Vo Leak has been the subject for many photographers in her short life. In another circumstance this would be an honor and she might well be a popular girl with lots of friends at school. However this was far from the case. Her face and eyes explain the hardships she has already endured and many photographers couldn’t resist snapping a few pictures of her to show the world how people in Cambodia are living in such a desperate state. The location is at the Stung Mean Chey garbage dump where Leak often worked from early morning until late night with her family so they could earn enough money to eat. Not even 10 years of age, she epitomized the injustice of the world where a young girl was faced with having to climb a mountain of garbage barefoot and spending up to 14 hours a day looking for things to sell instead going to a nearby school, meeting others her age and having the chance to learn and have fun with classmates.
Vo Leak grew up in a simple shelter next to the garbage dump Stung Mean Chey. She has 4 brothers and 2 sisters. Her father died years ago leaving her mother to raise 6 children alone. Their house was literally built on and surrounded by garbage. During the raining season they could not sleep because water would drop through the roof onto their bed. Their house didn’t even have a door. Without education or basic literacy, Vo Leak’s mother’s only source of income was scavenging trash from the garbage dump. She struggled to earn enough to take care of all her children. Vo Leak and her siblings would go to work with her mother at the garbage dump to find plastic, metal and paper which they can sell for recycling. This helped pay for rice for the family so they have food to eat. The work was very hard and very dangerous and often the family would work from early morning until late night. Some days they didn’t have food to eat because they could not find enough to sell. PIO director, Phymean Noun met Vo Leak at the dumpsite in 2008 and she invited Vo Leak to study at PIO but her mother refused to allow her to go to school as she needed Vo Leak to help earn money for the family. Vo Leak and her siblings had never been to school just like their mother.
In early 2010, Vo Leak and her sister Maly had been brought to PIO by a friend,Mrs. Chenda Sophea. Sophea had explained that Vo Leak lived in a dangerous place, her house was not safe and her mother was worried about her daughter’s security. She worried that some guy could come into the house at night and rape the girls. Vo Leak and Maly were begging the mother every day that they wanted to go to school. She knew at only PIO that can save these girls life and future. After hearing the story of Vo Leak and her family situation, PIO allowed Vo Leak and her sister to stay in PIO’ shelter and go to study at PIO Stung Mean Chey school. In the first day of school back in 2010, Vo Leak and her sister Maly were very happy. They found friends quick and adjusted well to life at school and the shelter. Today, Vo Leak and Maly are in grade 2.
PIO has given her and her sister a new life. Since PIO, Vo Leak and Maly have had a chance to visit the zoo, go to the waterpark, and the beach to see the ocean. Without PIO, she could still be working as a garbage picker, roaming the streets looking for anything of value and continue living without the prospect of a brighter future. Vo Leak’s dream is to become a doctor in the future. We can all work together to make that a reality.