The street children worked in silence, intent on their task, not even stopping when they were handed snacks. They had the morning to draw anything that they would do or ask for—if, in an imaginary world, they were given such a chance.
A few of them found it hard to hope, even on paper, beyond today’s world. “One drawing depicted a desolate landscape of tree stumps and log piles, with one solitary figure staring sadly in the distance,” said Robert Salamon, principal director for external affairs at the Asian Development Bank.
“They have a lot to tell us, those kids,” he said. “Development planners need look no further. Street children tell us where to go, clear as daylight.”
The ADB has been inviting street children from seven countries to express their dreams in a drawing contest. On June 15, it was the turn of Cambodians to take part in the “If I had a chance” competition.
Seven NGOs had joined forces to let street children in Phnom Penh know about the contest. About 160 young people, from 5 to 16 years old, gathered Saturday on the grounds of the NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends, ready to participate.
From the start, it was obvious they were taking the task seriously. There was little chatter as they waited for the organizers to launch the contest.
“Don’t worry about competing with each other—just be yourself and express your thoughts,” said Urooj Malik, ADB representative in Cambodia.
Then they quietly dispersed and went to work. The children drew pictures based on various themes, which ranged from hopes for their own future to visions for their neighborhoods.
Kanica drew a school. “I would like to go to school—I need an education,” said the 14-year-old girl.
Chany sketched a man in a laboratory coat. “I want to do research to find medicine for the most dangerous diseases,” said the 16-year-old boy. “I don’t like disease and I want to help [sick] people.”
In Nuon Phalla’s drawing, Chroy Changva commune became filled with factories and office buildings. “I want my area to develop,” said the 15-year-old boy.
In some pictures, reality came barging in. “I want to be a policeman to help young people who take drugs,” said Chan Sokhan, 12, who drew a police officer in uniform.
As a policeman, Chan Sokhan could possibly help the many children in Phnom Penh who have begun using drugs. About three street children out of four sniff glue as a way of escaping their harsh life, said Sebastien Marot, Mith Samlanh/Friends’ coordinator.
The ADB has held drawing sessions in Bangladesh, Nepal, Mongolia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The last one will take place in Manila later this month. Each session averages 150 participants.
After Saturday’s drawing contest, each participant received a medal, a T-shirt and a backpack.
A jury at ADB headquarters in Manila will choose three winners in each of the three age categories. Prizes will consist of $500 scholarships to be managed by NGOs that care for street children.
The ADB plans to compile the drawings in a book that should come out toward the end of the year. Its goal will be not only to make people aware of the plight of street children in Asia, but also to give them a voice and transmit their messages to the adult world, Salamon said.
The number of street children in Phnom Penh is estimated at a minimum of 10,000 and could be as high as 20,000, Marot said. This includes children who work on the street all day to support their families, in addition to homeless children living on their own or with family members, he said.