Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Reading on a Dump Site

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Phymean Noun and students

by Susan Hughes

According to UNICEF more than 100 million children around the world do not go to school. Although they may enjoy listening to stories, and telling them too, it is likely that most of these kids will never learn to read, will never hold a book in their hands. One hundred million children ... Many aren’t allowed to go to school because of their gender, their background, or their citizenship. Many can’t afford to go to school. Others simply live too far away from their nearest school to attend.

The number 100 million is overwhelming, and yet, I know for a fact that change can – IS -- happening.

When researching for my book, OFF TO CLASS: INCREDIBLE AND UNUSUAL SCHOOLS AROUND THE WORLD (Owl Books, 2011), I discovered there are some extraordinary individuals who have refused to sit back and do nothing while kids longing to learn to read and write are left out of the loop. One by one, these inspirational men and women have created unique schools to suit the needs of specific groups of kids. Today, I’d like to introduce you to just one of these people. PHYMEAN NOUN, now a Cambodian Canadian, created a school for kids working and living in a slum at the city dump in Phnom Penh, kids who were not going to school.

ME: PHYMEAN, it is so wonderful to be speaking with you today. Listen, can you begin by explaining why you would decide to build a school on the edge of Phnom Penh’s huge city dump? Why that particular location?

PHYMEAN NOUN: The Phnom Penh city dump was previously located at the Stung Mean Chey commune. There many desperate and vulnerable children would scavenge for their livelihoods in the landfills day and night. The conditions these children worked in were dangerously inhumane and they would work sometimes 10-12 hours a day searching for garbage to sell. They would end up making $1 to $2 a day. Many would go back during the night with a flashlight to find more recyclables. The most horrifying accidents occurred when garbage trucks would arrive during the day and unload garbage without realizing the children climbing on the back of the truck. Then as the truck would unload, the children would get trapped under the garbage and buried alive. There were also cases where garbage pickers would become violent and attack other workers for valuables and territory.

ME: I understand that more than 10 000 people lived in the slum beside the dump.

PHYMEAN: Yes. Sometimes entire families would be working in the dump. Other times parents would send their children to work.

ME: I understand that public school in Cambodia is free but most teachers require their students to pay for their classes because their salaries are low. As well, students must purchase uniforms and school supplies, which is a problem in many countries with "free" education.

PHYMEAN: That's right. Most children living by the dump would have no opportunity to go to school. They could not afford the cost to go to public schools. For that reason, I was driven to help these children because they deserved better. They deserved an enlightening education and a fulfilling childhood like every child ought to and thus the Stung Mean Chey school was built to give the children of Cambodia a new hope and a new life.

ME: Phymean, in my book, OFF TO CLASS, I describe how you had to find a way to convince parents to let their children go to school instead of working, so your school offered families free rice and some money every month.

PHYMEAN: That's right. Many families in the Stung Mean Chey lived in severe poverty and working on the garbage dump had been their only way of making ends meet.

ME: Phymean, you sacrificed a lot -- your job, your own money, financial security -- in order to build this school. Why? What was your motivation?

PHYMEAN NOUN: I saw myself as a child in the eyes of many of these children. I too struggled with living in hardship during and after the Pol Pot regime. Before my mother passed away, she reminded me again and again that education is very important and the key to my freedom and success. Thereafter I was committed at 15 years old to go to school no matter the adversities that lay ahead. I worked hard to pay for my own education.

Years later I was hired by the UN during the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) operation and I succeeded in bettering my own life. Shortly afterward though I had an epiphany. When I saw children eating the bones of a chicken that I had just had for lunch, I became aware of the dire situation confronting the children of Cambodia. I was appalled and felt remorse for their unforgiving circumstances. I knew I had to take action and I used all the money I saved up from working under UNTAC to start the People Improvement Organization and to build as many schools as I could in the poorest communities. I realized how education had changed my life and I wanted to give children the ability to change their own lives too.

ME: I'm curious about whether your school has a library or whether there are books in the classrooms. If there are, which ones are their favourites? Is reading and writing a big part of the lives of the kids at your school?

PHYMEAN NOUN: At our Stung Mean Chey School, there is a library filled with many books donated by our generous supporters. We have books that are both in English and Khmer language. Some of them are Cambodian fairy tales but we also have a large selection of English children books. Many of the girls enjoy reading the Disney books and the boys tend to like the action packed books.

Reading and writing, especially in English is very popular among the children as they see the opportunity of brightening their futures by studying English. At all three PIO schools, we teach English along with Khmer from Kindergarten and up. I am always inspired to see the children’s eagerness and determination in English reading, writing and especially speaking.

ME: Phymean, you are such an inspiration, and it was wonderful to meet you in person a few years ago when you spoke at the Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto. What advice would you give Torontonians who want to help all kids around the world have access to an education?

PHYMEAN NOUN: I would really like to encourage the Torontonian people to travel and explore the world as much as they can. I suggest finding where you want to be in order to find fulfillment and use whatever talent you possess to help children attain an education. I believe that education isn’t just found in a book but education can be found everywhere and shared by everyone through their experiences. Please don’t give up dream and hope. Small victories add up!

ME: Article 28 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to an education. If you’d like to find out more about the Stung Mean Chey school, please check out the PIO website at

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page