White Building School Closes Its Doors as Tenant Evictions Begin

In a barren classroom at the Aziza school on the ground floor of the White Building, the children are keeping busy on their last day.

They laugh with each other and play a “game” where they write down their teachers’ telephone numbers.

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EYC program manager Nov Synoeun on Monday distributes teachers’ telephone numbers so students can stay in touch after the Aziza school’s eviction from Phnom Penh’s White Building. (Brendan O’Byrne/The Cambodia Daily)

Nearby, staff members call the students’ parents to ask if they know where they will be living tomorrow.

It’s not a typical last day of school. But then this is not a typical school. Aziza—a free English language and computer school run by the NGO Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC)—has been teaching the children of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building for the past decade.

Today, the school will close its doors as it is evicted from the low-income housing block along with other tenants, as homeowners who accepted compensation deals from the government prepare to leave for good.

“It’s a very sad page of history that’s turning,” said Delphine Vann, EYC’s country manager.

Ironically, Ms. Delphine is the daughter of legendary architect Vann Molyvann, the head of the team that designed the White Building, along with Olympic Stadium, Independence Monument and other Phnom Penh landmarks.

She hasn’t told her bedridden father that yet another of his works is set to be destroyed, saying that it “would be too painful for him.”

“What can you do?” she asked. “This is what Phnom Penh is becoming.”

Over 90 percent of the 493 White Building residents have taken the Land Management Ministry’s final offer of $1,400 per square meter for their homes, which are set to be demolished to make way for a 21-story development. The building’s markets, shops, coffee shops and only school will be lost along with the structure.

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Prak Tith Rany, child program coordinator at Aziza school, speaks in front of one of the school’s classrooms at the White Building in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Brendan O’Byrne/The Cambodia Daily)

Residents have been told they can move out starting today, although no official deadline to leave has been given.

Some homeowners are placing locks on doors today and evicting tenants, including Aziza, which rents two classrooms in the building for its pupils, who range in age from primary school to university students.

Upstairs in a second classroom on Monday, about a dozen of the students’ parents sat on the floor of an empty room and spoke with a social worker about the anger, frustration and hopelessness they felt about their imminent eviction.

For many of the school’s 60 staff members and 141 students who live in the building, the loss of their school is compounded by the impending loss of their homes.

“This little support, which costs nothing, can really change their life,” Ms. Delphine said of Aziza, which she estimated cost EYC about $54,000 a year to operate.

Nov Synoeun, 27, is well aware of the school’s impact. She has worked at Aziza for four years, and is now the program manager for the NGO’s four Phnom Penh schools. Her story is proof that Aziza can transform a child’s life.

Ms. Synoeun grew up in the squatter community of Dey Krahom—which was razed after families were violently evicted in 2009—and moved to the White Building when she was about 9 years old. Her family changed apartments in the White Building more than 10 times in as many years, forced into smaller and smaller homes whenever rents would rise.

At the age of 16, she dropped out of school to support her family as a garment factory worker, and her daily commute brought her past Aziza. One day, after learning about their free classes and seeing a computer for the first time in one of Aziza’s rooms, she decided to enroll.

“My life was changed, 360 degrees, when I became a student at Aziza,” Ms. Synoeun said.

She negotiated with her parents to work less and study English for an hour a day. Soon after, with a scholarship from EYC, she re-enrolled in high school, and then attended university, where she participated in an exchange program and studied in the U.S. for a year.

“All of my education was sponsored by EYC,” Ms. Synoeun said.

After graduating, she came back to work at the school, hoping to pass on the same opportunities to others. Now, she’s in the difficult position of having to explain to students why their school is closing—temporarily, the NGO hopes, though no new space has been secured.

“They worry about where they’re going to go next,” she said. “And where the school will go.”

Most of Aziza’s staff are former students or current residents of the White Building, and many of them are trying to help their students while also juggling their own eviction.

Prak Tith Rany started as a part-time teacher at Aziza in 2009, and is now a child program coordinator. The 36-year-old also rents an apartment in the White Building—or did, until his landlord told him he had to leave by this morning.

“I still feel sad to leave,” he said on Monday afternoon, sitting outside one of Aziza’s classrooms. “I’ve been here 10 years, and even though I do not own a home here, I consider myself a resident.”

Mr. Tith Rany has been speaking with his students’ parents all week. Some are moving back to the provinces where NGOs and free English schools are rarer. Others are moving to the city’s outskirts, while others still don’t know where they’ll end up.

“Now, they separate,” he said. “We don’t know what will be done.”

EYC is looking to rent new space near the White Building, and hopes to open in just two weeks. But no one knows for sure how many students will remain in the area to attend the new school building.

It’s a stressful time for the students and their families, as well as Aziza’s staff, Ms. Delphine, who does not live in the building, said on Monday. EYC arranged for a social worker from Social Services of Cambodia to speak with parents, to give them an opportunity to talk about what they’re going through.

They complained of inadequate compensation and a lack of information from the government, while renters said they’d be left with nothing when their landlords forced them out. Residents worried about losing their shops, spoke of smaller apartments that would charge higher rents, and lamented the loss of a school that gives their children crucial skills for the future.

As the staff finished up their survey of parents and the young students prepared to leave Aziza and go back to their homes in the White Building—some for the last time—Ms. Synoeun said she worried about whether she would see some of them again.

“Some of them will go to the provinces, and some will move far away, but many of them will stay with us,” she said. “Parents say even though they live far from us, they will still bring their kids to us.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated 493 residents live in the White Building. It is home to 493 families.

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