Korean nuns on educational mission for poor Cambodian children

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During a recent visit to a village in Pursat Province, western Cambodia, Sister Kim Bun-seon was shocked to find no children in several homes.

Children worked with their parents in the fields or did daily chores or household chores.

“Parents take their children to work. Here, parents prioritize household chores over the education of their children. It’s sad but it’s an inevitable reality because they are so poor, ”said the South Korean nun of the Religious of Christian Education Congregation, an international Catholic religious order founded in France in 1817.

Sister Kim was riding in the back of a Cambodian teacher’s motorbike as she pulled into one house after another.

Finally, she met Mooney, a young Cambodian boy known by one name. He was busy with household chores because his parents were not interested in sending him to school for a reason common to most villagers: poverty.

Mooney replied, “Yes, yes,” when Sister Kim asked in front of her parents if he wanted to go to school to study.

As many parents are illiterate, they lacked enthusiasm to send their children to school

Surprisingly, the nun could not find any of the textbooks she had given the boy on his previous visits. Before leaving, she gave him another textbook and encouraged him to study before joining a school.

Sister Kim’s trips to the villages of Pursat are part of an educational mission launched by her and a colleague in 2010. Sister Kim and Sister Kwak Jeon-hae came to the area covered by the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang to sow seeds. hope among rural Cambodian children. who continue to fight poverty and illiteracy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of all institutes, including schools for months, leaving poor children in school without education and vulnerable to dropping out.

Cambodia has made commendable progress in the field of education with a high enrollment rate in recent times. According to Unicef, about 97 percent of children enrolled in primary school in 2017-18.

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However, the agency reports that many children fall behind in learning and end up dropping out for a variety of reasons, including not being adequately prepared for school due to poverty, lack of nutrition and poor education. the learning environment, poor teaching and learning, and irregular school attendance.

As a result, according to UNICEF, many children do not achieve learning standards appropriate for their age. At the elementary level, nearly 25 percent of grade 3 children cannot write a single word on a dictation test. Only 27 percent of students aged 3 to 5 are on track in reading and arithmetic, and by 17, some 55 percent of adolescents will have dropped out of school.

Aware of these difficulties, the Korean nuns run the Our Lady of Mercy kindergarten for dozens of children in the parish of Pursat and an extracurricular study room for elementary, high school and high school students in seven villages, benefiting some 800 children every week.

Besides general education, the nuns also read children’s books and teach English, song, dance, art and exercise. They also help the pastor of Pursat Church in providing spiritual and pastoral services to the Catholic community.

Until the arrival of the nuns in Pursat, many children did not go to school. Since many parents are illiterate, they lack the enthusiasm to send their children to school.

Parents continue to prioritize work over education, so it’s common to see children working at gas stations or digging for vegetables to sell at the market.

Sister Kwak said she felt sad every time a child dropped out of school.

“It hurts every time I see kids drop out of school because of poverty,” she said. “When I look into children’s eyes, they are really clear and pretty. I look forward to serving my children so that they can grow in the dignity given by God.

Sister Kwak says that she is happy to live with the locals and that she feels that “this is where God is”. She enjoys seeing children studying despite the difficulties encountered in an unfavorable environment.

The nun explained that the financial crisis is the biggest stumbling block in their service. Their services to children depend mainly on sponsorships from generous donors. Sponsorship has declined significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, plunging their mission into dire straits.

“Our children are in urgent need of support. It is difficult to see children drop out of education because of poverty. We help them as much as we can, but there are limits to our ability, so I feel helpless, ”Sister Kwak said.

I sincerely call on more people to join the sponsorship program so that children’s clear eyes and their dreams can be protected

Christians in Cambodia are a tiny minority, accounting for around 2 percent in the predominantly Buddhist country of over 16 million people. Church sources estimate that there are approximately 20,000 Catholics in Cambodia in three ecclesiastical jurisdictions – one apostolic vicariate and two apostolic prefectures.

However, the history of Catholicism in the country dates back to the 16th century. Gaspar da Cruz, a Portuguese Dominican friar, brought the Catholic faith to Cambodia in 1555-1556, according to church sources. The brother was not very successful in converting people to Christianity.

Cambodia became a French colony in the 19th century but Christianity had little influence in the country. Catholics numbered 120,000 in 1953, including 50,000 Vietnamese, making Christianity the second religion of the time, according to Vatican statistics.

Before the repatriation of the Vietnamese in 1970 and 1971, 62,000 Catholics lived in Cambodia.

Catholicism nearly withered due to deadly political upheavals, civil war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) when around 1.5-2 million people, or about 25 percent of the population , were killed by political executions, disease, hunger and forced labor.

Missionaries rebuilt the Church from its ashes upon their return in the early 1990s following the Paris Agreement that marked the end of the Civil War.

The rebirth of the Church in Cambodia has enabled missionaries like Korean nuns to make forays into the country to provide vital support to poor and vulnerable communities.

Back in Pursat, Sister Kwak remains determined to continue the educational mission of the nuns for poor children.

“I sincerely call on more people to join the sponsorship program so that children’s clear eyes and their dreams can be protected,” she said.

* This report uses material from a Korean-language article published by Catholic Times of Korea on November 28 here.

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