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“When people ask me what I want to change in the world, I tell them I want to change my community first,” says Phou Sreymai, a 17-year-old student who started leading classes for younger kids in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey District in May 2020, after schools across Cambodia were ordered to close in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Together with a team of more than 100 students in her area, which is located next to a former garbage dump, Sreymai gathers dozens of younger children every day in makeshift classrooms set up under plastic tarpaulins and her neighbours’ homes.

Sreymai teaches young students in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey District while continuing her own studies online. “I like this kind of busy,” she says. “I like to keep myself working.” Credit: Cindy Liu

Though students attending grades 1 to 6 and grade 9 and 12 in her area returned to classrooms in early September when the Cambodian government began the phased re-opening of select schools, the young teachers are still teaching daily afternoon classes for younger children, some of whom remain out of school.

Children in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey District study under neighbours’ homes while some schools remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Cindy Liu

The young leaders’ efforts are partially supported by Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), an NGO that has been working with the Stung Meanchey community since 2004 and is providing the student teachers, who were initially unpaid volunteers, with modest stipends.

Sreymai speaks during a meeting with other youth leaders in her community to discuss upcoming community service initiatives. Credit: Cindy Liu

Sreymai hopes the free classes will encourage young kids to continue studying—rather than finding paid work—despite financially difficult times for their families. The children may feel like studying is useless in comparison to earning money, Sreymai adds, admitting that she felt similarly when she was their age. However, after seeing the sacrifices her family and aid workers made to keep her in school, and inspired by older students in her community who have gone on to university, Sreymai believes that the most important thing in her life is education. “I want to be the one who inspires others now,” she says. 

More than 100 youths are working in different locations around Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey District to provide daily classes for children studying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Cindy Liu
A student teacher helps a younger student with a worksheet from school. Credit: Cindy Liu
Young children study the Khmer alphabet during an afternoon class led by a student teacher. Credit: Cindy Liu

Though Cambodia has so far recorded fewer than 300 coronavirus cases, six months of closed schools risk long-term impacts on the country’s more than 3 million students, especially those in low-income communities that lack the resources necessary for distance learning. Students who cannot access government broadcasts of lecturing teachers and learning modules via social media, TV or radio must rely on weekly handouts collected from schools, which they often have to complete without much support at home.

Students without access to resources necessary for distance learning must rely on weekly handouts collected from schools. Credit: Cindy Liu

According to Cambodia’s Education Ministry, protracted school closures risk increasing school dropout rates for children living in poor, marginalised communities. Before the pandemic, ministry data from 2017 to 2018 showed that some 17% of high school students dropped out before graduating, with the rate for students in rural areas slightly higher than in cities.

In rural Siem Reap province, 29-year-old Soth Bopha started the first Village Library in Nokor Thom Commune’s Areak Svay Village, after seeing kids “just playing cards or walking around the fields” when schools closed in March. Now in two locations in Nokor Thom and a third in another commune, her grassroots library project is run and supported entirely by volunteers, including the librarians who offer spaces in their own homes for children to read, play or attend free daily Khmer and English lessons.

Soth Bopha (right), 29, knew Khat Da (left), 41, was the right person to choose as a librarian for the first Village Library in Areak Svay Village. “She does things from the heart, not for money,” Bopha says, referring to Da. Credit: Cindy Liu
A youth volunteer from Siem Reap City plays guitar for students at the Village Library in Areak Svay Village after learning about the project on social media. Credit: Cindy Liu
A young girl studies English at the Village Library in Nokor Thom Commune’s Roha Village. The classes are free of charge and taught by young volunteers in the community. Credit: Cindy Liu
Daily Khmer and English classes are held at the Village Library in Roha Village. The library is located in an extra room of the librarian’s house. Credit: Cindy Liu
Students are divided into different English classes according to their level at the Village Library in Roha Village. Credit: Cindy Liu

Few students and teachers were observed wearing masks or social distancing at the libraries, or the Phnom Penh youth-led classes, but kids are taught how to wash their hands properly and a donor gave a hand-washing station to the Village Library in Areak Svay Village.

A donor gave a hand-washing station and volunteers taught students how to wash their hands properly at the Village Library in Areak Svay Village. Credit: Cindy Liu

The Areak Svay library recorded more than 500 book borrowings in August 2020, up from only 100 when the library first opened in May. But according to librarian Khat Da, some children stopped coming after they finished reading all the books that were available. The libraries are therefore considering rotating books between different locations.

Before the library opened, kids in her village didn’t care much about reading, librarian Khat Da says. She volunteered to host a Village Library at her house because she didn’t want to see the next generation end up like her. Da was only able to finish grade 2 and sold snacks at a nearby school before the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Cindy Liu
A student at the Village Library in Chreav Commune’s BosKralanh Village studies by himself. Credit: Cindy Liu

“When I see children reading, I think it’s the happiest time in their childhood,” Bopha says. Since early September, primary school students in Siem Reap City have been back in the classroom for a few days a week on a rotational schedule.

Children come to the Village Library in Areak Svay Village to read, write, draw, exercise and socialise. Students like to wear their green shirts, which were given by a donor, when they come to the library. “It’s like their uniform,” Bopha says. Credit: Cindy Liu

But the libraries in Siem Reap remain open and students still come to borrow books and attend daily English classes, the librarians say. Bopha hopes that children can continue to have access to the experience of reading at the community libraries long after the pandemic subsides. 

For more information about the Village Library project, and to find out how you can donate books and other resources, visit their Facebook page.

This article was produced by New Naratif and VOD, who have partnered to publish long-form journalism from Cambodia that empowers our shared community with news and information.

Correction: The article has been corrected to note that a donor, not volunteers, provided a hand-washing station to the Village Library in Areak Svay Village.

Cindy Liu

Cindy Liu is a freelance photographer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her work explores themes of diaspora, identity and community-building, and her images have been seen on Reuters, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera, among others.