Dieng’s story: Fighting polio gave me a passion for education

Rem Dieng, 26, was born with polio. It affects the way she walks – and her chances of getting work. Now a volunteer on VSO’s International Citizen Service (ICS) programme, she’s using her story to inspire youth club members to continue into higher education and better job prospects. 

My placement is based in Koas Krala, Battambang, Cambodia. In this part of the country, so many young people migrate to Thailand for work because they don’t see the opportunities here.  

I teach English and career skills in two youth clubs to help them get out of unemployment and into vocational training and jobs in the local area, rather than having to migrate out of the country for work. I’m happy sharing my knowledge and enjoy seeing the youth engaged and learning. 

In many parts of the country, it’s drugs that devastate young people’s lives. But in this community there are different, often less-preventable problems that shape their future. Young people are dropping out of school because they can’t afford to carry on studying.  

At age 14, we all sit a national exam. When these youth fail, they lose their motivation to carry on. I feel bad because I worry about the youth – our future – not receiving a higher education and the effect that has on our country. To me it’s a personal issue. 

I have polio. I’ve had it from birth, and it affects the way I walk. Sometimes I think people look at me strangely and that’s because they’ve never seen anyone with it before, so I understand. Sharing personal stories is a powerful way to help people understand differences and learn that disability isn’t inability. It’s also a way of helping people realise that ability means opportunity. 

When I first arrived in this community, just over 100 miles from where I grew up in a place called Banteay Meancheay, I asked these young people whether they found me different to themselves. They told me I was the same – expect for my leg. I asked them to imagine what life is like for someone with polio like me and what they would like to do in the future.

Through education we can improve our situation. I want these young people to achieve what I’m just starting to. 

I come from a family where we have our own issues. I’m the only one in my family who attended university. I was able to continue until the third year of my degree, when we faced financial problems and I had to give it up to support my family to get out of debt. 

I am worried. Times are hard for my family. We are in debt with the bank and soon I don’t know if we will have a house to stay in. It’s something that often makes me sad, but it’s something that I hope will change as I build my skills and experience through the ICS programme. Through education we can improve our situation. I want these young people to achieve what I’m just starting to. 

So when I speak to these young people I meet on ICS, I tell them to work hard, study hard and continue into higher education – and to fight as I did, at every step of the journey, to make sure they get it.

Dieng is a youth volunteer on VSO’s International Citizen Service (ICS) programme, which has been helping local students and out-of-work Cambodian youth in the region to find employment since 2016.

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