Ponheary Ly Foundation and Koh Ker – Part 1

Whenever I come visit Cambodia, some of my friends back home collect a bit of money to support one of the projects here that is near and dear to my heart. This year I used the money to help a small, independent and fantastic charity I have known here since 2007 called the Ponheary Ly Foundation. For some more info about them you can check out the bit I wrote last year when visiting: “Education is the Sweetest Revenge.”

We earmarked the money to provide a hot lunch to the nearly 200 primary school students of the very rural and very poor Koh Ker community. This is a school that is pretty much run by the Ponheary Ly Foundation since 2006. Koh Ker is the site of the ruins of one of the capital cities of the ancient Angkor empire. Due to its 100 km distance from Siem Reap, the tourist town serving the main temples of Angkor Wat, it gets almost no tourists and enjoys no development.

Koh Ker village was established in 1979 after the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power. This part of northern Cambodia was one of the Khmer Rouge’s last holdouts. When established, the village became home to transient war victims: returning refugees who had fled to the northern border with Thailand, those who had survived wandering in the area’s jungles for several years or people who were lucky enough to outlive their torturous Khmer Rouge servitude.

Even up to the mid to late 90’s, these people continued to suffer while two simultaneous wars waged around them: one between the post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian government and the Vietnamese army who remained after driving the Khmer Rouge from power and the last remnants of internal civil war between Cambodia and the dying Khmer Rouge movement. And once in a while, until not so long ago I was told, people would sometimes still appear from the jungles asking if the wars were over.

The net effect of Cambodia’s tortured modern history was the total destruction of the nation’s social fabric and economic infrastructure. The Khmer Rouge also saw to the extermination of the administrative and educated classes along with the essential social and governmental institutions that such people run in any country.

Koh Ker is a village of people who are all deeply suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Living through three decades of three brutal wars and the only case in modern history of wide-spread auto-genocide left many of Koh Ker’s residents with severe psychological and emotional problems as well as widespread alcohol and drug addiction.

Ponheary Ly made education in Koh Ker her personal crusade even before the formal founding of the foundation that bears her name. The Foundation began supporting this school in 2006. When they began there were, on a good day, 40 to 50 students out of a possible 200. Most parents could not afford the minimal annual contribution of $40 – $50 needed to keep a child enrolled in a government school. And even if money were not the problem, most parents could not see any reason why their kids should even be educated, certainly not beyond the 3rd grade which didn’t even exist back then at the school. And if that weren’t enough, the kids were desperately needed as working family members – in the rice fields, foraging for fire wood or edibles in the forests or watching after the babies.

When the Foundation decided to make a change in Koh Ker, they found that 65% of the kids in the village were seriously ill with all kinds of terrible and often life-threatening conditions mostly due to malnutrition, filthy contaminated water, neglect and abuse.

Today, barely four years later, the school has 200 students in grades 1- 6; the first graduates – nine girls – have moved on to secondary school (grades 7 – 9); the kids are voracious and eager learners who gladly give up summer vacation to attend school year-round; they finally have those incredibly endearing smiles that children are supposed to have; they have access to clean water and breakfast in the morning; there is a doctor on staff to provide the medical care possible within the limits of budget and accessibility to equipment and medicine; sometimes dangerously ill children even now get life-saving care in district or regional hospitals; there are dedicated and caring teachers.

And sometimes, someone or some group of people, people like my friends back home, make it possible for the kids to get an extra meal – a hot, nourishing, tasty and abundant meal that is consumed with an eagerness and joy we would reserve for the mythical elixer of life itself. Which for them it basically is.

All this thanks to the inspired, tireless and dedicated work of the Ponheary Ly Foundation, its staff and supporters. Amazing respect is due to the kids themselves. Their desire and struggle to learn in living conditions that for us in the West can only be described, literally described, as unimaginable is a true inspiration. Spending a day with these kids was a privilege. Serving them was an honor. Being touched by their indomitable spirits was a humbling experience. I will never ever forget this day.

I want to thank my friends on behalf of all the people at the Foundation but mostly on behalf of 200 beautiful, wonderful and deserving kids. I also want to thank them for enabling me to be their emissary on this mission of service, to be their eyes and ears and to be their helping hands.

This is part 1. In a few days I will finish with some more stories, pictures and videos of how the rest of the day went.

(Thinking of visiting the temples of Angkor Wat? Don’t forget to check out my friend Savuth’s tuk tuk services and all the handy information available on our website Angkortuktuk).

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~ by Leonard on November 8, 2010.

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