My “Trading Places” stories usually have to do with me experiencing life in another place. Today, however, I would like to reverse that and share the Trading Places story of my friend Ponheary Ly, a Cambodian woman who is visiting the United States for the first time, and whom I got to spend time with this past weekend as she shared her story, and the work of her nonprofit foundation, here in Austin.
I have written about Ponheary’s amazing story on this blog before. As a young girl during the Khmer Rouge regime, she and her family went through such difficult times as are hard to even imagine. On the run and dependent upon anything they could find in the woods to eat, the entire family became dispersed and separated. Ponheary held her own five-month-old sister in her arms as she died; when she was reunited with her mother, she was told she was one day too late to see her father for the last time. He, along with other teachers and educators, had been shot and killed the day before.
“We buried our dead every day,” she says.
Ponheary eventually became a teacher herself, like her father, and learned not only English but also Russian and French. After a while she (along with some of her siblings) became tour guides at Angkor Wat, because it paid more money to allow them to support their families. Ponheary began using her tips to send the poor, local kids who hung around the temples to school. A few became a dozen; her clients started helping, and then American Lori Carlson got involved and helped her establish the Ponheary Ly Foundation. Today, PLF sends 2,400 children to school.
In the aftermath of its brutal genocide and war, which only really ended in 1998, Cambodia is a country that is not only struggling to rebuild, but that is very, very young. Fully half of its population are children.
Between that and the fact that much of the country is poor, its hope for the future relies very much on education. That, of course, is a very big challenge; many families have barely enough money to feed their children, much less provide uniforms and books and transportation to send them to school. The genocide targeted and effectively wiped out most of the teachers, leaving a necessary rebuilding of the educator workforce. And in rural villages such as the one that the Ponheary Ly Foundation is working in, Koh Ker, most parents had been refugees in the jungle for years, and do not understand the value of education when their children are malnourished and dying of tuberculosis, malaria and diseases caused by unclean water.
In fact, at their presentation in Austin of the work PLF is accomplishing, Lori admitted that when she and Ponheary first went into Koh Ker and saw the magnitude of the challenges they were facing, she felt overwhelmed, like it was almost hopeless. The children had a school building, but no pens or papers or books. 75% of them were severely ill and malnourished, their parents didn’t support them going to school, and they struggled just to eat every day.
“We don’t have the resources to handle this,” Lori told Ponheary. “We are going to get ourselves into a hole we can’t get out of.”
It was Ponheary’s response that made an impression on Lori:
“We are already in the hole,” Ponheary said. “And we can climb out of it anytime we want. The question is, do we take these kids with us, or not?”
School is the answer. That is the tagline of the Ponheary Ly Foundation, and the basis of everything they do. PLF doesn’t try to impose their own, or American, expectations on the students, but rather lets them be self-directed and tell the organization what it is they need.
“If you give children the space and opportunities to rise, they will do so. And often beyond our wildest expectations,” says Lori. “We just want to provide that spark for learning and education, such as Ponheary’s father instilled in her.”
These two hard-working, seemingly tireless women tackled the challenge of Koh Ker, which recently saw its first graduates head off to secondary school. If you would like to be part of the work the Ponheary Ly Foundation is doing to take children out of the hole of poverty and illiteracy in Cambodia, you can go to their website to make a donation and learn how to help.