The temperature is 40 degrees and there is no shade at the dump. Sharp fragments of glass stick up between the plastic bags, and scraps of food attract swarms of flies. Sreynich uses her hook to search through the trash. She doesn’t know yet that today is her last day at the dump...
Sreynich lives with her grandmother in a simple shack on stilts beside the dump.
“I am so angry with my mother for abandoning me. I see her every day, but she lives with her new husband and she doesn’t take care of me.”
Sreynich is wearing boots and a long-sleeved top to protect her from the shards of glass, syringes, nails and sharp metals, but she still gets hurt sometimes. She wears a hat to protect her head from the burning sun.
The dump is shaped in a steep slope. As the trash gets pushed down by the tractors, it gathers speed and pulls everything else with it like an avalanche. Anyone standing at the foot of the mountain of garbage when this happens only has a few seconds to escape being buried alive under the trash.
Sreynich started gathering trash when she was ten, and now she is fourteen. She has seen people get injured, and she has seen people die.
“Once I saw a boy get buried under a mountain of trash. By the time they managed to reach him he was dead.”
When the garbage trucks come to dump their waste, the risk-takers (often boys) run right up to them. They hurry to grab the most valuable waste, and sometimes violent fights break out. The youngest children stay at a safe distance. They can’t defend themselves against the older ones, and they can’t get away when the tractors come to move the trash. Many children and adults are seriously injured or die in accidents on the dump.
Dreams come true
When her family lived in their home village, Sreynich was allowed to go to school. She dreams of continuing learning to read, write, and speak English. Most of all she dreams of becoming a singer. On this particular day, one of her dreams is going to come true.
The sun is almost at its peak when Phymean Noun arrives at the garbage dump. Sreynich is curious about this woman who talks to the children at the garbage dump about school. Sreynich’s grandmother is curious too. She has heard of PIO and seen children’s lives get better through starting school there. She knows that children have much better prospects in life if they go to school. Sreynich wants to go there too.
“I want to get an education, and I really love learning things,” she says.
Phymean has a bed available at the children’s home, and agrees to accept Sreynich. But the other family members feel worried. Sreynich’s aunt, Kao Eak, is 20 years old, has Down’s Syndrome, and can’t speak. A year and a half ago, she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant. She has no breast milk for her nine-month-old baby and has to buy milk instead. She uses the money Sreynich earns from the garbage dump to buy the baby’s milk. What’s going to happen?
Sreynich’s grandfather doesn’t want her to go either. He doesn’t want to lose his domestic help, who does all the housework for him.
But her grandmother is determined. She tells Sreynich’s grandfather and aunt that there will be no more discussion on the matter. Sreynich is going to school!
Safe and happy
To get to the PIO school, Sreynich is going to travel by car for the first time. She sings and smiles, but soon gets travel sick.
Her grandmother smiles. The chance to go to school is something she has dreamt of for her beloved granddaughter. She will stay for the first night to help Sreynich settle in and feel safe.
They sit down on the floor, and Phymean introduces the other people who live at the children’s home. Somaly, who takes care of the girls’ dormitory, welcomes her. Sreynich is exhausted after the car journey, and her head is spinning with thoughts.“I feel safe here, and I am so happy,” she says.
The next day, as she sits at her desk with her books open, listening to the teacher’s voice, Sreynich smiles.
Dream: To become a singer.
Likes: Styling my friends’ hair.
Feels safe: With my grandmother.
Secret talent: Can change clothes fast as lightning.
Afraid of: The machines on the dump.
Angry that: My mother doesn’t take care of me.