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Cambodia's Homeless Dance to a Different Tune

FILE - A Cambodian homeless man, left, sleeps under a Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple sign board in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
FILE - A Cambodian homeless man, left, sleeps under a Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple sign board in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Tourists urged to stop giving money to child beggars.

Poverty rates in Cambodia remain stubbornly high, despite the country's booming economy, and that is creating problems like homeless youth. However, young artists are hoping to change that through the spread of hip-hop music and a strict no-nonsense attitude.

It's a much broader approach to simply doling out dollars, said Vuthy Sokanha, communications officer at Friends International, who is also urging tourists, businesses and wealthy Khmers to think twice before giving money to child beggars.

“The money itself, the parents won’t use to send their kids to school, instead they use that money on drugs, alcohol and gambling,” she said.

That's why education, music, a dance troupe and a school called Tiny Toones, establish in 2005 to engage very young people, have been deployed to deal with child exploitation, ranging from sexual abuse, drug addiction and bad parenting.

Getting through is difficult

At school, Tiny Toones uses break-dancing and the culture of hip-hop to engage, inspire and educate young people, especially street kids, who follow their favorite artists online and with the aid of a smart phone, and prefer them to traditional Khmer artists.

Traditional Khmer dance remains popular with older audiences and during festivals and weddings. But times are changing and the sound of hip hop music is being heard more widely in the lead-up to the approaching mid-April Khmer New Year, than the chime of brass bells.

Sarom “Jacky” Sara, a dance instructor at Tiny Toones and a former street kid, said parents often used their children as a way of finding money to support their alcohol and gambling addictions.

“I went to see the parents of those kids. The mother is addicted to gambling and she's drunk, so they don't care about the kids, but they have set them limits – to bring at least 10,000 riels ($2.50), or 20,000 riels ($5.00) home, each time they go out. That is the true story. I have asked the children.”

Hip hop classes were established here by Tuy “KK” Sobil, an American artist and native Cambodian who was deported from the U.S. after falling afoul of the law. He introduced break-dance lessons for street kids as a means of setting goals.

“We listen to all types of world famous songs with good rhythms, mix the songs and create the style. We also mixed Khmer traditional songs with disco music to make it more creative.”

Cambodia's Homeless Dance to a Different Tune
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Additionally, school fees, transportation for those who want to study and hip hop lessons are all free. The school also teaches Khmer literature, English, computer skills, and graffiti.

According to a recent survey by the Cambodian National Institute of Statistics, Columbia University in New York, and Friends International, of this country's seven largest urban centers about 2,700 youths were in need of a home with the numbers rising due to higher unemployment and migration to the cities from rural villages.

There are no previously comparable numbers, but Sokhana said the survey indicated a noticeable increase of about 40 percent over the last two years. Of the total, some 1,800 homeless youths are affiliated with Friends International.

On the street

Typically, homeless youth are aged between 13 and 17 years and fit snugly at the bottom of the social ladder, where they are easily exploited and often bullied into begging and collecting empty drink cans, or, more heinously, drugs, prostitution and other forms of criminal activity.

Doung Chan is a 12-year-old street kid who spends much of her time outside a Star Mart convenience store on Monivong Blvd, toying with her smart phone.

She initially ran-off at the sight of cameras but returned and said her parents had told her not to speak with journalists. Later, she began to talk but was hesitant.

She was once rescued by Friends International, but left because her younger sister was abandoned during the daytime by their parents, and street life – where she can earn between five and seven dollars a day by begging – was more lucrative.

“I left there because no one was looking after my sister. I come here as a beggar. My mom is a scrap collector and my dad is a construction worker. The money that I find is to help pay for the rent,” she said.

Then there's Chea Channy. He fell into into drugs and said life on the street was difficult. He was attacked and beaten by rival gangs and wanted out. He was lucky and found a place at Friends where he is learning culinary skills and is drug-free.

“I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had not met with Friends. I have no one to depend on, no shelter and no food,” Channy said. “I was mistreated.”

Tough love

Cambodia's post-war economic boom has lifted millions out of poverty but growth has been uneven and social workers have warned that better results among street kids won't happen by simply giving money.

Sokanha says the plight faced by Chan and Channy is common and successes rare.

“We should think twice before giving money or buying from children because this act can encourage them to do more and them to stay in poverty,” she said, adding one day can earn their parents $10 to $20. With four to five children on the streets, they can bring in $80 to $100 a day.

That's a tidy sum when the poverty rate is just two dollars a day and construction companies pay their laborers as little as three dollars a day. It also compares favorably with what's on offer from NGOs like Friends International and Tiny Toones.

“If they can earn this much per day and if they wish to lead life on the street then they can actually save money and afford to leave but they don’t because begging is too easy for them,” Sokanha said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Jacky, whose “rehabilitated students” get a chance to perform abroad perhaps twice a year.

“We’ve seen people break dance in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia,” said Jacky, adding hip hop and education have succeeded where just giving money has failed.

Luke Hunt contributed to this report.