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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cambodians in L.B. help their homeland

The ride from Phnom Penh to Angkor Chea in the distant rural province of Kampot near the Vietnam border is a jouncing, chiropractic trip.

Traveling south on the state highway, the van carrying school supplies to a pair of English-language schools comes to a crawl where portions of the road are wiped away and only rutted quagmires remain.

In the front seat, Somara Chea gazes out across the landscape she knows so well.

Chea is the director in Cambodia for Progressive United Action Association Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in Long Beach by a Cambodian genocide survivor.

Created by Oni Vitandham, funded by a group of Cambodian-Americans in California, overseen by Long Beach real estate agent Michael Blasdell and run in-country by Chea, Progressive United gives free English-language classes after regular school hours to more than 1,300 impoverished children in Cambodia, most in remote villages.

For five years, the group has taught English in some of the most destitute areas of the planet. In a nation where the average wage is $321 per year and 90 percent of the poor live in rural areas, education is vital for advancement.

And to many parents and children, English is seen as a ticket out of poverty. It is the "international language" they believe will help them find work in the burgeoning tourist business in Siem Reap, in industry or civil service in Phnom Penh, or in a neighboring country.

"Some of our kids went out to work in hotels," Blasdell says. "That may not sound like much to you and me, but it really changed their lives."

In Cambodia, education was a casualty of war.

When the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975, it abolished the education system and killed educators and the educated. Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, but the country was embroiled for the next 14 years in upheaval and civil war that continued to cripple public education in this small Southeast Asian nation.

To this day, the decline of education is exhibited in low adult literacy, high dropout rates, subpar instruction from teachers who make an average of $40 per month, inadequate infrastructure and endemic corruption in the educational sector.

Against this backdrop, non-governmental organizations in Cambodia face a daunting task in trying to resuscitate education.

Chea says there is a bottomless well of children eager to learn English. Meeting the need is a seemingly never-ending task.

As the van rolls away from the capital, the traffic thins and the mayhem of darting tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous motorcycle-powered taxis, and scooters disperses. Some of the motorized transport is replaced by ox- and horse-drawn wagons. The frenetic pace of Phnom Penh eases into the quiet slowness of the countryside.

Here the land unfolds and exhales. From the side of the highway, rice paddies extend out toward the blue Chuor Phnum Kr vanh mountains. The paddies are dotted by huts, Buddhist wats and water buffalo. Along the roadside, young boys herd emaciated cattle. Others squat next to muddy canals with homemade fishing poles.

It is a postcard that is utterly Cambodian - at once bucolic and bereft. For all the beguiling beauty of the landscape, there is also a barrenness of spirit, a poverty that is complete and immutable.

The landscape provides a metaphor for the plight of the students. In one sense, the children harbor beautiful dreams about the transformative power of English. The reality is they face huge obstacles in escaping the poverty that envelops them.

Occasionally the van stops in a small roadside hamlet and is engulfed by vendors selling candy, soft drinks and more exotic fare such as frog-on-a-stick.

In one small town, the van stops for gasoline at a combination home and general store. A boy brings sloshing petrol out in a large, opaque container.

The gas was bought in nearby Vietnam, where it is cheaper, and transported back to Cambodia.

Eventually the van arrives at its destination, a village at the end of a rutted dirt road and dominated by a Buddhist wat: Angkor Chea.

Rebuilding education

To understand the importance of education in the Cambodian culture, one must understand a little about the past.

Prior to the Khmer Rouge rise to power, Cambodian schools operated on a French model. The country was a colony of France until the early 1950s.

When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, it sought to form a pure agrarian state. One of its mottos was that rice fields were books and hoes were pencils.

To this end, it wiped out the existing education system and attempted to eliminate Western teachings that they felt polluted the minds of the public. Among the estimated 1.7 million who died under the Khmer Rouge, those with education were particular targets.

It is estimated that more than 75 percent of Cambodia's teachers were executed or fled the country. A Soviet report put the rate at 90 percent.

Similarly, doctors, lawyers, government workers and professionals faced particularly harsh treatment.

The resulting knowledge and literacy gap remains a persistent problem.

Kol Pheng, the senior minister of education, youth and sport, says the education system had to be rebuilt from scratch after 1979.

"We're making great progress," Pheng says. "But there remain many issues to deal with. We don't have facilities and we have to improve the capacity of teachers. We still have a shortage of teachers."

A number of nonprofit organizations have sought to fill the gap. However, few focus solely on English-language training, and many of those are faith-based groups.

In 2001, an affiliation called NGO Education Partnership, working with Cambodia's Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, was formed. This group consists of 65 agencies, but estimates there are about 200 non-governmental organizations in Cambodia that include education in their missions. Progressive United is not a member. Blasdell says he was unaware of the organization and will look into joining.

The educational groups run the gamut in size, budgets and missions.

USAID, for example, has pumped $5 million into the education sector to train teachers, create new curricula and improve infrastructure. The Peace Corps recently sent its first volunteers, whose main task will be to teach English in the countryside.

However, most of the nonprofit groups are modest. According to the partnership, 40 percent of the educational NGOs have budgets of $100,000 or less.

By operating schools in remote provinces such as Kampot and Takeo, Progressive United is one of only 20 percent of the NGOs that operate in rural areas.

Pheng says the government has made teaching English a priority.

"I see the need of English," Pheng says. "All Asian countries work together in English only. I promote English as a second language."

Sorykan Chan, the second secretary to the Cambodia Permanent Mission to the United Nations, is familiar with Progressive United's work.

While he praises the group and its goals, he fears the instruction, like that in many such schools, is insufficient for most. Among the problems Chan said were that children weren't getting enough class time to adequately learn English.

Educators and administrators say the teaching formula in Cambodia, much of which relies on memorization, is backward.

Although mimicking English phrases may help one find work in low-level tourist employment, it doesn't teach children the critical thinking needed for true advancement.

"It's drill and kill," says Alex Morales, a Progressive United volunteer, of the Cambodian teaching method. "Eighty percent of the time is the teachers talking and 20 percent of the time it's the students talking and it should be just the opposite."

"The pedagogy is old school," he adds.

To help correct these deficiencies, Morales has created teaching plans for Progressive United instructors. However, he says he can't monitor progress during his short stints in the country.

"What they need is a complete program that teaches not only English literacy, but literacy in their own language," Morales says. "I think they're doing OK, but they need a complete curriculum."

When Progressive United first opened classes, Blasdell said the government wanted the organization to offer a full-day school where children could go instead of public schooling. However, Progressive United lacked the resources to tackle such a large-scale project.

Blasdell says teachers integrate civics and other exercises into their classes. He says he has seen improvements in performances in many of the classes, but it takes time.

In Phnom Penh, Progressive United has basic computer classes, leadership classes and even art. In the countryside, where there's no electricity, the goals are more modest.

Chea San Chantham is president of Pannasastra University, a college that teaches its classes in English and is described as the Harvard of Cambodia.

Although he says many NGOs are corrupt and little more than money handlers, he favors small groups like Progressive United that, "get up close and personal with students and don't get corrupted by the money."

He says it is vital for Cambodian students to learn to think critically and develop leadership skills, particularly in the countryside.

Chea San Chantham says his school sends students to teach in the countryside. And while they may teach English, they also integrate lessons on citizenship and leadership.

"Even if a child is going to grow up to be a farmer, they will be leaders of their communities," he says. "I support teaching English in the countryside, as long as you offer something else."

Angkor Chea

As the van pulls up to Angkor Chea, it passes through an ornate archway and out of time.
Around the Buddhist wat that is the center of the village, several monks drift by in saffron robes. A group of villagers huddle outside a thatch and clapboard hut where they smoke cigarettes and chat idly.

In front of the schoolhouse, Sousophorn Tak, a young monk, awaits. He is thin with a soft unlined face and has the requisite recently shaved head and sparse wispy facial hair.

He has been teaching classes at Angkor Chea for three years. Despite the high dropout rates in the countryside, 62 children from the area cram in for a chance at the brass ring they believe English language represents.

Later in the day, the van will visit another school in the village of Tung Leang, where Pen Bunnarath teaches 202 students in five one-hour classes, beginning at noon.

Inside the Angkor Chea schoolhouse, the children await. Their classroom is on the bottom floor of a two-story building. It is a spare space with benches and tables on either side of a middle aisle: boys on one side, girls on the other. The walls are bare but for pictures of the Buddha and the royal family and a blackboard. The window openings are barred but without glass, giving the place an odd prison-like feel.

Sunday is usually a day off, but on this day the teachers opened their doors.

The reason is the visit by Somara Chea. She is there to deliver supplies, including notebooks, pens, pencils and other necessities. Plus cash. The currency of Cambodia is the riel. A dollar is worth about 4,000 riel, with denominations as low as 50 riel, worth 1.25 cents. The bills fly from Somara Chea's hands like confetti.

She says she has to control the urge to give away all her money.

The top students are also rewarded with backpacks and other prizes.

A number of the notebooks are emblazoned with likenesses of American professional wrestlers.

For a reason no one adequately explains, American wrestling, like most things American, is enormously popular. On a weekend day, dozens of townspeople will crowd around a television to watch wrestling broadcasts.

Somara Chea has also brought along a special treat - bottles of soft drinks - as well as a visiting journalist from America. She says for many people at the school and village, it is the second time they have seen an American.

When the journalist enters the classroom the students stand in unison and say "Hello."

Sousophorn has 35 girls and 27 boys in three classes. This is significant because in Cambodia, education of girls lags far behind that of boys and the government has struggled to keep girls in school, going as far as to pay girls in rural areas to stay in school.

Later in the day, children in the village of Tung Leang line both sides of the road, like troops awaiting inspection.

On this visit, older children overfill the class and dozens of younger children mill around the doors for a peek at the visitors.

Bunnarath, the teacher there, learned English in Phnom Penh but wanted to teach in the countryside.

"I'm from a village," Bunnarath says.

He adds that he chose to return "because I think it's a good job and I can share my knowledge. I can help my people."

Bunnarath says that for part of last year he went without pay but continued to teach because the children needed it.

At Angkor Chea, Srey Nut, a shy, blushing 13-year-old girl, is honored as No. 1 in her class.

When asked about her future goals, she haltingly says, "I want to be a teacher in English in a private school."

The journalist is again told that English is the key to getting jobs.

"The children, they know when they have English it's easy to find a job, or they can go to another country," Sousophorn says. "The children who can speak English are able to do anything in their life. I want them to do anything they want to do."

Fighting corruption

Because of budget constraints, Progressive United is unable to pay good wages to its teachers, mirroring a nationwide problem. Progressive's teachers average $50 a month. Those in the two Phnom Penh schools also receive room and board.

According to Pheng, thousands of teachers leave the profession annually because of low wages, either through retirement or by moving into other lines of work.

The average salary for a primary school teacher is $35 to $40 a month, about $45 for a junior high teacher and and $60 to $75 for secondary school teachers, according to Pheng.

As a result, Pheng says "good teachers will teach at home or a private school" or work at odd jobs to make ends meet.

Or they turn to the students and their families.

Low wages and chronic late payment have led to endemic corruption in the public schools. It is routine for public school teachers to charge extra to students for one-on-one tutoring or for the instruction they need to pass year-end examinations.

Kourn Ngourn, a public school teacher, told the Cambodia Daily he charges students for lesson papers and exam papers.

"This is outside the rules of the ministry but the teachers decide to do it," he said. "If I don't do it, then I will be a strange person."

Blasdell worries about similar corruption in his organization. Although it is forbidden and teachers have been fired and disciplined at Progressive United, Blasdell admits it is almost impossible for him to enforce.

"We have Somara (Chea) going out there to check, but I know it goes on at other schools all the time," Blasdell admits.

Eager to learn

The muddy road to the Progressive United classes in Kok Beng village outside Siem Reap, about 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, is impassable for the tuk-tuk. So driver Vanna Leng unhooks the carriage from his motorcycle and heads down the road for reinforcements.

As the gateway to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex, Siem Reap is a city that bustles with activity and possibility.

Tourism has exploded in the area and continues to grow unabated. About 1.5 million visitors descended on the temples last year, a nine-fold increase since 2000, and the government hopes to reach 3 million by 2010.

An estimated 30,000 tourism jobs have been created by the boom.

For students with a facility for languages, employment in tourism can lead out of poverty.

Soon, students Lev Lrouk, 17, and Naing Man, 17, come zooming up the road on their motorscooters to ferry the visitors to the school on the backs of their bikes.

They are excited to have visitors on whom to test their English skills.

The Progressive United school room is a thatched-roof hut attached to the existing Kok Beng state school. The dirt floor is flooded and an administrator jokingly calls it PUAAI Lake.

The children sitting at their desks absent-mindedly trail their feet in the puddles. There is no electricity and only rudimentary teaching tools.

Some of the students are in school uniforms, others are wearing T-shirts with the ubiquitous American wrestlers. One boy has a picture of Rey Mysterio on his chest and another has John Cena.

The classroom cost $200 to build and there are 95 students who attend the classes taught by Choch Chor.

Farther down the road at Kok Thnoat village, another 69 students attend Progressive United classes taught by Dy Mao. He says the road to Kok Thnoat is impassable by motor vehicle. Still farther out is a school in the town of Pim.

Despite the simple tools the school has to offer, Leng says he is inundated with requests of villagers wanting to enroll their children.

"PUAAI doesn't have enough money for all the poor who want to learn," says Leng, the tuk-tuk driver who doubles as an administrator in Siem Reap for the schools. "We have many students, but we don't have enough space. There are many, many poor students who want to study."

Leng says he must consistently turn families away.

Chea tells similar stories about children crying when they are turned away in Takeo province.

On this day, however, there are smiles all around as Chea distributes supplies and soft drinks. Chea arrived early in the day via a ferry boat that runs along the Mekong River between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Lrouk and Man talk excitedly about their prospects with English training.

"It's very easy to find a job. English is the international language," Lrouk says.

A phrase that seems to be the mantra of Cambodian students.

"I want to be a teacher," Man chimes in.

Lrouk adds that he would like to teach in the mornings and work at a hotel in the afternoon.

After Chea and the visitor conclude their trip to Kok Beng, they begin the trek back to Siem Reap.

In the distance, a tethered hot-air balloon hangs high above the ruins of the Angkor Wat temple complex. It is an odd sight, at once seemingly close, almost tangible, and yet impossibly elusive.

Tomorrow: Oni Vitandham created Progressive United Action Association Inc. but has never returned to Cambodia to see the benefits of her creation. A look at the founder, the organization and the group's internal strife.

Greg Mellen can be reached at or (562) 499-1291 .

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Helping Hands Outside The Box

Cambodia poses challenges for first Peace Corps teams

By Ker Munthit

KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia — Munching on their first hamburgers in weeks, the Americans traded tales of mastering the Asian squat toilet and eating deep-fried tarantulas.

These were some of the rural realities that greeted 29 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who left behind the comforts of home to teach English for two years in the Cambodian countryside.

It marks the 46-year-old Peace Corps’ first program in the poor Southeast Asian country, which was bombed by American B-52s during the Vietnam War, ravaged by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and further weakened by a civil war in the 1980s.

Political instability and security concerns kept the organization out of Cambodia until now, but both sides felt it was “the perfect time” to introduce the Peace Corps to the country as it strives to develop and expand its economy, said Van Nelson, the group’s country director. The group’s arrival makes Cambodia the 139th country where the service organization has worked.

The 13 men and 16 women, from New York, Wisconsin, Iowa and elsewhere, fanned out recently to villages in seven rural provinces after two months of training that introduced them to life in Cambodia — where the average civil servant earns about $25 a month.

Roughly a third of Cambodia’s 14 million people live below the national poverty line of 50 U.S. cents a day.

Breaking in gently

During an eight-week orientation period, each volunteer was lodged with a Cambodian family in Kampong Cham province, 50 miles east of the capital, Phnom Penh, where they eased into their new culture and downsized lifestyle.

Used to driving cars on American freeways, they became accustomed to maneuvering bicycles along bumpy country roads, where traffic rules don’t apply.

They lived in shack-like wooden homes on stilts overlooking dry and empty rice fields and slept under mosquito nets to keep away the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that are a major killer in this country. They hand-pumped well water into buckets and boiled it for drinking, and many said that for the first time in their lives they showered three times a day — the only way to cool off from 100-degree (Fahrenheit) heat in the absence of air conditioning.

They did have some luxuries, such as dim lights at night powered by car batteries — a rarity in rural areas.

“We have different routines now. We go to bed earlier and get up earlier. We wake up when the dogs wake up,” said Sam Snyder, 24, from Buffalo, N.Y. He came with his wife, 22-year-old Kara, who said the couple wanted “to experience life outside the box.”

Dogs weren’t the only early risers. Colin Doyle, 23, from Baltimore, said he was awakened regularly by insomniac roosters.

“They crow at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. Very annoying,” he said at his temporary home in Kampong Cham before the group got posted around the country.

Over the course of two years, the volunteers are expected to teach English to approximately 60,000 Cambodians as part of efforts to increase job opportunities, particularly in the booming tourism industry, organizers said.

Tourism is one of Cambodia’s biggest money makers, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, mainly from the crowds of visitors who flock to the famed Angkor temples in the city of Siem Reap. The government is also developing some of the prime white-sand coastal areas in hopes of building Cambodia’s image as a beach destination.

Not just for youth

Peace Corps officials said they plan to increase the number of volunteers to Cambodia each year. The initial group ranged from young adults just out of college to a married couple in their 40s.

While the Peace Corps’ image remains that of a youth service, the organization has been attracting more and more Americans like Mark Stilwell, a 46-year-old former computer network administrator from Denver. He and his 41-year-old wife Kristine, a high-school teacher, joined the organization because they wanted to travel but “in a way that is more than just tourism,” he said.

Nelson said the Peace Corps has been attracting older volunteers for years and has found they bring special skills such as patience and “a different way of looking at the world than young volunteers.”

“We find people coming to Peace Corps when they retire. They just realize that they’re not getting any younger and that they should get out and see the world and expand their horizons,” he said.

Young and middle-age, the volunteers were equally bemused to learn how Americans are regarded by Cambodians. They shared impressions at a cultural training class, where a Cambodian instructor informed the group that Americans are generally viewed as selfish, materialistic, rich and casual about romantic relationships.

One Cambodian said his countrymen think American women are “easy” — a common perception in Southeast Asia, where such opinions are shaped by Hollywood movies and the skin-baring fashions of American female travelers.

“Uh-uh, think again,” said 21-year-old Molli Barker of Bettendorf, Iowa, triggering laughter from her colleagues.

Women were advised during the class not to wear tight clothing or skimpy tank tops, which are considered inappropriate by Cambodians, and instead to wear shirts that cover their shoulders, and ankle-length skirts or pants.

One common perception is that “Americans are all white,” Mark Stilwell said he learned. “That was really a surprise.”

On the flip-side, the group said it perceived Cambodians as skinny, short, overdressed, poor and selfless.

Learning experiences

Many said the orientation made them realize all they took for granted at home — such as washing machines and dryers. Doing the laundry involves squatting outside over a bucket of water and scrubbing each item with bare hands.

Going to the bathroom was another learning experience, as a group of three volunteers explained while on an outing at a riverside restaurant in Kampong Cham, which happened to be owned by an American from Philadelphia and, to the group’s delight, served burgers and fries.

Mastering the Asian squat toilet, a porcelain covered hole in the ground, was the first challenge. One volunteer, who asked not to be quoted by name on the subject, said he had given up using toilet paper — which could be bought only at a distant town — and instead did as Cambodians do, which involves splashing oneself with water from a filled tub near the toilet.

Eating offered new and sometimes stomach turning dishes, said Chris Rates, a 25-year-old from Oshkosh, Wis., who suffered diarrhea after sampling a delicacy of fried tarantulas.

He confessed to being “freaked out a bit” when he bumped into two of the creature’s living, breathing cousins in the bathroom at his host family’s home.

“I’m used to living with them now,” he said, as he devoured his first hamburger in weeks.

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