150 years of Salesians

       The Don Bosco schools are celebrating the 150th anniversary of their foundation this year. Don Bosco branches are spread over 130 countries. These schools belong to a Catholic religious organization known as Salesians of Don Bosco. The phrase has already become familiar in the Khmer language as Sala Don Bosco, but it is also present in many languages where the Salesians have settled to support the education of poor children and youth.

       In Cambodia the Salesians began their educative works of charity in the refugee camps of Thailand. In 1989 the Thai government allowed the United Nations to conduct technical education for Cambodian youth at the refugee camps through the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugee. That organization delegated the task to the Jesuits from India and they, in turn, contacted the Salesians in Bangkok. The Salesians opened six technical centers in four refugee camps in 1989 : 2, 8, Sok Sann and B. About 3,000 boys attended these centers over a two year period.

       The war ended and the refugee camps passed into history. The Cambodians, who knew Don Bosco in those centers, did not forget the daily rules of a technical school that was teaching to them how to work for better opportunities but also how to cope with daily life. In 1993 Don Bosco opened the first technical school in what is today the growing district of Phnom Penh Thmey, then a rice field near to Pochengton Airport. Today, Don Bosco has schools in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kep, Battambang and Poipet and the Children’s Fund, an extensive program to support poor children back to school in several provinces.

The Preventive System

       The mission of the schools is to provide technical education to youth and children from impoverished communities or vulnerable groups. Education in this case is understood as an important tool to overcome poverty and marginalization.

       But more important than teaching the use of a machine to boys and girls, the Don Bosco schools rely on an educative method, the Preventive System. It is a modern educational proposal that began its development during the 19th century. Don Bosco (‘Don’ stands in Italian for Father), is considered the most important promoter of such a method. As he himself explained in his writings, prevention opposes repression: “The repressive system consists in making the law known to the subjects, and afterwards watching to discover the transgressors of these laws, and inflicting, when necessary, the punishment deserved.” In contrast, the preventive education makes laws and regulations known to the students and assists the pupils with loving kindness in order to give advice and correction.

       Modern Cambodia is hurrying to achieve development and economic growth. Dreams for big factories and majestic buildings fill the plans of policymakers and economists. But social inequality remains a challenge, especially in rural areas. The 21rst century will be dominated by new technologies even in Cambodia. It is important that the new generations have the opportunity to access to all those dreams of development. Education is still the best way to do so.

       It is time to close the post-war era in Cambodia. The paternalism of the International Community over poor Cambodia must be replaced by skillful new generations of young people able to build their country by their own initiative. The preventive system of the Don Bosco schools is a contribution to growth in values. Youth able to handle a machine is good; youth with a skill and the conscience of a good citizen is even better.

       Children and youth with access to a good education are free of risks of abuse and poverty. The preventive system of Don Bosco means also prevention of any social evil like child abuse, human trafficking, prostitution, HIV, social marginalization. At the same time, it also touches the family of the child as the first ones responsible for education.

Don Bosco for the new century

       In the context of the global financial crisis, I recently had to answer a question about what the Don Bosco schools were doing to face its consequences in Cambodia. For example, women lost their jobs in the garment factories. The answer was to continue the original mission. When Don Bosco came in contact with Cambodia, the country was at the end of its worst crisis in history, a time of wars and chaos. The option of Don Bosco in 1859 in Turin, Italy, was for the young, especially the poor. The option of his schools after 150 years in a country like Cambodia will be the same: stay at the side of poor children and youth, of those who are vulnerable and in need of protection, and of those who find difficult to join the stream of development.

       In time of crisis or not, the preventive system is always an excellent answer to the needs of a society. We need Cambodians dreaming of a developed country, but also of putting values in prior place in their lives; people who work hard to raise their standard of life, and are sensitive to the common good, to their society and their country as a whole. In order to do so, it is necessary to believe in the natural talents of the young and in the natural good values of our ancestral culture and traditions.

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