau-Arminjon said.
The NGO also created 37 specialized classes in public schools in more remote rural areas, so that blind and deaf children with families don’t have to leave their homes to go to the specialized schools of Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kompong Cham and Siem Reap provinces.
While many school directors at local levels have supported the program, the government still has no policy for the education of blind and deaf students, said Cheam Kosal, the NGO’s general director. The NGO would like government authorities to take a leading role in the field, she added.
Funding for the NGO is provided by international organizations, and by volunteer associations in Switzerland, France and Cambodia.
Krousar Thmey now has a Cambodian staff of about 330 running 75 programs in 12 provinces, serving nearly 4,500 children. That includes child-protection homes and centers, an arts school in Serei Saophoan in Banteay Meanchey province and a school for disadvantaged children in Poipet.