Phnom Penh, 13 September 2009. Gaia Discovery caught up with Sebastien Marot at Mith Samlanh, founder and Executive Director of Friends International, a social enterprise that works with street children and other marginalised urban youth. The group's main centre is in Phnom Penh.
Friends International got its start in Phnom Penh. There are about 3500 kids in your programmes on any given day. What was your motivation for starting this up?
When I first arrived in Cambodia in 1994, I didn't plan at all to do anything of this sort. I was travelling through. What really got me started was seeing 25 kids sleeping on cardboard outside a restaurant when I came out at night and at the same time seeing a very big black Mercedes passing by.
Two things happened: one, it was the shock of the social injustice, having all these very poor kids and those very rich people at the same time was for me shocking. This was at a time when the UN had just left Cambodia and had put millions of dollars into rebuilding the country. Seeing the kids sleeping on cardboard was saying “these kids are left behind”. You're not really building a country if you're leaving the kids behind and this is why I started Friends.
In a nutshell, what are the activities that you provide to the children and youth?
We do two main things. The first part is we save their lives. We make sure that they survive. This is going out where they live, it's providing medical care, it's providing counseling, it's making sure they're OK.
But the most important for us is the second part, it's building their futures. And that means giving them an education, giving them vocational training and helping them with those new acquired skills to integrate into society in a good way, meaning that they will be productive, that they will make a living, that they will support the development of their country.
What is the background of the children and youth that you work with? Some of them are homeless and on the street, but why are they there? Why are they vulnerable? Why are they marginalised?
We start work usually with street children and street children are really the thermometer of a society. You can see the situation of a country by seeing these children who are left behind. The greater the number of street children, the more at risk the society is. So, for us, starting with those children is crucial. These children are left behind because of social issues in the families and general issues in society that do not allow them to be integrated and part of it. They're rejected.
You have health issues, you have HIV/AIDS, you have so many different factors that push them on the margins. But when you start working with street children, you also address and meet way many other types of kids – migrant children, children in prison, children affected by HIV, children using drugs and suddenly you start addressing all of the issues that young people might have in a country and that's what Friends is actually doing.
It's always expanding and going after all the children who are at risk and put on the margins of society, because the societies they live in can not take care of them.
Friends Int'l has gone international. You're now really an international NGO after having started up with one centre here in Phnom Penh. What makes you different from other NGOs? What is the model here that you can take from one place and apply to another?
Yes, indeed. Friends is basically a Cambodian NGO that became international, so it's a Cambodian model that became international. But why this Cambodian model works?
One, it's because it's holistic. We are looking at the entire needs of a child, of a person. The second is it's not charity-based. It's really looking at developmental issues – developmental issues of the child, of the society, of the communities. So it's a very proactive developmental approach. We also have a business component to ensure that we're sustainable, so that's why we're seen more as a social enterprise today than an NGO.
Put a human face for a second on children you're working with. What are their backgrounds? What are their stories?
Well every child is really different and this is why the work is so fascinating, but these are kids that come from tremendous abuse. For example, we have a girl who was raped by seventeen soldiers and from this she got HIV. This is a life that could be seen as broken, but working with us and us working with her, she's now become a member of our staff and one of our main trainers for HIV/AIDS. You think you start with despair but you can end up with great hope and great futures.
We have children that have dysfunctional families, children that come from families with drugs and alcohol and family abuse, you have kids who are basically sold or leased to work in another family's home because their own parents are too poor to take care of them, you have kids that are attacked on the streets and from gangs. The life that they have is just incredible and every case could be a book.
What keeps you going? What motivates you to continue with the work here?
The children. Really seeing the kids go from . . . meeting them on the streets, knowing where they come from, then seeing them train in the restaurant for example or being these brillant trainees learing a skill, then seeing them go off and meeting them a few years later in a restaurant and they come to me and say “you know, i was a former student at Friends” and this is fantastic. This is what really makes the whole difference and this is why I continue.
What is the biggest challenge for the organisation now?
Challenges for an organisation like ours are probably the same as any other. It's financial. It's being able to get enough funds to continue. That is always one big issue. The other issue is probably – we're in a position of expansion, so human resources is always something that we need to look at very carefully, meaning we need to find the right people for the right jobs and people wanting to do what we do, they're not that many. It looks glamorous, but it's not. It's really hard work, it's very demanding, so finding the right people is very very important and very difficult.
You mention financial. What's on your wish list right now? If someone were to write you a big cheque, how would you use it?
Well the wish list could be quite long, but on the top of the list is something that could change the life of the organisation. We had to buy the Mith Samlanh property – that's the Phnom Penh organisation with the school, training centre and cultural centre -- because the landlord was going to sell it to someone else. We have a huge debt from this, which means that a lot of our energy and income disappears into reimbursing that loan. So #1 on my wishlist is paying off that debt.
If there were one or two things that you could do right now to put your organisation out of business – in a positive way, meaning that you had fulfilled your goals – what would they be?
The first step would be for the local team to take over everything. That would take me out of the picture, which would be great.
But I think most importantly, it would be to give the power to take care of the children, to be responsive, to be able to protect the children to the communities themselves. Once the communities are able to take care of the children, there's no more need for NGOs and that's really what I'm aiming for.
Friends Int'l provides remedial education and vocational training to some 3500 youth a year. Its outreach programmes and partner networks touch the lives of many many more, both youth and their families. Started in Cambodia, Friends now also helps reintegrate youth into society and become functional productive citizens in several Asian countries as well as in Egypt, Honduras and Mexico.
Check out www.streetfriends.org
Visiting Phnom Penh? Be sure to visit at least one of the group's restaurants, Friends Restaurant which serves tapas, frozen juices and dacquiris or Romdeng which offers local cuisine (even fried spiders!). Both restaurants not only offer great food, they're staffed by Friends' youth and proceeds help fund the venture.
Friends' Restaurant is located at 215 Street 13. Tel: 855-12 802-072. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Romdeng Restaurant is located at #74 Street 174, Phnom Penh. Tel: 092 219565 Email: email@example.com
Friends International advises tourists not to give directly to street children as the money encourages them to stay out of school and on the streets, where they are more at risk of abuse. Learn more about how to become a ChildSafe Traveler here.
Instead, buy products produced at Friends which are made from recycled items, such as cardboard packaging, comics, newspapers, rice bags, sarong fabric and more. Check out the stylish recycled paper purses (US$4.50) and messenger bags made from old newspapers (US$10) as well as dresses made in the Mith Samlanh training centre.
Friends 'N' Stuff is at House 215, street 13 next to Friends The Restaurant Tel: 092 955 722 or 453 826 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our trip to Cambodia was sponsored by SilkAir, which has adopted Friends International as its official charity. In addition to publicising the work of Sebastien and his team, SilkAir provides Friends with free cargo transport for its products and scholarships to two Cambodian students to study English at the Australian Centre for Education in Phnom Penh.