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Poetry reveals new horizons for the mind to explore.


We Feel the Same

I walk into the garden

I see struggling plants,

They are trying to go beyond the obstacle

to survive, to live their own lives.

It is easier for them to die than to live.


We are like the plants

We struggle to go beyond the obstacle

It is easier for us to die than to live

so, we need help from each other.


They give us food

We give them water, fertilizer

to feel balanced. 

Srey Len

Age 18, Cambodia, Student at Writing Through

Writing Through is a program that uses creative writing as a tool to help develop thinking skills, language fluency, and self-esteem.

There is much already written about the US-based non-profit Writing Through founded by author and teacher, Sue Guiney in 2015. Her organization’s mission is helping the most at-risk children and adults around the world to find their own voices.  The workshops and training are presently done in Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam and are orchestrated by a small staff, partnerships with other organizations, and many volunteer facilitators.

Sue Guiney clarifies the program succinctly in the video The How and Why of Writing Through.

Since I have been living in Cambodia I have watched some of Writing Through’s students present their works publicly, met Sue Guiney, read her novels, and conversed long hours with previous volunteer facilitators. Writing Through’s work and the many hours and expenses of volunteer time is commendable. Yet, it is the young people’s poetry that I feel compelled to share – for this is the testament to all involved.

My reasons reverberate from my own childhood experiences. Since my parents ran the Lewis Carroll Shelf Awards, my home was sheathed by great American writers. It was from these writers that I learned to hear music in words and understand that both personal and cultural transformation begins with the words of poetry. 

Poetry builds fresh connections between the old and the new, and between the familiar and the unconventional. It is a sublime voice of the personality of the human being who makes the poem, and of those who read it with appreciation. Like all art, it is a form of experience.  Seldom are these experiences generated in schools or homes across the world’s landscapes. In Cambodia, these experiences rarely exist.

This is the gift Writing Through offers its students: the gift of experiencing themselves and finding words to spark the promise of self-realization. There is nothing hokey about the process of discovering awareness, self-reliance, healing, self-worth, love, acceptance, empowerment, or respect. And there is nothing hokey about the straightforward words young Khmer people find in a foreign language to mark their tribulations and yearnings.  Instead, they are gifts.

This selection is from Writing Through, An Anthology of Poems from the Magic Pencils, Edited by Sue Guiney. Published in 2019, it is the first such publication by the organization. Sue Guiney generously gave me permission to use the these selections and photos.


Before savoring these students’ pieces, it is wise to recall the reality of education in Cambodia. Unicef’s report outlines why the nation’s children fall behind in school:

While progress is tangible, children in Cambodia are still failing to reach learning standards appropriate for their age. At the primary level, nearly 25 per cent of children in Grade 3 cannot write a single word in a dictation test. Only 27 per cent of 3- to 5-year-olds are developmentally on track in literacy and numeracy, and by the time they are 17 years old, 55 per cent of adolescents will have dropped out of school. 

Cambodian children continue to fall behind in school for a number of reasons, including not being adequately prepared for school, experiencing poor quality teaching and learning, and attending school irregularly. This eventually leads to many of them dropping out altogether. 

Inadequate learning in the early years of life, coupled with insufficient nutrition, leaves children developmentally behind. There are not enough qualified teachers, and the quality of learning environments is poor. There is a lack of basic infrastructure, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, which particularly impacts adolescent girls and children with disabilities. Violence is a problem in schools, with teachers using corporal punishment. Children with disabilities still experience discrimination. Many parents cannot understand the value of education and most cannot afford to send their children to school, particularly in rural and deprived areas.



People stay out of place

where the fence goes.

They want to go into the fence

to have a safe place for them to stay.


They flee from their country

that has war.

They’ve come so far from their place

to save their lives

to have a good life

to have a smile again.

Vecheka, Age 14, Cambodia

The Test of Life

Life is a test, a test that the god gives us.

We must pass, pass that test.

We need to break, break the obstacles

to graduate, graduate to our goal.


There is a river, a river of hell

under the bridge, the bridge of life.

We must be brave, brave for our life.

If you don’t trust yourself, yourself will kill you.

We all need help, help from all of you.


We are one, one on one way.

We are happy, happy to pass the fire of life.

We are with you, with you for your future.

A bright heaven, heaven you want

in front of you.  You must go.

We stay with you until we’re gone. 

Sokuam, Age 16, Cambodia

Future Dream

      Future, Future is too far

      No matter where you are

Looking up high to count the stars

      1 star, 2 stars, 3 stars…

Let me count how many you are.


Future, Future you make me laugh.

   Future, Future you make me cry

      During the day, even at night

I ride my bike forward to the Future.


Future, Future, you make me dream

Make me imagine what should I do?

  Tears rolling down from my face

         Showing that I’m scared.


Srey, Age 16, Cambodia

Bad Shadow

A girl in a dark room.

The reflection of the moon on her.

She only opens her eyes with tears streaming down

and looks at her shadow.

What does she feel?

What is she thinking about?


She said only her shadow is always with her.

Her phone is ringing many times.

At last, there is a knocking on her door.

That was her mother coming into her room.

She is trying not to look at her mother’s face.

Her mother is trying to hold her hand

and pick her up,

Her mother told her to look at her shdow,

at the dark place,

but she can’t find it.


Her mother said, ‘your shadow has already gone to a dark place.’

The girl knows the shadow is like her friend

who went away.

But her mother is a bridge to happiness.

Sokim, Age 16, Cambodia


Refugee people escape from the war.

People try to run away to find safe place.

Some people die in the war,

Some people get hurt –

body, brain

because some of them lost their family.


They have nothing to eat.

Some children are very thin.

They have only a big head and only bones.

Their eyes become bigger, bigger and frightened,

I wish that they live happy again.

Sokea, Age 18, Cambodia

My First School Is My First Risk

One day I dream,

playing football

falling in love,

a little girl

it’s wonderful.


First day in school.

I am nervous


      sad to go into class.

But I am very lucky,

to see my friends

they help me go into class

I talk to the teacher and play with my friends.

I feel very happy

      not so frightened.

      I have new friends. They are kind.

This was my amazing risk.

I feel fantastic in the end.

I think this was the good risk for me.

A Group Poem, Cambodia

The End of Happiness


When I climb the mountain

I go to the top

sing a song



See a sunset

the sound of the animals

the sound of my friends

singing with me


No sun

no sound

only me.

Sopheak, Age 20, Cambodia

The Smell of Hope

The darkness spreads around

There’s no way we can’t be found

The sound of silence cries in my mind

waiting for a light

waiting for the sun to shine.


Don’t be afraid of the dark, my baby

Doing something to make us free

The sun is you, the run is me

obviously, we’ll find a way, that’s my feeling


Stand up and dry your tears

You are not alone, but you have me

Just be hopeful, feel we can do it

A prosperous life is waiting ahead

Cheang, Age 23, Cambodia

To read more poetry from Writing Through, or to obtain your own copy of their anthology of poetry, please visit their website at www. and their active Facebook page.  Sue Guiney is frequently in Siem Reap, Cambodia and Jess Blackledge is the Assistant Director and also lives in Siem Reap.

Wayne McCallum from HOWL, which brings writers, audiences, and spaces together to create one-off ‘pop-up’ word events can also be contacted for upcoming Writing Through public readings.

Deep appreciation and applause go to the many Khmer students who have worked with Writing Through and are bravely embracing the power of words to improve, understand, and celebrate life’s strifes and triumphs.  Commendations to the many facilitators who volunteer their time, effort and energies to Writing Through and Cambodia.