It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and the children are busy learning in the outdoor classrooms set up at the reception centre run by the NGO Goutte d’eau in Poipet, a town in northwestern Cambodia on the Thai border. This morning, the teacher tells stories to teach the children about the importance of personal hygiene. The children gaze intently at their teacher and take in the story.
But, this is not an ordinary class or a regular school. Classes at this centre are tailored to provide education to children who have been rescued from traffickers – children who have experienced enormous trauma and exploitation. The children here receive regular lessons. They also learn songs composed by the teachers about children’s right to education, protection and care. Story-telling classes help the children to learn essentials skills and knowledge to assist with their healthy growth.
This reception centre is in a strategic location – less than 15 minutes’ drive from the main border crossing point between Cambodia and Thailand. Many children are forced to work close to the bustling crossing, to bring money home to their impoverished families. This is also the area where Cambodian children rescued from traffickers in Thailand are brought back to Cambodia.
Goutte d’eau – a UNICEF-supported NGO (“drop of water” in English) – is one of the organizations the Cambodian authorities go to when trafficked children are repatriated from Thailand to provide them with care and services. There are currently 35 children staying at Goutte d’eau’s reception centre.
“These children have experienced exploitation, arrest, and detention centres,” says Rithy Long San, Deputy Director of Goutte d’eau. “That’s why they are afraid when they first come here because of the uncertainty. They don’t know who they can trust. But in about one month, they start to get better.”
Many of the children receiving support here were taken from their impoverished families by traffickers to beg on the streets of Thailand or to earn money by engaging in petty labour. They were then arrested by the Thai police and put in shelters or detention centres until they were repatriated to Cambodia. The children were then referred to this NGO’s facility by Cambodian authorities.
Savy (not her real name) is 13 years old and has been staying with Goutte d’eau for one year. She was taken from home when she was 7 years old. Savy was born with a physical disability that prevented her from walking easily – traffickers took advantage of her disability and forced her to beg on the streets of Bangkok for five years.
The staff of Goutte d’eau say traffickers prey upon young children and children with disabilities, like Savy, because they generate the most money when forced to beg or sell flowers on the street.
A social worker at the centre describes how Savy didn’t understand her native Khmer language when she first arrived. Kim Veth, the social worker who looks after the children at the reception centre, explains that Savy was taken away for so long she forgot her mother tongue. “She still doesn’t remember where her hometown is. She could only remember her parents’ names. I took her on my moto and we went around Poipet town to try to stimulate her memory but we couldn’t find her home.”
The staff here say it’s often a challenge to locate the children’s families. Sometimes they can’t even determine the nationality of rescued children, especially if they have forgotten their mother tongue, so they need help to remember their place of origin. Therapeutic methods like drawing are used to help children remember.
“Savy had scabies around her neck and black spots on her skin when she first came here. The skin problems were caused by the unhygienic conditions she had to endure,” added Ms. Veth.
The doctor at the NGO treated her immediately. Ms. Veth says that Savy was very quiet at the beginning. But the staff stayed close to her around the clock, and engaged her in activities like singing, dancing, creating handicrafts and attending class. Gradually she started opening up.
While the children at the centre usually have a hard time learning at the beginning, they start to improve through engaging in daily activities – both recreational and educational – as well as receiving psychosocial support.
The reception centre is housed on a spacious plot of land. The compound includes a traditional elevated Khmer-style house where the boys and girls sleep separately. There is a large garden with swings and play areas with recreational and vocational-training activities, a communal hut for meals, and outdoor classroom spaces with simple blackboards, desks and benches.
After finishing lunch Savy sat in a shady part of the garden with other girls, to learn how to knit a small table runner. Other children went to skip ropes, play on the swings, or sit in the classrooms. Ms. Veth says that Savy still feels isolated sometimes, but that she is integrating with the other children more and more. She likes to help out in the kitchen and with laundry, even with limited mobility . She also enjoys watering the flowers in the garden.
“This is part of the healing process for these children. They chat, they make things, they express themselves, and all this makes them feel good and helps them get better,” says Ms. Veth.
While Savy may still have a long way ahead to fully integrate back into society, she has already taken some crucial and significant steps forward. She says that she wants to become a Khmer language teacher at a secondary school when she grows up. The staff at the NGO are trying to locate her family, but they have yet to succeed.
For now, Mr. San from Goutte d’eau says that Savy will be transferred to a centre in Phnom Penh also run by the NGO, where staff have more expertise in supporting and caring for children with disabilities.
Iman Morooka is Chief of Communication at UNICEF Cambodia.