It was too late for Hout Pheoung. He and his wife have moved from Svay Reing to live in Phnom Penh in 1990. “If only I had the chance to see the real situation in the city. I would have probably thought twice about moving and stayed in my home town,” he said.
Life in the city was far from his expectations. He and his wife wife Som Sophy did not have any relatives in Phnom Penh and had to find a place to stay, until their journey with other homeless people brought them to the Steung Meanchey dumpsite – a mountainous pile of rubbish, where many migrants and poor people scavenge for their survival.
The couple decided to build a small cottage made from pieces of old wood, bamboo and a plastic tent to cover their heads from the heat and rain, and they began to join many scavengers in the community.
Pheoung’s family grew over the past 20 years. They now have 8 members including two sons Hout Sopheak, 21 and Hout Siheng, 15, and four daughters, Hout Sinith, 19, Hout Kimleang, 13, Hout Kimly, 6, and the youngest one Hout Kimlux, 5. 2 of their children, Siheng and Kimleang, receive support from Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) for schooling, while the other two work in Thailand to help their parents provide for their basic needs. The youngest two stay home with their mother.
Their work stopped when the Steung Meanchey dump was officially closed in 2009. Pheoung and his wife feared for their livelihood because they both did not have any other skills, but he began to sell ice cream. He would cycle around the city to sell and his wife started to sew jute sacks at home while taking care of their children. The couple is able to earn around $5 per day with their combined income.
The closure of the dumpsite did not only bring them bad news about their livelihood. It also required them to move their cottage to another place. Pheoung’s family, together with other families, managed to find a plot of land to rent in Russey Village, Phnom Penh, right behind the dumpsite. They built another stilt cottage, sized 3m x 4.5m and made from second hand zinc with many holes, with walls covered by plastic tent and pieces of small wood and an old bamboo flooring. In the beginning, the land was worth only $5 per month, yet the price now increased to $20 a month. “The price increase every year but our income stays the same,” Pheuong shared.
Raising 6 children is a heavy responsibility. Every early morning, Sophy wakes up at around 3:30am to prepare food for her children and husband before leaving for work. She assists Pheuong in preparing the ice cream cart, and continues sewing sack and caring for their two younger children. Pheuong, on the other hand, leaves the house around 7:30am and heads back home by 5:00pm.
“We are living in such an unhealthy and unsafe environment. Every time it rains, water leaks everywhere from the walls and roof, and flood follows shortly. Our surroundings are full of dirty mud and mosquitoes are everywhere. The smell from the dump and the chemicals used at the dumpsite bring us and other villagers too many problems. This is on top of the usual diarrhea and other stomach conditions we regularly experience and spend for treatment and medication,” Sophy said. “Also there is no proper electricity and water connection from the would buy from our neighbors and the price becomes double,” she continued. Space is also a major concern. The plot of land they share with others is small and they are not allow to build their own toilets.
They were fortunate that PSE succeeded in their negotiation with the landlord and was able to build four toilets for the community. However, with only 4 toilets serving many families, cleanliness and hygiene are serious issues.
The opportunity for them to begin living in a decent place while their children study with PSE was the best good news they have ever`received their whole lives.
“I’m very happy and excited to know that sooner we will be able to move to live in a safe and convenient place, where we can access to private toilet, water and electricity, with proper drainage and no more holes on our roof and walls. My children will live healthily and be able to focus on their studies,” Pheoung said.
Pheoung’s family is one among the 90 families voluntarily relocating from the Steung Meanchey Dumpsite to the Smile Village located in Komreal Village, Kongkour District, Phnom Penh. After the completion of the cluster construction that will be built by international volunteers from different countries through the Mekong Big Build Project on November 3-9, 2013.