My name is Phounam. I was born in July 1991 in a small village in Battambang Province, Cambodia to a poor family. I’m the youngest child in the family with three sisters and a brother. My parents survived the Khmer Rouge and worked hard to raise their children. My father was a violent man, and he used the money he earned to gamble and drink rather than to support his family.
My sisters and brother started to work at a young age and so did I. At 7, I started to work as a trash picker. I would get up early at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, walk to the city looking for bottles and anything else that I could sell to the recycling company. Life as a trash picker is dangerous. My sister and I needed to keep ourselves safe from kidnappers and other people who wanted to hurt us. Thank God, we were always safe from that danger.
Because of our family poverty, my sisters and brother had to drop out of school. They would tell me “ How could I study when I have to worry about finding food and have a father who treats us violently everyday?” Despite having all these problems, my mum and my sisters were my heroes. They always did everything they could to send me to school and to protect me, making sure I got an education after I finished working.
My life changed when I found Phare Ponleu Selpak Association. One sunny, hot morning when I returned from work, a social worker from Phare came to my village and told us about Phare. She explained that Phare had a free school that was open to everyone. In addition to the regular school program, the students could also learn painting, music, circus, and dancing. More importantly Phare provided lunch and cookies every evening when we went home. I was so happy when I heard about these free lunches and cookies. I was not interested in any activities except the food. From that day on, I went to Phare every morning after I got back from work.
Life seemed a little bit happier and my stomach was full since I started to study at Phare, even though the routine in my family remained the same or got worse when my father was drunk. Sometimes Phare allowed me to bring food back home to share with my family for dinner.
My mom kept telling me that I was a smart kid, and I listened to her advice and always did well at school. The most important advice she gave to me was to study hard, “education is the only weapon that can protect you, that you can use until the last day of your life. Nobody can steal it from you”. I always keep her words in my head and I do whatever I can for education.
When I was 13, after my father died, I moved to live in Phare at the Childcare Center with other children and decided to join the circus. With support from Phare and my family and by working hard in circus school, I became an international artist with Phare the Cambodian Circus. I traveled around the world. With the money I earned from the circus tour, I was able to support my family, helping them improve their house and putting enough food on the table.
However, you can only be a top performing circus artist for a short time because of the limitations of the body. In 2009 I injured my wrist and realized that I wouldn’t be able to continue forever. I started to think about my future after my artist’s life ended. As always, my mother’s advice to go on with education came to mind.
In 2010 after I finished high school, I went to the University of Management and Economics (UME) in Battambang, Cambodia to study English for 2 years. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet the needs of the education that I expected. This strengthened my dream of studying abroad.
Gallery Summer 2018
Gallery of Photos of Phounam in Performance
Gallery of Other Photos of Phounam
Gallery of Videos of Phounam in Circus and Dance Performance
Gallery of Videos of Phounam in Song Performance
Gallery of Videos of Phounam: Interviews and Miscellaneous