In white clothes and Muslim caps, more than 700 students were set to begin classes at the Cambodian Islamic Center on Thursday, with the Ramadan festival coming to an end.
The center, in Kandal province, is the largest Islamic school in the country and registers students from seven different provinces, though most come from Kampong Cham.
Students stood in long lines outside the center, waiting for classes to begin.
Ari Fin, 15, said he was looking forward to studying at the center, as it provided both general knowledge and Islamic subjects.
“Having both programs makes it easy for me, as I don’t have to go to our religious school far from my village home,” said the ninth grader from Kampong Cham.
Formerly the Om Al-Qura high school, the center has registered 744 Muslim students, who board at the school and study from seventh to twelfth grade. (In 2003, the Om Al-Qura was closed down after three Islamic teachers there were implicated in a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to attack targets in Cambodia and were arrested.)
Pich Solin, who is in charge of secular studies at the center, said the addition of Islamic studies attracts an influx of Muslim students. “Our Khmer Muslims want both, as Islam is the most important for us, and state schools provide only general knowledge.”
Students also said they liked the structure provided by the center.
“I did badly at my old high school,” said Meut Tor Hiet, 15, who was starting ninth grade. “But I do better being here. Here I focus only on my studies, and I don’t go around.”
The center sits on four hectares, and includes dormitories, a canteen, a football pitch, a basketball court and a mosque.
Parents say they like the school because it is fully equipped and helps their children retain their traditions.
“I wanted my son to be well educated in Islam, as I am afraid he would sin, as I did, because I did not know much about Islam,” said Li Pi As, who had accompanied her son on a journey from Pursat province and held a crying infant by her side.
Along with Islamic studies, students can also pursue computer skills and English, Malay and Arabic, courses meant to prepare them for job markets and opportunities overseas.
Each year, about six students from the center manage to travel abroad, to countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Malaysia, Pich Solin said.