sihanoukville – In 1995, Voeun Dara was a street child in Battambang. Then 16 years old, the orphan—his body infected with tuberculosis—sold ice cream to survive on the streets of Cambodia’s second-largest city.
Three years later, as part of an innovative program to provide job skills, the 19-year-old is healthy and sailing the seas near Sihanoukville as the captain of a fishing boat.
Voeun Dara’s radically different life is due to the fishing training program in Sihanoukville operated by the local NGO Krousar Thmey (New Family). The program is dedicated to improving the lives of former street children by training them to become fishermen, according to its coordinator, Lay Si Than.
“Almost half of the kids have never seen the sea before,” he says, adding that most participants are now young adults.
Voeun Dara is typical of the approximately 60 young men who have come to Sihanoukville to participate in the three-month course. Many start out fearing the sea. “I was very afraid,” he says. “I wanted to go back home. But now, it’s OK. Being on the ocean is like being on the land.”
Voeun Dara is considered a natural-born sailor, Lay Si Than says. He now skippers one of the two boats the program uses for training.
The forerunner of the program began in 1995, when Krousar Thmey started a training course to train former street children as commercial divers. However, they found at the end of the course that there wasn’t enough work at the port doing underwater repairs on ships, Lay Si Than says.
But navigation skills learned during the diving course were in demand, and fishing-boat captains signed the kids on as crew.
The program then switched its emphasis to the fishing industry. The Sihanoukville fishing fleet is growing by 10 percent a year, Lay Si Than says, but he still has trouble placing the new sailors.
“The easy part is the training,” he says. “But afterwards we have to find jobs for the kids or they’ll just wander away. The hard part is getting past the reputation street children have.”
Also, some of the young men never find their sea legs and drop out, Lay Si Than says.
Chap Narong, another trainee, has adapted to the seafaring life, although it isn’t his life’s ambition. He would rather drive trucks.
“I came here to find a better job and to improve my life,” the 22-year-old says in near-fluent English he learned while growing up at the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand.
At 18, Chap Narong moved to Pursat town where he repaired motorbikes. He had never seen the ocean before joining the Krousar Thmey program.
Only about half of the former street children in the program can read or write, Lay Si Than says. But they can make a decent living as fishermen. Boat captains pay $2 to $3 a night or a portion of the profits. Most program graduates average about $60 a month, about double what they previously made, he adds.
As for Voeun Dara, he plans on sailing the seas his whole life. “I can’t predict what my future is, but I want to be a fisherman as long as possible,” he says.