Advancing from such a remote and difficult starting place is full of challenges, but Sok Sreynei keeps her dreams like a spark in tinder. She says, “My dream is to be educated, because as a Phnong I don’t want people to look down on me and berate me like they did to my parents.”
In the most isolated countryside of Mondulkiri province lives a young student of the Phnong minority named Sok Sreynei. Sreynei is sixteen years old and is currently in the 9th grade at Preah Lower Secondary School. She’s the oldest of six siblings, and she has been a part of Lotus Outreach’s Phnong Education Initiative (PEI) for three years.
Sreynei’s home is hard to get to, even by Cambodian standards. The house is barely reachable by four-wheel drive SUV, with a dried up riverbed serving as a road for part of the journey. Flooding during the rainy season carves impossible ruts into the riverbed and other roads alike. Lotus’s field staff got stuck several times along the way, and yet Sreynei has followed this path every day to get to school since the age of seven!
The home of Sreynei's family is located 12 km from the Sre-Preah Lower Secondary School in a village with half a dozen other small houses belonging to ethnic Phnong people. Their one-room house is elevated on meter-high stilts to protect from seasonal flooding. It has split bamboo walls, a tin roof, and no windows, electricity or running water. The wooden floorboards inside are spaced one-centimeter apart, so the bare earth is visible a meter below.
It is a well-known fact that hearts are what make a house a home, and though Sreynei’s parents are both completely illiterate, they are warm, and they converse easily about their lives and how they live so remotely and simply. Her mother gardens on about two hectares of land quite far from the house, cultivating cucumbers, rice, gourds and eggplant. Her father gathers frogs and fish from ponds and streams that flood and dry seasonally. He also gathers and sells a certain tree sap which effectively patches leaks in boats.
After having problems with water-borne illness, the family has started boiling their drinking water, though they admit it is difficult to do all the time. Newly installed nets help keep out some of the mosquitoes and protect the family from endemic malaria. They still have trouble from time to time.
Advancing from such a remote and difficult starting place is full of challenges, but Sreynei keeps her dreams like a spark in tinder. She says, “My dream is to be educated, because as a Phnong I don’t want people to look down on me and berate me like they did to my parents.” She reveals with a sly smile that she is deciding whether she wants to be a Phnong teacher, a nonprofit worker like Lotus’s Raksmey Var, or a health worker.
Because the 12km hike between her house and school is so difficult, Sreynei has relocated to the residence provided by Lotus’s PEI much closer to the school. She says that staying there helps her focus on her studies, and saves her from a long and difficult journey. Momentarily she is back to walking the long path, while she cares for her mother who has fallen ill.