What if we told you that you could help 52 at-risk Cambodian youth break the cycle of poverty and build meaningful futures? George Wright pays a visit to an innovative new project—spearheaded by Friends-International and The Intrepid Foundation—that aims to do just that.
In 2006, Ouch Sopheak found himself sleeping rough on the streets of Phnom Penh. He was 14 years old.
Orphaned after his mother and father had passed away when he was young, Ouch briefly moved back to the notorious Stung Meanchey dumpsite—a landfill that people literally lived on—in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where he was born. Despite lodging with relatives, he was soon forced to leave as the family couldn’t afford to provide for him.
Fast forward to 2018, and I meet Ouch, now 25, in the leafy grounds of Phnom Penh’s Romdeng restaurant. Not too long ago, he spent a stint living homeless just a stone’s throw from here. “When I left home, I stayed on the streets for two or three days, I was just walking around,” he says.
Sadly, Ouch’s story isn’t uncommon in Cambodia. Child protection issues in the country are rife with an estimated 4,086 homeless children under the age of 18 across the country, and even more living in areas and circumstances that make it impossible for outreach workers to find them, according to a 2017 report. The mean age of these children was a little under eight years old. Another report estimates around 35,000 children live in residential care.
But for Ouch, things are different now. At a loss for what to do after spending days foraging for food, he was struck by some luck that would change the course of his life forever. “I met someone who told me there was an organization that would be able to help me,” he says.
This “someone”—a perfect stranger to Ouch— sent the boy to Mith Samlanh (which means ‘Close Friends’ in Khmer), a project started by Friends-International in Cambodia. It seeks to improve the lives of street-living and working children through vocational training at two of its social enterprise restaurants, Romdeng and Friends the Restaurant.
Upon graduating from the program, Ouch began teaching other youngsters who came through Mith Samlanh, many of whom had been sleeping rough, just as he had. From his time in the streets to teaching at Mith Samlanh, Ouch has come a long way. “It was unbelievable, I got to do things I only dreamed about,” he beams. “On top of helping the restaurant and helping the children, I can show them my experience, what I’ve been through, and the things I’ve learned.”
Still, Ouch is realistic, and he has no qualms explaining to the children that things aren’t always going to be easy. “I tell them that life is hard, life is tough,” he says sagely. “I explain to them how to get by on their own and learn to be more patient because I was once there—having nothing, not being able to speak English—but now I’m here, and they can do it too.”
For travelers visiting Cambodia, food and drink experiences won’t get much more local, or authentic, than those on offer at the Futures Factory Project. It will afford visitors unique opportunities to sample cocktails made from fresh, local ingredients, and “enjoy a range of incredible Cambodian dishes,” says Nixon.
Back at Romdeng, Ouch explains how he will be involved in the Futures Factory Project as part of the ‘Cooking Experience’ program, which will teach both local kids and travelers how to cook traditional Cambodian fare. “We called it ‘Cooking Experience’ rather than ‘Cooking Class’,” he says. “With cooking classes, you only come and cook, but we want visitors to understand our local markets and the source of Cambodian food.”
Looking to the future, Ouch says he wants to one day open his own café to sell cakes and pastries. And after working himself up from the streets of Phnom Penh in little over a decade, he has no reason to doubt himself. “Without meeting the person who introduced me to Mith Samlanh, I don’t even know what would have happened to me,” he ponders. “I really can’t imagine. I would still probably have been living my life like that.” And with the Futures Factory Project on the horizon, Ouch can continue to help other at-risk young Cambodians find a fresh start too.