City of Lost Children:
Cambodia's Phymean Noun

By Mende Smith

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia has been called the city of lost children. Street gangs of dirty-faced kids run in and out of open markets, topple garbage cans, and sort waist-deep through the sea of trash at the edge of the industrial district looking for marketable rubbish and scraps of food for their families. Most work in the dumpsite seven days a week, from dawn until dusk. Many lose their lives to disease before the age of 13. One woman worked tirelessly with the people in the community to provide hope for these children and their families with education—and also enough rice to feed their families.


Phymean Noun ’s unique story is one of hope and absolution. In 2002, Noun founded the People Improvement Organization (PIO) and made it possible to pull street kids from gloom to schoolroom. Building a school for the children at the dumpsite itself—raising hope where there was nothing but sadness and dirt and shame. In her interview with Reap, she talks of her work and the ongoing mission to change the future of her native Cambodia by empowering the underlings and educating them free of charge through the twelve-years of her program. She has been a CNN hero in 2008, award-winning visionary, and organizer.


Traveling around the globe to seek funding opportunities for her mission, she has been welcomed with open arms. Of her journey, Noun says, she deplores a viewpoint of hope and determination that sucks in the world community and reminds us that all of these children are in fact, our children—in her country, it is most difficult for orphaned girls who are more likely to fall prey to human trafficking and housekeeping than education.

JWI visit SMC Oct13

“In Cambodian culture, they depend on the girls to stay home and have children and serve the family,” Noun says. “There are more people who believe there is no place in the school for a girl. Not like in America or in Canada, in Cambodia girls are second-class and have nothing to give their communities, people say. It is our mission to work hard for the girls, there are so many.”

So many lives can be saved through comprehensive education, basic hygiene, trust, and love. Noun says. “Nobody was doing anything for these kids, they were looking the other way, and so I had to do this for them, because it helps everyone else in the city too.”


Noun has been working with the children of PIO since 2002. The PIO has outreach centers at the city dumpsite, in the lowest areas of Phnom Penh and on the outskirts of the city where the people from the slums are relocated as the city is redeveloped. The program has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Education and also with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and work closely with social services now in Cambodia to support the governments’ education goals.


“We also run training for girls in dressmaking, cookery, and beauty and hairdressing at our training center in the city,” Noun says. “Many of these girls develop the workplace skills they need to feed themselves and to work off of the streets.”

Noun herself was orphaned at 15. She had already lost most of her family during the Cambodian genocide of the dictator Pol Pot. After so many years of unrest and the threat of war, her sister traveled to Thailand looking for a better life leaving her infant daughter in their mother’s care. Soon after, their mother died of cancer and Noun was left alone to survive and care for her infant niece. This is why Noun has a no-fail attitude and can relate so well with the children in her program.


Noun is delighted to give the opportunity to the orphaned children that she never had as a child of 15. Though bittersweet, her own search for work, education, and survival gave her the chops to take on the massive social challenge of living in a war torn country. Through education and training, the PIO equips the children and young people with the skills they need to access regular jobs and become self-supporting, improving their quality of life and that of their families.

Noun has been celebrated as a visionary in Cambodia. Having worked her way through school, earned a college degree and found a good job without the help of an organization like the PIO. The day she quit her job was also the day she realized that someone had to fight for the rights of the children living year after year in poverty.


“I could not take the time I needed to help all of the kids,” Noun says. “So I had money saved and I quit my job and started working to find the help for all of the children who were locked out of school, unable to afford to pay for school. We started with them.”

With Noun’s careful assistance, a growing number of schools and shelters offer alternative lives for children living and working at the filthy and dangerous trash dumps around the industrial city of Phnom Penh.

The PIO is aligned to the United Nations Millennium Development goals, which aim to ‘End Poverty.’ This work actively underpins the achievement of these goals and provides hope to a growing population of children in need. This is a locally based organization; run solely by Cambodians for Cambodians.


“We work hard to develop our workforce and empower the local people to become the leaders of the future, these children are our future in Cambodia.”

Today, Noun travels to and from her native country many times each year. When she is touring on fund-raising expeditions here in the states, she lives and writes at her home in Toronto, Canada. Hundreds of phone conferences, phone calls, and meetings fill up her schedule, which, she happily tasks as her life’s work and mission.Noun and her organization serve over 1,000 children a day through programs that include schooling, nutrition, healthcare, non-formal education and vocational training. Her work continues to inspire us every day.

“So long as people can see that there are so many children who need the chance to be a success, this school will keep on growing. I am blessed everyday with the work I do in my country and more people are helping us to make life better for the children in Cambodia.”

You can learn more about Phymean Noun and the People Improvement Organization here:

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