Border troops give hope to returning Cambodian-Vietnamese kids

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Undocumented, deported Cambodian-Vietnamese kids in southern Vietnam lack access to public services and often depend on border troops for education.

When border police become teachers of home, school deprived Cambodian-Vietnamese kids (unedited)

Temporary houses like this one on a Cambodian border canal in Tuyen Binh, Vinh Hung and Long An communes in the Mekong Delta province of Long An have been home for over a decade to nearly 30 Vietnamese-Cambodian families who emigrated from Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia.

In the late 19th century French colonialists took Vietnamese to Cambodia to work on plantations. There is a community of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living on Tonle Sap. They form the largest minority group in Cambodia, but most are stateless, lacking citizenship of either country.

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In recent years the Cambodian government has been deporting people living on the Tonle Sap claiming they had illegally entered the country. In 2017 it deported over 1880 undocumented people. Without proof they were born in Cambodia, they had to come to Vietnam without any official identification papers.

Deprived of access to economic opportunities because of their lack of documents, they do all kinds of jobs to make ends meet – adults go fishing, children sell lottery tickets, young people work in factories. Older people stay at home looking after grandchildren and raising livestock like cows and ducks.

The children in these returnee communities, sadly, have to grow up quicker than their peers elsewhere. Nguyen Van Tram, 14, casts nets for fish in the canal near his house every afternoon. It is not the best season for fishing, so he sometimes waits the entire night and goes home empty-handed.

Like many other children, he only knows he was born in Cambodia and does not have a concept of another hometown. At 14, he has only studied up to grade 2, and struggles to read and write.

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Ho Van Yen harvests common water hyacinth. The plant, a native of South America, is edible.

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Nhieu, 11, went to school for the first time in his life this year. He has four siblings, all of whom sell lottery tickets in the morning and harvest water hyacinth in the afternoon. Most of the returnee children do not have a birth certificate, without which they cannot join public schools.

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But in the past few years troops at the Tuyen Binh border guard station have been running evening classes to help the children learn. They rent classrooms at Tuyen Binh Elementary School and divide the students into two classes: one for grades two and five and the other for first graders. First graders learn Vietnamese since many of them do not speak the language. At times the soldiers have 50 students in their classes.

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Private Nguyen Quoc Huy, 19, has worked at the station for a year and teaches the children in first grade.

He says: “Most of the officials have no teaching expertise; they teach because they care about the kids. We mainly teach them how to read, write and do simple mathematical calculations.”

Most of the kids work as much as adults. Some sell lottery tickets in the town of Kien Tuong, which is about 10 km from where they live, usually walking there and back. Despite their hardships, the evening classes are rarely poorly attended.

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Nguyen Thi Kim Ly (second from the right) is a teachers’ favorite for being diligent and bright. The 10-year-old girl will go to third grade this year. She sells around 200 lottery tickets a day in town before heading to the class in the evening.

All books and school supplies are provided by donors thanks to the teachers’ solicitations. “We most lack notebooks with wide squares,” Huy says. Learning to write in Vietnamese requires such notebooks, he explains.

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Donors also provide the kids with clothes, but not regularly enough, and so many have outgrown their clothes.

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The school has been running for six years now, and many children have made reasonable progress in their studies. The soldiers, working with local authorities, have helped them enter the public school system. Running these evening classes thus remains a challenge.

The teachers wish that someone generous would buy new desks, chairs and school supplies.

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