Abdulhalim Kasim has placed a high-stakes wager on the benefits of an education, selling his 10 cows to help pay for his school fees.
A fourth-year marketing student at Norton University, Abdulhalim Kasim, 23, was forced to sell the animals after funding he received from private sponsors in the US dried up.
“If I don’t continue my studies,” he said, “I will have to continue working on the farm.”
Abdulhalim Kasim is Muslim. He and hundreds of other Islamic students are sheltered in Phnom Penh by the Cambodian Muslim Community Development Organization, which once channeled donor money toward the students’ school fees.
The organization, which continues to house the students, stopped financing their education three years ago due to a lack of funds.
The organization’s director, Ahmad Yahya, who is also former secretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works, thinks he knows why previously forthcoming donors have stopped sending cash.
He said sponsors fear that their money may be diverted to fund terrorist attacks.
“The donors haven’t stopped giving entirely,” he said. “But it has been difficult to find funds after the Sept 11  attacks.”
The Cambodian Muslim Community Development Organization began in 1999 when Ahmad Yahya put out an open call, offering shelter and education to all Cambodian Muslims. Beginning with seven Islamic students, the organization grew over the next two years to a point where it was distributing donor money to more than 230 students.
All of those students attended classes at Norton University because the school allowed the Muslim organization to pay fees in gradual installments, Ahmad Yahya said. The majority of the funding came from personal friends in the US, he said.
He declined to specify the total amount he received or the size of individual contributions.
Sles Nazy, Ahmad Yahya’s secretary, said that most of the money came in the form of small donations from less than 500 families in the US. Donors in the Middle East provided only a few thousand dollars every year, Ahmad Yahya said.
Since the program halted its educational assistance, most of the Muslim students have paid out of their own pockets to continue their schooling, Sles Nazy said. He estimated that fewer than 50 students have dropped out of school in the past three years.
Abdulhalim Kasim and his brother Abdulhalim Hannafy, 20, a third-year law student, were both beneficiaries of the program, but now are watching their debts grow. Norton charges students $480 per year and the brothers said they owe about $700 between them. “It is so difficult. I have been struggling to pay the fees since the cut,” Abdulhalim Kasim said.
Though the students’ plight concerned him, Ahmad Yahya said the $100,000 his organization owed Norton at the time of the funding cut made it impossible for him to help. He said he was trying to gather funds for the coming year, but “sponsors are afraid that their money can be used for trouble, and the economy [in the US] is not so good.”
Hak Arifin, 24, another Islamic student who once received donor assistance, was critical of Ahmad Yahya for pulling support from students already in their second or third year, but also thought the US’ flagging economy was largely to blame. “The income of Islamic-American families declined,” he said. “So I think it is not mainly because of the terrorist attacks.”
Others were also skeptical of blaming the Sept 11 attacks for the funding cut. Othsman Hassan, a CPP parliamentarian and director of the Cambodian Muslim Development Foundation, argued that Cambodia was removed from such concerns. “Cambodian Muslims have no links to acts of terrorism,” he said.
US Embassy officials declined to comment on this particular funding issue. The Embassy supports some education initiatives involving Cambodia’s Cham Muslim population, Embassy spokesperson David Gainer said.
Norton University Rector Chan Sokhieng sees the cut in US funding as a problem for the Cambodian Islamic community, but said some of the Muslim students had already successfully graduated.
Meanwhile, Abdulhalim Kasim continues to struggle with his bills.
After landing a job last week as a sales representative, he hopes he will eventually be able to pay his remaining fees, but said he does not expect to be out of debt any time soon.
(Additional reporting by Christopher St John)