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Orphans with a yearning to learn

Cambodia. Fran Abrams reports on the plight of Phnom Penh's street children and, below, on the difficult task facing one of the capital's prostitutes

Street children left orphaned and destitute by years of war and famine in Cambodia have been given their first chance to go to school, thanks to pupils and staff at an English grant-maintained comprehensive.

St Bartholomew's school in Newbury, Berkshire, has linked up with a group of children in the country's capital, Phnom Penh, through a former member of staff who went to Cambodia with Voluntary Service Overseas.

In a country left ravaged by years of war and famine, many of these children have lost their parents while others come from families which have been left destitute. The Pol Pot regime of 1975-1978, which left an estimated three million Cambodians dead, was followed by 12 years of war. Even now the government is fighting Khmer Rouge guerrillas who still operate in much of the country.

There are between 5,000 and 10,000 street children living in Phnom Penh. Most live on the banks of the Mekong river and all survive by begging.

A local group, Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development (CVCD), has been working with the children for three years, putting them in contact with university students who befriend them. The students regularly bring groups to the organisation's headquarters for meals, advice on hygiene and basic lessons in manners. There are also regular trips to a sports ground to play football.

When Catherine Lillington, a VSO English teacher, was sent Pounds 500 by her old school she approached CVCD to see if they could use it. Pupils and staff at St Bartholomew's had collected the money through a series of events including sponsored stay-awakes and discos.

She asked to meet some of the children and to interview them. To her amazement, 43 turned up. Among them was a boy called Pyrah, whose background was typical. He was 10 years old, and even the clothes he wore had been given to him by well-wishers. He had no home and lived underneath someone else's wooden house with his unemployed father. His mother was dead and although he did have a brother it was years since he had seen him.

Some of Pyrah's friends were sleeping in a Wat, or Buddhist monastery, while others lived on the banks of the Mekong. All spent their days on the streets begging for money and food. Although they suffered from poor nutrition, lice and constant colds as well as lacking the most basic comforts, the message they gave Ms Lillington was that they would like to learn to read, write and add up.

Now the St Bartholomew's money is being used to provide two-hour lessons for the children, three times a week. With an additional grant from VSO, it was enough to buy some extras as well as funding the scheme for six months. The children have footballs to play with and exercise books and pencils as well as soap and the hair-clippers they need to keep down lice.

Ms Lillington now feels she has found a really worthwhile way to use the cash.

"These children had never been to school in their lives and would desperately like to be able to read and write. CVCD is doing an awful lot with comparatively little money," she said.

Yim Sokhary, the group's co-president, is one of the teachers who gives the children their lessons.

"After the Pol Pot time many children have no father and mother and they are very poor. Some of them are disabled, too. Sometimes, it's difficult for them to come here to learn but we try," she said.

There is hope that the project will be able to continue after the money runs out. VSO is considering what it can do to help, and St Bartholomew's is hoping to raise more than Pounds 500 this year.

"The children know Catherine very well and this brings home something a long way away. Probably they would not even know about the atrocities in Cambodia otherwise but they have learned an awful lot," he said.

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