Girls filling application forms at Don Bosco technical school in Sihanoukville on August 15.

Sihanoukville. The week began in the Cambodian sea port with a rainy Monday that did not stop the arrival of several families from nearby regions to the only technical school for unprivileged youth in the southern provinces of the Kingdom. During that first day of interviews, about 500 teenagers and young adults presented their documents to apply for any of the nine technical section offers by the Don Bosco organization in the port. It meant an increase of 100 percent from last year.

“In August 2010 we made 1,000 interviews to choose only 300 new students for the technical sections. This year, in only two of the first days of the interviews, we already reached 1,000,” said Fr. John Visser, 78, Rector of the Don Bosco Technical School, who will receive the Medal of the Order of Orange from the hands of Queen Beatriz of the Netherlands on August 31 for his technical schools in Thailand and Cambodia.

The technical school was built in 1997, when Sihanoukville was a modest town around the only deep sea port in Cambodia. Set up with the purpose of providing technical skills to disadvantaged young people, the NGO wanted to open opportunities for teenagers and young people coming from impoverished areas of Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, Kompot and Takeo. Half of the students come from Takeo and Kompot, two rural provinces bordering Vietnam where young people find few options of further education. The other half of the 700 students come from Sihanoukville, Kompung Speu and Kandal, while a minor group is a gathering of young people from provinces as far as Kompung Thom, Kompung Cham, Battambang, Prey Veng and Pailin.

“I want to study electricity, because we need electricity in my province. Electricity means development… no electricity, no development,” replied Chalak Lon, 21, one of the first four members of the Khmer Krung indigenous of Ratanakiri, who traveled all the Tuesday to try in Don Bosco Sihanoukville.

The city of contrasts

Sihanoukville is a place of big contrasts. This year it was listed among one of the most beautiful bays of the planet by the Bay’s of the World Club. Its Autonomous Port is considered the 5th most efficient ports of Asia by the Benchmarking the Efficiency of Asian Container Ports report, while it is an object of huge development projects of tourism, commerce and foreign investment. Recently, its Snake Island was connected to mainland by the Techo Morakot Bridge that will convert the area in a major development and resort. As for tourism, its Ream National Park, natural beaches, coral islands and hills offer several attractions for national and international visitors.

But at the same time, the port city is gaining a fame of sexual tourism spot where children are at risk. In a recent report by The Phnom Penh Post about children working on the Sihanoukville beaches, Mrs. Maggie Eno, the creator of the M’lop Tabang organization for the protection of street children and children under risk, said that it is estimated that the number of children selling on the beach has tripled over the last two years, from 2,000 to about 3,000. This situation put them at risk of prostitution, because they are not attending school and they are not learning other thing out of selling and begging. Although the local government says that there is a ban on children working on the beaches, it is not really enforced, while visitors continue buying and giving money to child beggars, a practice that only worsen their lives.

Education at the port

The city is also the place of some universities, all private, with fees of 720,000 riels per semester (180 US dollars), a cost that a middle Cambodian family cannot afford with minimum wages of 256,200 riels (64 US dollars.) It is to say that one of the most important Cambodian cities, with an international projection, has not a single public university or polytechnic for its youth. The private universities, by their part, offer faculties such as business administration, Information Technology and English as main subjects, putting in evidence a hurry for business topics, while almost ignoring social areas. None about environment in a country with several national parks. None about archaeology, in a country with valuable ancient treasurers. None about such things like oceanography or biology, in a city that dreams to live from the sea. None about anthropology, psychology, art, history… Most of these are based in Phnom Penh.

It is understood why more than 1,000 youth from the southern provinces of Cambodia come to Don Bosco this week. As it is a Non-for-profit organization, depending on international donors, there is not place for all, as it is expected.

‘We choose about 350 new students every year. It is 700 students in sections like mechanic, electricity, automotive, welding, secretarial, web development, audiovisual, hotel management, culinary… We cannot take more than that, so we have to choose. For this reason we do the interviews that have the goal to select those who are really poor or orphans,’ explained Mr. Ouch Sambo, manager of the social communication section.

According with the 2010-2011 statistics of the technical school, the 80 percent of students come from rural areas, especially Kompot, Takeo and Preip Nub. 60 percent comes from big families and 50 are orphan or abandoned. The 2010 report of the school shows that almost 100 percent of students who finished that year, were engaged in the private and official sector, while 70 percent is working in what they studied at the technical school.

‘The idea is that in two years, the students learn a practical skill in order to have better opportunities in getting a job. Then they are encouraged to continue in superior education after they are engaged. Unfortunately, the best public universities are in Phnom Penh, but some past pupils do a big sacrifice in paying private universities,’ said Heng Lay, a Don Bosco IT teacher, who is also past pupils of the same institution and finished his bachelor degree in languages in a private university in Sihanoukville.

Other provinces of Cambodia have even less opportunities than Sihanoukville for a superior education affordable for young people from poor and middle income families. This week, the first members of the Krung indigenous ethnic of the northern Ratanakiri province, came to apply to Don Bosco, precisely in Sihanoukville, at the other side of the country:

‘There is not a university or something similar in Ratanakiri. If you want to study after 12th grade, you have to go to Phnom Penh,’ said Saren Hin, 22, during his interview applying for web development.

Technical education is, without doubt, a contribution for the development of a country like Cambodia for one part, but also a way to integrate the growing number of young people, especially from rural areas and poor city suburbs. It prevents the joining of vulnerable young people in social evils like prostitution and crime, while it is a way to fight poverty. But it needs the participation of the private and public sector also. Relying in foreign donors is important, but it has also its weakness, something that can be demonstrated in a time of global financial crisis. During a recession, industrialized nations cut for example jobs. If they do such with their own nationals, what can be expected for international aid.

It is good that companies and organizations engage students from technical schools like the ones of Don Bosco, but they should put more to guarantee that the schools can survive and even increase their capacity, while creating new technical schools and educational organizations in a country that dreams with development.

This Thursday is the last day of interviews. About 1,500 teenagers and young people are expected to do their exam. 1,250 of them, most of them just finished 12th grade, will not be accepted. They will, by sure, go to look opportunities in Phnom Penh.

‘If I don’t pass the exam in Don Bosco, I will go to Phnom Penh to look anything to do. I don’t know what, but I cannot go to Kompot again, because there’s not job,’ concluded Socheat, 19.