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Nestled in the countryside, just beyond the dust and chaos of Siem Reap’s tourist traps and frantic roads, is the village Prima. Here, one man has committed his life to improving the future of his local community members, neighbours and friends.
Despite its booming tourism, Siem Reap remains one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, with 45% of the population living under the poverty line. There’s a clear divide between the flashy hotels and packed restaurants of the vibrant cities, to the bumpy roads and fruit stalls of the neighbouring villages.
And it’s there, down a chewed-up dusty path, burnt orange in colour, surrounded by wooden huts and cows chomping lazily in the fields beside them, that you’ll find Jimmy Chan. Born into poverty in 1987, Jimmy’s life started tough. Cambodia was still plagued by misery and war as it continued struggling to recover from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The radical communist movement resulted in the killing of around two million people between 1972 and 1975.
He grew up witnessing the damage done to his country and the hardship it caused for his family and those around him in Prima. He saw how poor the quality of teaching was and noticed how quickly children from rural areas like his were falling behind. ‘After the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia didn’t have any more educated people,’ he says. ‘All the academics were killed.’
Jimmy made it his goal to do something to improve this situation. He says, ‘My aim is to help to change this country step by step, through education.’ He decided to start teaching English to children growing up in circumstances very similar to his own in a bid to offer them a better future.
He says, despite being hungry to learn, that these children face a multitude of obstacles in their search for education, ‘They come from a very poor background and the village schools aren’t a good standard. They don’t have a lot of free time as many of them have housework, siblings and animals to tend to.’ Many of the families in his village and surrounding communities can’t afford the materials to send their children to school, so they are forced to take them out of education at an early age.
‘Most people here work as fishermen or farmers. Some people are earning just a dollar a day,’ Jimmy explained, ‘I’m trying to give everyone a chance.’ And since 2011, that chance has been seized by more and more people. Today, Jimmy teaches free of charge to 150 students over 6 nights a week from his classroom setup in his Mother’s backyard. It’s cramped, sweaty and there aren’t quite enough chairs for all of the students. Nobody seems to mind, however, with some keen beans even sitting cross-legged on the floor at the front in a bid to soak in every word of his lesson.
His first class is full of little ones, with kids as young as three venturing across the fields on their trikes to learn. Even at that age, their eagerness and happiness to be there is clear; a stark contrast to many students in Western schools today. As the night draws in, hundreds of bugs creep from out of the shadows and buzz around the flickering florescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The children aren’t phased. They stay engaged on their teacher, nonchalantly pulling flying beetles out of their hair while they absorb the information.
Jimmy draws on his own experiences in the hopes of opening their eyes to the possibilities education can offer them. Like many of his students, he didn’t have the funds to attend a top international school in the city but this didn’t deter him from wanting to succeed and become a fluent English speaker.
‘During the day when I was younger, I cycled to Angkor Wat temple to practice my English with foreigners. At night I went to the city to speak with the international tourists,’ he says.
And it’s clear that determination and work ethic are still a driving force within him today. ‘I work every day as a tuk-tuk driver and tour guide from morning until evening before class. I normally wake up at 5am every day but sometimes before 3am for the sunrise tours’.
Jimmy’s efforts are paying off, having obtained a bachelor degree in English as a Foreign Language and Teaching, his school is now on its way to being a state recognised institution. His message is clear: you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it and study hard.
Back in the classroom, the air is thick with a mixture of humidity, hope and determination. The students are given an opportunity to come to the front and practice speaking to the class. Their efforts cause ripples of laughter, but it doesn’t stop them. They’re happy and grateful to be there.
One of the boys, aged 13, is headed for a scholarship to a top international school in the city. His English is exceptional, making it easy to ask him what he thinks of the school and it’s teacher. ‘Jimmy’s a great teacher,’ he says. ‘He’s an inspiration to us all.’ When questioned on whether he thinks he’ll be able to stay on this path and get to where he’s headed, his answer is entirely relatable and, for a moment, he could be any kid, from anywhere in the world. ‘I hope so but I need to study harder and spend less time playing volleyball and football with friends’.
This wouldn’t be the first success story to come out of Jimmy’s school, though. One of his former pupils, Tida, who studied with him for four years, is currently at a university in Phnom Penh, the countries capital. She received a scholarship to study there and is working towards becoming the successful businesswoman she always dreamed of being.
Many of Jimmy’s students have the same or similar career hopes. During the class, students talk about their aspirations, with jobs such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, architects and hotel managers among the most popular. And as they head home at the end of the evening with another night of English lessons under their belts, they can be confident that they’re one step closer to their shot at that scholarship, degree or job.
With his work down for the night, Jimmy heads down the road a little way, towards a two-storey concrete building which stands out amongst the huts and fields of Prima, not only because of it’s size, but also it’s colour; it’s painted violet. ‘This is the new school,’ Jimmy explains. ‘After a long time of dreaming, it eventually became a reality. This new building has better facilities and will offer the chance to study English, Maths, Khmer and life skills.’ It’s a result of funding and fundraising from the international friends he has made over the years. After all he’s done for his community through teaching and charity work, such as helping to install water filters and paying for street lamps to light the way home for his students, it seems only fitting he be supported in this way.
But he remains humble, saying, ‘I’m so grateful for all the help we’ve received.’His gratitude and warmth are typical of the Khmer people. Despite their circumstances, they demonstrate a powerful resilience and maintain a reputation for being positive and welcoming.
Jimmy is the epitome of this, manifesting hope and spreading a belief that, no matter how the cards are dealt, your situation can get better. He incorporates this message into every one of his classes through a simple statement, repeated in cheers by him and his students: “Education will change your life”. It’s a lesson we’d all do well to remember.