Sophea’s mother Mony is a single mother of four living in rural Cambodia. Work is scarce and irregular, and it’s hard to make ends meet. Her children, like so many others, know they must help out from an early age.
The cost of going to a government school is around $1 a day. For Mony, living with the daily struggle of poverty, it’s an impossible sum.
With little education herself, she works as a day labourer. Often travelling great distances to find work, she earns just $5 a day. To educate her four children would cost $4 a day, or 80 per cent of her income. She faces a choice no one should have to make: Should I feed my children or educate them?
Sophea is Mony’s oldest daughter. Bright, funny and quirky, Sophea started government primary school but could not attend regularly. Sophea and her older brother could not even start secondary school before they had to find work to help Mony care for two younger siblings.
The state of education in Cambodia
Although it’s been 20 years since the surrender of the Khmer Rouge, decades of war and conflict have left Cambodia deeply scarred. Today it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, struggling with vastly inadequate healthcare and education infrastructure.
Just one in four young people finish high school — even fewer in rural communities. It’s not uncommon to see children as young as 10 years old doing unsafe and heavy work, labouring on construction sites or farms.
Even if children do stay in school, the standard of education in government schools is extremely low. Students at 11 or 12 years old often can’t read or write.
Because their wages are so low, teachers often charge extra fees to bring students up to standard by tutoring them outside of school hours. So students who can’t afford this extra tuition — like Mony’s children — fall even further behind their classmates.
The day Sophea and Mony will never forget
The most significant day of Sophea’s young life started as usual. She and her mother were working together in a bottle factory for their meagre wages. That’s where Jesuit Service Cambodia’s outreach team, who travel around to local poor villages in search of families that need help, found the 15-year-old.
They identified her as a candidate who would greatly benefit from a scholarship, and recommended her to Xavier Jesuit School, where she was accepted.
Independent thought over rote learning
Led by Australian Jesuit Fr Quyen Vu SJ, the Xavier Jesuit School (XJS) is run by Jesuit Mission’s local partner, and was founded in 2015 in one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.
‘Our goal is to convince students that you sacrifice a few years now, but then you can help not only yourself, but your family’, says Fr Quyen. ‘Through education these students can go on to have skills, a career, a profession.’
The school encourages independent thought instead of the usual rote-learning taught in Cambodian schools. It strives to empower students, strengthening their hearts and minds so they can learn, grow and contribute to the new future of Cambodian society.
Sophea’s new life at Xavier Jesuit School
Notwithstanding this wonderful opportunity, Sophea’s first year at school was tough. When she arrived at school aged 16, she entered Year 7. Despite her maturity, she had to study with peers three or four years younger than her, and often academically more advanced than her.
She was also tormented by guilt about leaving her mother and younger siblings.
But Mony’s vision for her daughter is strong, and she encouraged Sophea to be brave and to dream of a worthwhile future. After a year, Sophea began to take younger children under her wing, and soothe their worries with her jokes and games. Today the change in her is dramatic.
‘She is so full of joy!’ reports Fr Quyen. ‘Her hard work and determination are paying off. She’s making great progress in her coursework which includes Khmer, music and art.’
Students also learn traditional subjects like mathematics, English, chemistry, physics, biology, history, geography and agriculture.
Recently Sophea entered an illustration of life in Cambodia into an International Environmental Drawing Contest. To everyone’s pride and delight she was judged the winner.
What is next for Xavier Jesuit School?
Currently 530 students attend XJS from kindergarten to Year 12. Within three years, Fr Quyen hopes to increase that to 1210 students. XJS is committed to serving the poorest of the poor with at least 20 per cent of the student cohort to receive free education through scholarships.
Jesuit Mission is proud to support scholarships at the school. Scholarships ease the burden for very poor families.
In the short term, families have the benefit of one less mouth to feed, while in the long-term young people help lift their families out of poverty as they use their education to become teachers and future leaders.
If you are able to support works like this, and provide for more scholarships at XJS, please turn your compassion into action by donating to Jesuit Mission at https://jesuitmission.org.au/donate-dream/
Your gift will bring changes like these:
- A school uniform costs $15.
- Food and water for scholarship student for 1 month costs $74
- A complete scholarship per student costs $1,429 per annum. The scholarship provides for tuition, accommodation, uniform, a bicycle, medical care, carer salaries and living expenses such as food and water.
For more on XJS, see https://jesuitmission.org.au/program/xjs/