All my children will become superstars

How one mother’s dream for her children is keeping them in school and helping them cope with the challenges brought by COVID-19

Sokhon Sea
Ms. Ngou Sophany, 44 years old, holds a bowl of Chinese noodle soup, freshly served from her mobile food cart in Ta Khmao
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sea Sokhon
24 May 2022

Krong Ta Khmao 10 March 2022— On this cloudy morning, a cart selling noodles is parked on the sidewalk, right next to a school’s entrance. Ms. Ngou Sophany, 44, is busy serving her customers, with the help of her children. Some customers get takeaway, while others have a seat and eat right there next to her cart. “Every morning, I sell Chinese noodle soup here because a lot of people pass by this area. I get students from the school in the morning and in the afternoon, I will move closer to the garment factories,” shared Sophany.

Sophany’s husband works in construction and though he earns a steady salary, his income isn’t enough to cover all their needs. Sophany sells her noodles to help feed and house her nine children. But she didn’t always have this business and her family didn’t always have a stable home. For years, she worked odd jobs, ranging from massage parlors to washing clothes and dishes. She remembered, “Before, I didn’t have anything - no home, no shelter. I had to sleep on the street and move from place to place.” It was in this context that she made the difficult decision to send some of her children to a residential care institution. “10 years ago, I placed four of my children in an orphanage. I wanted my children to have a chance to study, receive three meals per day, and have a safe place to stay.”
 
However, Sophany realized later that although her children might have three full meals per day, there were no guarantees that they were safe and cared for. She even worried that they might be abused and exploited. She began to think of ways she could bring her children back home to live with their full family. When a Family Reintegration Program was introduced by Friends-International’s Partnership Programme for Protection of Children (3PC), in 2016, it was a good opportunity for Sophany’s hoped-for family reunion. 

This reintegration programme was part of a larger action plan for improving childcare that the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) was implementing, with support from UNICEF. USAID under 3PC. Friends-International coordinates an umbrella of thirteen NGOs and 40+ community-based organizations. This action plan, between 2016 and 2019, resulted in a 43 per cent fewer residential care institutions and 59 per cent fewer children living in residential care. 
 

Ms. Ngou Sophany teaches her daughter how to prepare ingredients for her noodle soup.
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sea Sokhon
Ms. Ngou Sophany teaches her daughter how to prepare ingredients for her noodle soup.

Sophany’s children were some of those who were reunified with their families from a residential care institution in Kandal as part of the care reform plan in September 2016, six years ago. 

The Child Welfare Office, within the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY) works with 3PC NGOs to support each family’s reintegration, like Sophany’s, by providing in-kind support including food (rice, canned fish, fish sauce), clothes, books and pens for the children’s studies. Often, one or both parents will need vocational training to help avoid the family ending up in the same unstable financial situation that triggered putting the children in residential care. 

Sophany was provided training on how to cook Chinese noodle soup as well as how to manage her own mobile food cart. Ever since, Sophany has been selling Chinese noodle soup with one goal in mind: keep her family together under one roof and keep her children in school.

Ms. Ngou Sophany’s children, Phal Reaksa (left) and Phal Savith (first from left) , Phal Visal (second from left) and Phal Sreymina.
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sea Sokhon
Ms. Ngou Sophany’s children, Phal Reaksa (left) and Phal Savith (first from left) , Phal Visal (second from left) and Phal Sreymina,

Like many other reunited families, social workers from DoSVY and NGOs continue supporting Ms. Ngou Sophany to ensure the best interest of the children. This support ranges from mental health and psycho-social support services to career counseling and vocational training to help understanding the requirements and process to qualify for government aid programmes, like IDPoor and cash transfer. 

Sophany works hard to ensure all nine children focus on their studies. Her dream is for all her children to graduate high school and find jobs that will provide a stable future. Her oldest child, 20 years old, graduated from high school last year and continues his studies at Don Bosco Vocational Training Center. Her youngest child, who is five years old, just started Grade 1. Their seven brothers and sister in between are all following their mother’s passion for education and determination to graduate.
 
This is especially remarkable considering the additional challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought. Sophany’s income, which depends largely on students and factory workers, dropped considerably during factory and school closures and hasn’t fully recovered. Like all Cambodian children, Sophany’s sons and daughters suffered significant disruption to their studies during the past two years.

Phal Savith (left), Phal Visal (right)
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sea Sokhon
Phal Savith (left), Phal Visal (right)

Sophany is doing her best to overcome these challenges and set a strong example for her children. “Every evening, I have dinner together with all my children. I tell them to be patient and focus on their studies”. She added, “I’m very fortunate. All my children listen to my we, they are good children who follow the path of Dharma”. She is also very grateful for the support she has received from DoSVY Kandal throughout the pandemic. The Family Care Package brought direct financial support, food, and support services for the children’s online learning and their mental and psychosocial wellbeing.

Mr. Sat Sothy, the chief of Kandal’s child welfare office reported that Ms. Ngou Sophany is one of the caregivers who understands the importance of caring for her children. He said, “Ms. Ngou Sophany is very determined. No matter what happens, she will never send her children back to residential care institutions”. Likewise Ms. Srey Sokna, a social worker from Kandal’s DoSVY, has been impressed by Ms. Ngou Sophany commitment to keeping her children focused on education. Sokna said, “Ms. Ngou Sophany encourages her children to study for their futures, regardless of how many challenges she faces”.

Phal Savith (red shirt) , Phal Visal (behind Savith) pay respect to monks
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Sea Sokhon
Phal Savith (red shirt) , Phal Visal (behind Savith) pay respect to monks

Ms. Ngou Sophany hopes that with schools back open and many businesses returning to normal that her business will rebound to pre-COVID income levels.  One thing is for sure, no matter what happens Sophany will never stop believing in her children. “I believe all my children will become superstars”.

Despite many struggles, Sophany is making her dream for her children come true with a mix of personal determination, deep love for her family, and ongoing support from the social service workforce, made stronger by the year thanks to years of work of 3PC, supported by generous contributions from USAID and the Government of Japan.