After his parents died Hem Cheang came to live at Hope Community Centre in the time before Hope adopted its policy of reintegrating children into their family networks. During Hem’s time here Hope staff eventually discovered he had grandparents living in an impoverished village, and after four years Hem left Hope to join them.
Although not slow to learn, Hem deliberately kept failing his school exams because he feared that if successful he would be forced to leave behind his much-loved grandparents when he got a job. Using what Hope In-Country Director Peter Butler calls the foundation’s “compassionate detective” approach, Hope’s social workers finally worked out what was going on and came up with a tailor-made solution.
Hope decided to fund a live-in apprenticeship position for Hem in his chosen career as a welder in Battambang while also financially and materially supporting his hard-up grandparents back in their village.
Hem was now reassured that they would be looked after and he could begin to move forward with his life under Hope’s skills placement program, which also pays his food and accommodation above the welding workshop. Hope staff describe Hem as a quiet achiever, someone who doesn’t want to go out on the town at night but is happy to stay home with his boss and wife. Hem’s employer said he took him on rather than apprenticing a boy from a more conventional background because he sympathised with Hem’s hard path in life and thought he should be given a chance.
“Hem’s attitude is good and he works well and completes his tasks,” his employer says. “Hem has a willingness to learn new skills and we get on well, we have a good relationship.”
Hem says he has gained confidence since starting his apprenticeship three months ago. He feels he has settled in well and adjusted to the stable environment. “It’s better than school,” he says. “The best part of the job is learning welding skills and to measure and cut the metal strips, to make everything accurate and to plan and recheck a job. I also really enjoy polishing the metal at the end.” His new job is not short on variety: scattered around the workshop are door and window frames, security grill doors, metal stools and much more. Battambang is in the middle of a mini building boom, so it looks like there will be plenty of work to go around
Hem’s employer pays him a monthly cash allowance – something not all Cambodian employers of apprentices do – and a sure sign that he is pleased with Hem’s work. Hem returned to his grandparents’ village for two weeks over the Khmer New Year holiday in April and gave them the whole of his earnings so far – about 50,000 Reil (AUD$20) each.
In the longer term Hem wants to use the welding skills he learns to start up his own business on a block of land he hopes to purchase in his grandparents’ village. And, not surprisingly with Hem, the plan is to have his grandparents live with him above the business. Hope will support him in his dream as far as possible – and in the meantime it’s given him a cheap old-style Nokia mobile so he can keep in touch with friends and the family he so loves.