While poverty remains a barrier to many Cambodians in the countryside to get good education, two young Cambodian artists, Dina Sok and Sopha Nem, won scholarships to study at National Circus School of Montreal, the most prestigious circus school in the world. After five years of training and practice, Dina Sok recently became the first Cambodian to be selected as a regular with the esteemed Cirque du Soleil and Sopha Nem is heading back to Canada from Cambodia to work later in February.
Growing up in a family of six siblings in O-char commune, Battambang, the northwestern province of Cambodia, Dina Sok’s family depended on his father’s income from working as a moto-taxi driver.
Dina Sok has become the first Cambodian to work at the world’s biggest circus company, Cirque du Soleil. He told VOA Khmer recently by phone that he still could not believe he is working in the company he has always dreamed about joining.
“Until now, I couldn't believe I am working with the company I am working with these days. I still can't believe it. Sometimes I walk along the street, I asked myself who am I working with? Which company? I asked and answered myself that I am working with the company I always wanted to work with, Cirque du Soleil. I usually talk to myself like that. I always smile when I think about that. Even now, I am still smiling.”
Born in a big family of 12 siblings in which 7 of them are circus artists, Sopha Nem has a story quite similar to Dina. He said his father is a tuk-tuk driver, and because he saw his brothers’ lives get better after they became circus artists, he then joined Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-government organization helping vulnerable children.
He put a lot of hard work into Phare and was determined to succeed.
Sopha told VOA he couldn’t believe he graduated from National Circus School of Montreal, the biggest circus school in the world, and could get a job in Canada.
“I am very happy that Phare selected me to study in Canada. It is the biggest circus school in the world... I am very happy. I couldn't believe I graduated from there. First, it is not easy to get admission to study there. Also, there are only two Cambodians who studied there.”
Life in a foreign land was not easy for Dina and Sopha. They both encountered many difficulties. Dina was only 16 and Sopha was only 17 when they first arrived in Canada. Sopha told that he had to adjust to the weather and to learn a new language. But the most difficult thing was the food.
“First, the language. We couldn't speak the language when we had just arrived. Second, the food. Third, the way of living. Fourth, the cold weather. And we were very afraid because we were far away from our families and at that time I was just 17 and my friend, Dina, was just 16. We were very young. But, we studied very hard and later on we knew each other well, we were scared no more. And we believed we have the ability. But the difficulties persisted. The most difficult thing was the food.”
For Dina, studying abroad, traveling by plane and seeing snow fulfilled dreams. But at the same time he felt sad because he was away from home and from his mother.
“Before I returned back to Canada, my mum cried... she cried, cried very hard before I got in the car.”
Little did he know, it was the last time he would see her. About a year after Dina returned to Canada, his mother passed away.
Sopha and Dina first started at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-government organization, a home and a place of hope for thousands of vulnerable children who have social and financial problems in their families.
The pair had the chance to study and work at Phare as they grew up. They were talented and fast learners which led to them being admitted to study in Montreal, according to Dara Huot, chief executive officer at Phare Performing Social Enterprise.
“Sopha and Dina were just 16 and 17 when they went to Canada. They have shown their admirable talents. They are fast learners. They worked hard and were willing to learn. Therefore, their teachers recognized their ability and talent and encouraged them to show their talent through videos. We then sent the videos to the National Circus School of Montreal in Canada.”
Joel Gershon, who is directing a documentary about Sopha and Dina called “Cirque du Cambodia: From Rice Fields to the Big Time,” paid for the tickets for Dina to visit home in 2015 when he saw his mother for the last time.
He said he was so moved by them and also moved by how Phare helped young Cambodian children who come from broken homes and poverty. This led him to start working on a documentary about their journey.
Gershon said he has been following Dina and Sopha for more than five years to keep up with their progress.
“I consider them to have superhero powers. They can flip in the air. They can balance on anything. Dina is an amazing wire walker.”
In addition to their talent, they are incredible entertainers. Gershon continues.
“They are just so friendly. They give us a warm energy, a positive energy. They really bring smiles to everyone's faces wherever they go. They go to different places. They start standing on their heads. They are doing crazy things. Then the people around will all start cheering and clapping and smiling. It's just great. It's just great to be around them.”
Xavier Gobin, Phare’s former operations director, who worked closely with them before they started school in Montreal, told VOA Khmer that he was so proud to see how successful Dina and Sopha had become.
“I am very honored because it was not easy for both of them. It's freezing in Canada and the culture is very different. I knew that they wanted to cry everyday, but they worked very hard. They recognized the opportunity Phare provided to them. And I knew they were really struggling, not just for a month or three but for 5 years. It was very impressive, and I know the ways people work in Montreal and Phare are really different.”
For Dina, those problems would not stop him from moving forward. Instead he keeps his hopes alive. He encourages everyone to work hard and dream big like him.
“I want to tell all my friends, everyone who are circus artists, that working hard is not useless, and we must dream big. We must dream big because it will make our lives better, and it brings progress to our lives.”
Sopha hopes everyone especially people in Canada learn more about the talented circus artists at Phare, so they have the same chance to go study in Canada.
As for Dina, he told VOA that one day he will go back to Cambodia to share the experience with his fellow Cambodians.