Preykoul students

How deep into the bush can we go? That’s what’s always on our minds. The number of children who reside in the deep jungle without services of any sort is absolutely staggering. 

PLF has been working in southern Preah Vihear Province since 2007, when we opened Koh Ker Primary School. In 2010 we began at Romchek Primary School, about 20 km further into the jungle. In the years since, we’ve learned much about the myriad ways in which the challenges grow deeper the further into the bush you go, both logistically and culturally. 

This forest at the Thai border was one of the final holdouts of the Khmer Rouge and has been largely ignored as the rest of the country moves to develop itself. There is precious little electricity anywhere; roads are bad or non-existent, there are few schools or medical clinics. The people are largely uneducated and traumatized by the war which did not end in this area until 1998.

They live a tough life and are extraordinarily resilient. 

As we have had success with the communities at Koh Ker and Romchek, we’re having a look at other communities even further into this area.

It’s time for us to formally introduce you to Prey Kuol. 

We first met the members in this extremely remote (and new) community a few years ago and since then have been slowly but surely helping the school get itself established. On our first visit, we saw that the community had already begun to build a structure, piece by piece and they had 3 teachers teaching grades 1-3 only (basic literacy) with 88 students enrolled.

There were several 14-15-year-old students in grade 3 with no way to move on. They just kept repeating grade 3. On our first visit, we brought all students some much-needed school supplies and assessed the situation. 

Prey Kuol Village is extremely remote; there is a road that connects it to Romchek Village, about 1 hour away, but it has to be traveled by tractor or 4WD.

In the rainy season (a full 5 months of the year)  it can be completely inaccessible.

 

In discussing a potential partnership with PLF, the community defined their first priorities as these:

  1. Books, resources and supplies for the children and teachers
  2. Materials to complete the building
  3. Water Filters and Materials to build a toilet

If they were allowed to dream further, their wish list included the following:

  1. Floors, windows and doors
  2. More desks
  3. A small school office

Looking at the condition of the building, we wondered if it made more sense to tear it down and start over, but it was clear that the community had worked hard to pull together what they had so far; experience has taught us that coming in and wiping away a community’s best efforts and replacing it with what “we think is better” is not a good start to the kind of relationship we need to have with a community long-term.  Especially not in communities like Prey Kuol. 

They didn’t want us to do it; they wanted to do it themselves. They just needed a bit of support. Some wood, some nails, some concrete. It was something, to be honest, we’ve not encountered before. Notice in their wishlists, they never mentioned “money for the teachers”. That is usually the first thing uttered and in the few years we’ve been working with them, it never has been on their list.

Neither has food been on their list. They proudly report they can feed their children on their own. During COVID we’ve made a couple of drops there, mainly just to check in on them, but they didn’t ask us to do that. 

So, even though we weren’t sure what sort of facility we might end up with, we wholeheartedly agreed to help them build their own school

A fine example of “not being the decider” was when the last piece of infrastructure went in, which was their admin office. We sent up the materials and the fathers of these children built it by themselves. They did a great job and are so proud of their very Cambodian paint job!

When we first visited, the facility had a water well but no clean water system. There were no toilets. It was off-grid and there was no power. The teachers had only a 9th-grade education and no teacher training whatsoever. They did not yet have the capacity to take the students all the way to grade 6 and graduate them from primary school.

Prey Kuol was in a very similar situation to what Koh Ker School was in when we started there in 2007. We had to work with the Ministry of Education to send more teachers for grades 4-5-6. We had to invest in a multi-year commitment to teacher training. We had to build toilets, put in hand-washing stations, and think about a clean water solution. 

All of this has slowly but surely also been done at Prey Kuol. Their way. On their schedule. 

This process took almost three years.

The end result is much more “ramshackle” than what we would normally build. But the pride that exudes from that ramshackle building means something. In fact, it means everything. 

The Prey Kuol kids can sit in their schoolroom every day and can know “My father built this for me”

PLF has a long history of approaching our work in a “step-by-step” process, making sure that each step can be sustained before moving to the next step. We knew at the beginning we could help the community get the school able to carry students all the way through primary school. But could we get them past primary school? Could we build a pathway for them to secondary school and to an education that helps them climb out of poverty? 

Their incredibly remote location made us doubt that very seriously so we had to chew on that for a while as we struggled within the confines of our mission statement to provide pathways for disenfranchised children to move all the way through school. Not part of the way: all the way. 

A primary school education is “better than nothing” but the truth of the matter is that simple literacy and being able to do simple sums (the goal of primary school) does not really improve one’s opportunities in life. Not generally speaking. 

PLF says “School is the Answer” but what is the question? 

The question is “How do we climb out of poverty”? If we can’t deliver an education that helps families dig out of the situation society put them in then what are we doing, really?

We had to do some soul-searching with Prey Kuol. But during the last couple of years, as we’ve been helping them work on their school, they have been adding one grade per year and this year they were able to graduate their first primary school students. 13 of the 14 graduates dutifully came to enrol at the Srayang Learning Center and at the public school across the road.

Some of them are as old as 15. 

At the same time, the community saw their first children completing high school, we had converted the Dormitory at Srayang (where the nearest secondary school is) to a Learning Center. We are no longer housing children there. 

So how were we going to get them to school? They are too far away for commuting every day. We have trucks now hauling children to Srayang but their road is impassable for almost half the year. 

Neither we nor the community could come up with a solution. Then they surprised us when the families of these students joined together and went to Srayang on their own to secure some rent rooms for their graduates. They are not swanky by any stretch and we are concerned about having children unsupervised like this, but it’s not our call. With them coming to the Center every day we at least have a chance to keep our eyes on them.

Slc Entrance Exam Prey Koul
The families at Prey Kuol are teaching us a lot about what empowerment means and bringing home all the things we’ve always known but haven’t ever really seen play out like they are in this community. We’re proud of the perseverance of these children and the dedication of the parents to do their best to make pathways for their children to complete school. 

They’ve done an amazing job so far and we will continue to just stand back and help them when they ask us. It will be interesting to see what happens next. 

For now, we’re happy to add the 125 students at Prey Kuol on PLF rosters. We’re happy to keep them in school supplies and with clean water and sanitation. We’re happy to have their graduates at the Center at Srayang and we’re more than happy to keep an eye on them while they are away from home.

We expect they will amaze us.  

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