Teaching ABCs to children fleeing wartorn Kampuchea

Phal Neak, a long-haired 19-year-old, is the best student of mathematics in her school at Non Samet on the Thai-Kampuchean border.

She had never been to school before escaping three months ago from Sisophon to join 250,000 other Kampucheans (Cambodians) on the Thai border.

Phal Neak was only six when war that is still going on came to Kampuchea. Like 70 percent of other adult women in the border encampments, she was illiterate when she arrived at Non Samet.

Now she is beginning to read and write her own language. After just a few lessons she can identify numerals and count with them.

Phal Neak is one of the hundreds of thousands of Kampucheans who have gone to school, many for the first time, in Thai refugee camps and in the border encampments. Some Kampucheans now in the United States began their education in these primitive schools, which at the start had nothing but a few pencils and scraps of paper.

However, the children's mental state was the worst problem for teachers. One of the organizers of the education program described those new pupils as ''wolf children.''

''They had been living like dogs in the jungle,'' says Akihiro Chiba, deputy director of UNESCO's regional office for education in Bangkok. ''They knew no other life.''

Years of hardship, separation from their families, and even battle experience had made them hard, sullen, and suspicious. An American veteran of the Vietnam war described some of the Khmer children coming out of the jungle near the Thai border as having ''the 1,000-yard stare of the combat infantryman.''

At school it was found they talked in baby language because they had no normal contact with adults.

New teaching methods were adopted. The alphabet is taught not in sequence but first of all with letters resembling every day objects - a leaf, a cloud, a bamboo stick.

Lessons in arithmetic and natural science are designed to make a gradual transition from the concrete to the abstract.

Children learn to count on their fingers, then on the fingers of classmates, then on pictures of fingers, then on dots before moving finally to numerals.

Special textbooks were written not only to improve reading and comprehension skills but also to instill a sense of family and of morality. A typical text in the readers is ''how to be a good girl in the family.''

Thirst for education in all the Kampuchean camps is there for all to see. Some pupils try to attend extra classes by using somebody else's identity card to get in. Classes go on from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. six days a week.

Many of the students quickly grasp the fact that proficiency in reading, writing, counting, and understanding English offers them the best chance for resettlement in the United States.

Officials of UNESCO, which drew up the Kampuchean education program, say pupils' progress has quickened with improvements in their nutrition and medical care.

More than 8,000 teachers have been involved in the program. Most began with no experience and were trained on the job by Thai, Kampuchean, and UNESCO specialists.

Today, some of these new teachers are collaborating in writing new textbooks for use not only in the camps but also in Khmer schools in the US.

Pupils of all ages receive instruction in Khmer culture, especially traditional dancing, music, theatre, Buddhist, and family rituals, all of which were eroded by war and banned by the communist Khmer Rouge regime. There also are classes in sculpture, painting, weaving, woodcarving, sewing, nursing, and traditional medicine.

Education for the displaced Khmers is being boosted by the new anti-Vietnamese coalition government, whose secret headquarters is located somewhere in the border encampments.

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