Labouring in the field, looking after his siblings and hunting for red ants to eat, Heourn has many duties to perform beyond his schoolwork, a heavy burden that threatens his education and future.
“School?” queries Heourn. “Yes, I really like going to school. I have lots of friends and fun there.” But then he pauses, adding, “I don’t go there regularly. I need to look after my sisters and cook for them when my mum and dad are out finding food.”
The sixth grader lives with his parents and three sisters, ranging from 11 months to five years old, in a cramped house that shakes during storms. “I’m scared of the wind when it rains,” he says.
Heourn’s parents lack secure employment. They only work when neighbours ask them to help with harvesting or lifting heavy loads in exchange for a little cash, food or other bartered return.
“I also help my mum earn money and get food,” the 14-year-old continues. “I feed hay to the cows and carry water from the well for my neighbour once every three or four days. Sometimes, I ask them for work and they give me 3-5,000 riels [0.75-1.25 US dollars] or some rice. I also go off to find red ants on tree leaves to eat, which are several kilometres from my home.”
“I help my mum earn money and get food,” said 14-year-old Heourn.
The teenager’s five-year-old sister, Bun Han, also has family responsibilities. She says, “I go to school with Heourn and walk home on my own. I cook rice, water the vegetables and look after my two sisters when my parents and brother aren’t at home. I play with them.”
During the rainy season, Heourn usually works in the rice field with his parents, a day’s labour earning them the equivalent of 3.75 US dollars. His mother, Seoub Ya, says, “That’s only enough to buy 10kg of rice to feed us for a few days.”
When the rice bag is empty and there’s no work, the mother is forced to beg for or borrow money and rice from her neighbours. Of the family, a World Vision volunteer says, “Once, I visited their house and saw her daughter. She was sick and lying in the house with nothing to eat. The other children were crying because they were hungry too.”
Seoub Ya says, “It’s most difficult when my children are sick. I have nothing to get them to hospital or pay for medicine. I want them to go to school, so they won’t be as poor as us when they grow up and get jobs.”
Once in a while, Heourn borrows his friend’s bike to venture deep into the forest in search of wood to sell, so he can earn some money for school.
Putting a tiny yellow shirt on his three-year-old sister, he says, “They [his sisters] are so lively, but it’s okay. I love them. I want all of them to go to school. That would be good. I want to be a teacher, so I can teach other people and I want to have lots of money to build my mum a big house."