When Chen Sokha was a young girl, she found herself, through circumstance and bad luck, an orphan, and a scavenger at Phnom Penh’s notorious Stung Meanchey dump. Things went poorly from Day One.
“While I was scavenging on the side of the trash hill, a bulldozer pushed the trash down and the trash covered one of my legs,” she said in a recent interview, recalling the day years before. “I was so terrified that I tried to get out and run away, but one of my friends got covered up and killed there; I still remember the incident. ”
Those days are behind her now. Today Chen Sokha, 16, is a student at a prestigious international school and has even been named one of Newsweek magazine’s top 150 women. She’s an accomplished student and an aspiring dancer. She’s been featured in a documentary of inspiring girls around the world and has even met with US First Lady Michelle Obama.
“I was so proud of her as she was a strong and powerful woman,” Chen Sokha said, sitting in a clean school uniform at A New Day Cambodia, an NGO that helps young garbage scavengers leave the dump and go to school. She met the first lady on a sponsored trip to the US last year. “Meeting her made me feel like I wanted to be the same as her,” Chen Sokha said.
It has been a long road for Chen Sokha, who moved to Phnom Penh from Svay Rieng province after her mother died. Her father earned 1,000 riel a day as a laborer.
“We had nowhere to go when we got sick,” she recalled. “When it rained, the water flowed and it was unspeakably dirty and unhygienic for our health, but I was still struggling with my father. I did not lose hope.”
That hope did not last. Her father died from an unknown disease when she was six.
“When my father died, I lost everything: my education, my struggling spirit and my parental love and even the love from my siblings because I had to go away and live with others,” she said.
She began living a nightmare, scavenging at the dump with hundreds of children, until A New Day Cambodia found her in July 2007. Through the help of US sponsors, it pulled her from the dump and gave her a place to live.
“I felt like I were in heaven,” she said. “ I was in a big, cool and clean house with a cook and nanny; I was not staying here yet, but I already felt so warn then.
The organization asked her to do one thing: study.
Here, Chen Sokha gets academic classes, tutors and dance rehearsal. And she’s determined to make the most of it. Her hard work and good grades have earned her a place at Zaman International School, on a scholarship provided by A New Day Cambodia to its best students.
She also studies back at A New Day, where Geetha Jayabose Ingram is her science tutor. Ingram said she has always been struck with Chen Sokha’s curiosity and determination.
“There’s that motivation of I’ve got to work hard now, so I can do good for others,” Ingram said. “Basically, this was given to me and I need to share it.”
But even now, Chen Sokha’s memories of scavenging continue to haunt her.
“I always feel afraid that one day I’ll be expelled from here and return to my past life due to some unknown or unintentional mistake,” she said. “I don't want to go back, but stay here and move forward.”
Moving forward means making good on the opportunities she has been given. And it means giving something back, for the children here and for the memory of her lost parents. Now, Chen Sokha teaches English to the younger students, grilling them on vocabulary and grammar.
If there is one lesson she’s learned, it’s that “you must never give up hope,” she said. “You must struggle and struggle until one day you see success.”