At about six years old, all Keo Dang knew was collecting recycled trash at the infamous dumpsite in Steung Meanchey district, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
His daily job from dawn to dusk was to climb hills of putrid garbage, accompanied by flies.
This was in 1996 when Cambodia was rebuilding its social and institutional structures to develop itself from a war-torn country after years of civil war and genocide in the 1970s.
“Hunger, fear, and distress were my daily challenges at the dumpsite,” said Keo, now 27.
But his life changed that year when two foreign strangers started offering meals at the dumpsite, and later built schools where many underprivileged children, including Keo, had a chance to access quality education.
“Papy and Mamy changed my life from a trash picker to an educator. I am blessed now that I am able to earn a decent living, supporting my family,” he told VOA Khmer.
Today Keo is an instructor specializing in audiovisual production at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) also known as “For a Child’s Smile”.
Founded in 1995 by a French couple, Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres, PSE is a well-recognized charity, home to nearly 7,000 students who are educated, fed, provided with healthcare and vocational training skills.
From Paris to Cambodia’s Dumpsite
The des Pallieres were just an ordinary French couple, in Paris, France, before they took an extraordinary journey to build a better future for many children in Cambodia.
Christian, a father of four children, was working for tech giant IBM in Paris in early the 1980s when he decided to resign to travel around France and Europe.
In the early 1990s he arrived in Cambodia on a humanitarian mission with SIPAR, a French organization that has provided literacy skills to underprivileged people across Cambodia since 1992. In 1995, his wife and his younger child visited him in Phnom Penh.
One afternoon Christian came across two boys who looked miserable.
They lived in a shack at the dumpsite in Steung Meanchey where many impoverished children and adults were plowing through hills of rotten garbage.
“He [Christian] was shocked with what he witnessed. He said he could not continue to live after seeing this misery,” said Ghislaine Dufour, vice president of PSE, based in Versailles, France. “They decided that they had to do something for those children.”
The des Pallieres returned to Paris in late 1995 for Christmas, she said. But their Christmas celebration became an effort to drum up support for their new cause.
“They started serving one meal at the dumpsite every morning with help from some of the mothers and volunteers,” said Dufour.
But they soon realized that one meal a day cannot change the life of these children and their poverty-stricken families.
In December 1997 the couple bought a plot of rice paddy land in Steung Meanchey and built a school, which launched with 300 children. For the past two decades, PSE has grown from a school providing generational education to a vibrant center for healthcare, education, and vocational skills.
Today, more than 6,500 children and teenagers – some are orphans or from abused families – are taking the programs at PSE. More than 3,000 PSE alumni are now in the workforce, becoming educators, chefs, hairdressers, and mechanics, sales representatives and accountants.
PSE also provides short-term training skills to the mothers and helps them start small businesses.
“[I]f the family is not able to live above the poverty [line], the children would not be able to be in a good shape at school,” said Dufour.
In 2000, PSE was awarded the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic. Fourteen years later, the founders were named for the AidEx Humanitarian Hero Award.
PSE is well-recognized and praised by the Cambodian people and authorities. The late King Norodom Sihanouk awarded Cambodian citizenship to the des Pallieres, before Christian passed away at 82 years old in September 2016.
Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, along with many government officials, teachers, and thousands of PSE students attended his funeral. Hundreds of social media users in the country also expressed their condolences.
“I personally appreciate what [PSE] has done for so many poor children in Cambodia, building schools and creating hope for better future for them,” said Em Chan Makara, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Built on a “family model,” PSE is 100 percent supported by private donors and sponsors and volunteers across the globe. More than 650 Khmer staff members are running the center in Cambodia, overseen by a group of volunteer board members in France.
“All of the support is voluntary. This is such an amazing job … it just speaks to your heart,” said Béatrice Carrot, one of the first PSE sponsors. Inspired by the des Pallieres, Carrot created a PSE branch in Belmont, California, after she and her husband moved from France to the United States.
Today PSE has eight different branches in Europe, the United States, and Asia, which work towards raising support for PSE in Cambodia. PSE will establish another branch in Melbourne, Australia, says Chea Saophorn, PSE former student.
“I live with the spirit of PSE, the spirit shared by Papy and Mamie with us. I believe that only education can change the life and the future of the children in Cambodia,” said Chea, who grew up picking trash at the dumpsite and along the streets in Phnom Penh.
Chea did not have a chance to receive an education until he was 14 years old, when he began third grade. Chea married his wife Lou Fourrière, a French volunteer at PSE, in 2012, recently moving to Melbourne.
“PSE is a part of my history, part of Saophorn’s history. PSE is like our family and we will do our best to find the support that PSE needs,” she said.
‘Little Gems’ of Cambodia
For Chan Soriya, going to school meant growing from the dirt of the dumpsite to be a little gem.
Chan lived in poverty with a single mother and four siblings before she had a chance to gain an education. “PSE is part of my life because without it, I would not have today,” she said.
She added that PSE not only helped her to go to school, but also her mother to run a small business and be able to live a better life. “Papy’s philosophy is for us to believe that we are valuable like a gem, and through education we can be the change,” said Chan, who is currently working in the education sector for the French Institute of Cambodia.
In mid-September 2016, a new documentary about PSE and directed by French filmmaker Xavier de Lauzanne, who worked along with the des Pallieres and PSE students, “Little Gems”, was launched. It aims to tell the story of the PSE founders and students.
It was released just little over a week after Christian passed away. De Lauzanne told the Southeast Asia Globe magazine in November last year that it was an “emotional” documentary.
“Marie-France and Christian didn’t start this PSE based on ideology, or strict analysis or morals. They started it because they had a feeling, an emotion,” he said.
The documentary was screened in Cambodia and France last year. More than 170,000 people in France alone saw the film. For many people in France, the des Pallieres are role models, inspiring many young people to travel to Cambodia to volunteer, said Dufour.
On March 7, the French Embassy in the United States will screen the documentary in Washington DC. The screening aims to raise fund to support PSE work in Cambodia.
“[PSE] is definitely a great example with a French project based in Cambodia, and we are happy to have an occasion to showcase what they do there,” said Benoît Cormier, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington DC.
Narin Jameson, a Cambodian community leader in Washington DC, says she encourages people in the community to attend the screening of “Little Gems.”
“I knew about PSE since the very beginning of its work, but until recently I hadn’t realized the impact it has made on the future of so many children in Cambodia,” she said. “So I hope many people will go to see the documentary and support PSE.”