muk kampul district, Kandal province—The lawn outside the mosque needs to be mowed, the mosque itself could use a paint job and a nearby basketball court is cracked, one rim missing a net, the other rim gone entirely.
The Islamic Center of Cambodia has clearly seen better days.
“When something is broken, we don’t always have money for repairs,” said Pech Solin, the school’s manager of general education, as he explained that the center’s lawn had not been mowed recently because there had been problems with the lawn crew stealing fans from the school’s dormitories.
Formerly known as the Om-Alqura Institute, the center was closed in May 2003 over allegations that teachers at the school were providing support to Jehmaah Islamiyah and perhaps to Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali.
Hambali—once al-Qaida’s top operative in Southeast Asia—lived near Boeng Kak in Phnom Penh from September 2002 to March 2003. He was allegedly responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 and the alleged mastermind of planned attacks on the US and British embassies in Phnom Penh.
Before the school was closed, money—most from the Om-Alqura International Organization in Saudi Arabia—flowed in, bringing with it foreign teachers, free tuition and scholarships for Cambodian students to study abroad.
Documents from the Education Ministry show the organization spent $300,000 in Cambodia in 2001, a relatively modest amount compared to other NGOs but more than enough to make the school self-sufficient.
To local students and teachers the funding seemed like a godsend.
The Kandal province mosque and school reopened under the auspices of several prominent CPP-connected Cham leaders and with a new name in June 2004, but without the overseas funding. About two months ago it completed its first full year of school since its closure.
But according to many connected to the Cham community, the soul—and the cash—have been removed from the once vibrant center of religion and education.
“It’s so sad,” said Farina So, a field coordinator at the Documentation Center of Cambodia who works closely with the Cham community. “It used to be famous, a popular school that parents tried to send their children to.”
Now, she said, the school has lost much of its luster.
“They don’t want to study at a school where something bad happened,” she said of some members of the Cham community. “Islamic leaders try to rebuild the school, but they don’t have the funds.”
The school had about 600 students before its closure but only has about 200 now, school officials said.
When the school was closed in May 2003, three foreign Muslims were arrested and about 35 foreign teachers and their families given 72 hours to leave the country.
The Cambodian government along with members of the international intelligence community, believed some of the school’s foreign staff—from Thailand, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Yemen—were supporting Hambali.
Whether foreign teachers posed a threat is a moot point now, because the school simply doesn’t have the cash to hire any.
Even the immigration police, who used to regularly check on the school may not be coming around anymore. Pech Solin said they last stopped by in June, just before classes ended. He said they told him that since there were no more foreigners at the school, they wouldn’t be making anymore inspections.
An official with the immigration police confirmed that immigration officers have made routine checks but did not say whether the checks had stopped.
“No more teachers from abroad because no more money,” Pech Solin lamented.
The school is now forced to teach Arabic without native-language instructors.
“It is difficult for them to teach Arab,” Farina So said of local Cambodian teachers.
Now that the Saudi money has dried up, the school, which once had free tuition according to school officials, now charges $10 a month for boarding students.
Othsman Hassan, a prominent Cham leader, adviser to the school and secretary of state for the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, says that tuition revenue still isn’t enough to cover the costs of food for the students. But he said the school has to check where its funding is coming from to avoid the kind of problems it ran into in 2003.
“We are cautious about accepting help and must do so in a transparent manner to avoid suspicion,” he said.
“They carefully monitor all funds from abroad,” Farina So concurred, saying the organization did not want to give anyone reason to again suspect it of ties to terrorism.
The school still receives money from abroad, mostly from Malaysian businessmen and charities, said Pech Solin and Sos Kamri, the Mufti of Cambodian Muslims and the head of the school.
Pech Solin said the school also receives supplies, but no monetary support, from the US Embassy. When thieves broke into the school and stole several computers, he said, the US Embassy donated three used ones.
The US Embassy confirmed that it sometimes gives used office equipment and backpacks, pencils and notebooks to the school.
But Sos Kamri claims that even with Malaysian aid and a strong push by the local Cham community to raise funds for the school, it is still a long way from its heyday.
When the center was funded by Om-Alqura, he said, it spent between $40,000 and $50,000 a month.
“Now we can only afford $4,000 to $5,000 a month,” he said.
Yet despite the school’s hard times, some students still cherish the education they receive at the ICC.
“I like the school so much because I get general knowledge like at the public school but also religious education,” said Sok Ry, 14, a student.
Sok Ry said he doesn’t have to pay tuition because he lives with his parents and goes home for meals, but for some of his poorer classmates, he said, 40,000 riel a month is a heavy burden.
And Pech Solin said times are hard for teachers, too. They are paid $70 a month, not bad considering that public school teachers make on average $30 to $50 a month, but a far cry from the $140-$150 a month teachers once made.
As at public schools, they used to get paid during vacation months as well. Now no one is paid except during the school year.
“There are big money problems,” Pech Solin said.
(Additional reporting by Chhim Sopheark)