“Train a child in the way to live and she will not swerve from it even in old age.”
Nicholas Kristof challenged us to help build a school in Cambodia so girls will not be forced into prostitution. As he wrote in December, 2006, “Literate girls not only are in less danger of being trafficked, but later they have fewer children, care for their children better and are much better able to earn a decent living.”
Education has a very high value in Jewish life. The study of Torah and Talmud sharpens our minds, young and old alike, and opens up the possibilities of a good and meaningful life. We want to extend these possibilities for a decent future to the young people of Cambodia. They are bright, and they want to learn.
What our school is like
We have donated the money to have a school building constructed in Lvea Em in the Kandal Province. It has five rooms, so operating double shifts with fifty students in each class, some five hundred will one day be learning at the JHH school. There is a generator and ten new computer stations on line through the satellite dish on the roof. There is a well and a filter, a specially trained English/computer teacher and so much more.
Once there was a boy who could not read or write. All he knew were the names of the letters of the alphabet. He would sit outside the school room and recite them over and over again, hoping that someday they would join together to make words and paragraphs. One day, the teacher heard him and realizing how eager he was to learn, she invited him into the class.
That’s what twenty-five of us did on Thursday, February 19th, 2009. Like that teacher, we invited the first sixty-nine bright youngsters to enter their new middle school. We shared in their excitement and enthusiasm. We brought in nearly 1300 pounds of clothing, book supplies and sports equipment. We played jump rope and soccer, used yo-yo’s, made drawings and balloon sculptures and gave out school bags filled with supplies. But most of all, we embraced and were embraced by these wonderful, exuberant children.
Now they have hope for a much better future.
Arun’s Precious Orphans
Sothea Arun was four years old when the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla force that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979, entered his village and forced its residents to leave at gunpoint. In the work camp, Arun was forced to collect animal dung for fertilizer.
The Khmer Rouge enforced obedience. To disagree, to scavenge for food, to cry at the death of a loved one – these offenses could result in death. Arun survived several weeks in a Khmer Rouge prison as punishment for picking fruit from trees.
When the Khmer Rouge left, Arun began walking in search of his village. One hundred fifty miles later he arrived home, only to learn that no one from his extended family remained. Thirty-six members had died or disappeared.
Arun survived the next years by exchanging his labor for shelter and food. He made his way to the capital city of Phnom Penh, where he joined other youth living on the street. They organized students and monks to clear garbage from the city and, later, to plant trees. They studied together, learning English and business skills, and discussed how to heal their country.
Whenever Arun sees orphaned and abandoned children, he is reminded of his own past. He does not want other children to experience what he did.
Arun made a promise to himself: if I can survive, I’ll go back to my village and make sure no orphans will suffer as I did. He has kept his promise, and we are helping him to support 63 orphans. For $150 a year, their foster families receive rice money so the children aren’t sent out to sell trinkets and can attend school. The children receive three sets of uniforms so they are not stigmatized.
For an additional $50, they will have a bicycle to ride to school.
When we gave him ten suitcases filled to overflowing, he was in tears. When we interacted with the children, we were, too.
This is part of what he wrote to me (in his words):
What you have done in my village are highly remarkable and valuable things we never had before. Twenty-five years ago, when I as well as other students wanted to go to the secondary school, I had to walk and swim for over two hours every day and always dream one day we would have school near home. Now the school appears in the village. Truly, this young generation is very lucky and has to say thanks to you for big heart.
The wonderful thing is that Arun’s middle school aged orphans attend our school.
Arun and the children were sure that we were a blessing to them, but the truth is that we were the ones who were blessed.
How To Help This Program
Support one of Arun’s orphans for $150 a year or $1500 for the entire ten years of schooling. Buy one or more bicycles for them at $50 each. Ask a bike shop to help or organize a bike race to raise “bicycle money.”
Update: we will be returning to Cambodia next Fall to visit our school and Arun’s orphans. We’re speaking with Habitat Cambodia to arrange for a home-building project, too.