FOR 16 years leather carving artist Nhek Sirey Rattana has been committed to helping orphaned children motivated by his childhood growing up in poor conditions with only his grandmother.
But now, the founder of Khmer Art Leather Carving – Little Angels, sees his charitable work under threat, as he struggles to cover his monthly expenses of $3,000.
Sirey Rattana, 43, used to be a scrap scavenger. Both his parents died when he was just nine years old, at which point he went to live with his elderly grandmother.
At 15 years old, he began learning traditional Khmer art carving skills from elderly people in his hometown in Banteay Srei district’s Run Ta Ek commune.
“I was orphaned when I was nine years old. I became a scrap scavenger to get money to feed myself while living with my elderly grandmother. But when I turned 15, a group of old artists began to teach me Khmer art leather carving. They had been taught by older people too, it’s a skill passed down through generations,” Sirey Rattana recalls.
After mastering the skills, in 2002 he opened a leather carving workshop in Bakong commune’s Ovlaok village, Prasat Bakong district, in order to begin selling his produce to earn a living. It is there that he began helping local orphans.
“First I accepted four orphaned children in Ovlaok village – for about three to four months they would come to watch me carving leather. I wondered why they did not go to school like other children. They told me it was because they were orphaned and living with their grandparents in a pagoda.”
Sirey Rattana, known as ‘Uncle Nhanh’ in his hometown, began to feed the orphans. But in order for the children to provide for themselves he decided to teach them how to produce their own goods, free of charge. He now pays them for whatever goods they produce. His only condition was that they must also attend school.
“I was determined to do good for them – the families of these poor children were facing hardship and were unable to provide for them."
“But I also placed strict conditions on them in advance, telling them if you come here, you must go to school. I paid them according to the amount of work they had done.”
As of this year, the Khmer Art Leather Carving workshop has helped more than 100 orphans and poor children, with hundreds more reliant upon him and living in his centre.
“More than 100 children who used to live here previously went out to make a living on their own and now I feed 78 children [28 are girls]. They are from Kampong Thom, Kratie and other areas in Siem Reap. There are up to 20 stalls of my students among all the leather carving places in Siem Reap.”
With the high number of children, and with virtually no outside support, the centre that depends solely on the income from selling the leather goods produced at the workshop. Sirey Rattana is concerned he will be unable to continue his charitable work if he does not find a way to generate more income.
“Just food alone, I spend $3,000 per month on rice, vegetables and meat, while I get clothing from humanitarian donors."
“The income from selling leather goods made in the workshop covers these expenses only some months, while in other months it’s not enough to sustain us.”
Although his family has asked him many times to focus on supporting himself and his business, he says he will continue to help his students at all costs.
“I will continue with this project – I won’t abandon them. If some months we don’t have enough income, we have to reduce the amount of food.”
Khmer Art Leather Carving sells a range of souvenirs made from cow leather, ranging from small goods at $1, up to larger pieces at $500.