siem reap – It was mid-afternoon and Angkor Wat was a more impressive sight than ever. A thousand children, all dressed in white T-shirts with logos emblazoned in green, surged down the causeway towards the temple. As shadows fell across the ancient paving stones, the children posed for their family photograph.
Nearby, on the grounds of Siem Reap’s school for the deaf, a festival was held. The 1,000 children attended and celebrated the 11th anniversary of a family that has affected the lives of more than 3,000 Cambodians.
Bernoit Duchateau-Arminton created the family in 1991 at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. The 25-year-old left his job with a hotel chain in Bangkok, made a decision to assist young Cambodian refugees, and initiated a project that would rapidly grow into a hugely successful organization.
He founded Krousar Thmey (New Family), a nonpolitical organization providing deprived Cambodian children with material, educational and social support while striving to respect their traditions and beliefs.
Krousar Thmey assists children who are either orphaned, abandoned, exploited or handicapped. They may have been trafficked or living on the streets. Sometimes they are children who have been exploited or abandoned by their own parents. Krousar Thmey has opened three schools for deaf children, three schools for blind children, and two libraries to produce Braille books—the first-ever Khmer texts for the blind.
The organization has centers for street children in Phnom Penh and Poipet, permanent protection centers in Takhmau, Sisophon and Siem Reap, six family houses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and one village welcoming widows and their children in Poipet. The organization also has formed two shadow theater troupes and offers traditional music and dance classes to children in an effort to instill in them the importance of cultural and artistic development.
Every two years the children and staff of Krousar Thmey come together for three days to celebrate a family created through years of effort and dedication. Almost 1,200 people attended this year’s festivities.
A few French volunteers monitor the internal workings and progress of Krousar Thmey, but the organization is run mostly by local staff. The training of Khmer staff was one of the Duchateau -Arminton’s first priorities.
In his speech to open this year’s festival, Duchateau-Arminton addressed the hundreds of children who stood before him on landings, balconies, and every available chair and table.
“You have to be aware that solidarity has to be built every day and requires everyone’s effort” he told the children. “You need to learn to respect differences, how to provide assistance to the most neglected ones.
“Do not behave like people who just want to benefit from assistance….You have to be aware that the chance you got to receive assistance means you also have to pay great attention to others. If you understand that together you will always be stronger, you will be able to help each other as brothers and sisters of a real family.”
That family spirit was evident during the festival. Blind musicians played while young deaf girls relied on their teachers’ clapping to guide them in dance. Deaf comedians created and performed slapstick routines that had hundreds of children laughing. Teen-agers performed accompanied by modern dance music, while children barely five years old, clad in bright silks, executed impressive traditional dances.
Spirits were high as children from 12 centers competed in general knowledge tests. Each school received points, and in a finale cheered on by hundreds of excited supporters, a new computer was awarded as first prize to the competitors from the Protection Center in Sisophon.
Duchateau-Arminton stood to one side and watched monks in saffron robes chant a blessing. “It is amazing to watch,” he said. “There are young people here who were with us from the beginning who now have jobs….There is a young woman here who married one of the other former Thmey children. They are now expecting their first child.”
Phanna Sok is the coordinator of Krousar Thmey’s Street Children Program, and has been with the organization for eight years. Late at night or in the early morning hours, he approaches children on the streets of Phnom Penh and lets them know that Krousar Thmey is there to help if they want to change their lives. “Many of the children will listen to me, but perhaps not act right away,” he said. “But after some time they get to know me. They call me Pa on the streets.”
Phanna Sok knows some children find temporary shelter with Krousar Thmey, only to return to their life on the streets.
“We offer them what we can, and then it is their choice,” he says with a shrug. “We let the children know they can change their minds, and that we will be here for them if they do.”