Education is the sweetest revenge
Meet Ponheary Ly, one of the most remarkable women I have had the honor to get to know on my visits to Cambodia. Ponheary can best be described as teacher, tour guide, human being and tireless fighter extraordinaire all in one. A survivor of the Pol Pot terror regime who lost many family members and experienced the suffering of those indescribable terror years first-hand, Ponheary has made it her life’s work to rebuild Cambodia thru education.
“After surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, she returned to Siem Reap with what was left of her family. During the time of the Vietnamese installed regime, Ponheary became a teacher and in secret learned how to speak French and English, a crime punishable by imprisonment. In 1998 when Cambodia held its own elections and the country once again opened up to Westerners, Ponheary became a much sought-after tour guide. But she never forgot her students, especially the disenfranchised village children who had no opportunity to go to school. She began leveraging her relationship with those who toured with her and accepted donations to get these rural village children into school.”
In 2005, one of Ponheary’s clients, the Texan Lori Carlson, was so moved
and inspired by Ponheary’s vision and dedication that she, together with Ponheary, established the The Ponheary Ly Foundation. Lori is also a most remarkable woman although she would be the first to vehemently deny it. In three short years she evolved from tourist, to committed samaritan and co-founder of this wonderful foundation to resident of Siem Reap to run the organization full-time from Cambodia.
The Ponheary Ly Foundation, through mostly modest and small donations, is at this very moment keeping well over 2,000 destitute children in school. I was fortunate enough to attend the opening day of a local school where 600 children supported by the foundation received the school supplies, uniforms and in some cases bicycles that are necessary to allow these kids to attend school.
The day before we went to the Wat Bo school in Siem Reap I had the chance to chat with Ponheary and somehow the war crimes trial of former Khmer Rouge leader and ‘chief torturer’ Comrade Duch came up in the conversation. I was extremely curious to know her feelings on the subject but dared not raise it myself. When Ponheary mentioned the trial it was to calculate for me how many children could be educated with the tens of millions that are being spent to bring this one man to justice. I asked if she was not interested in justice or perhaps even revenge for what this man did to her family, people and country.
She did not answer immediately but seemed to collect her thoughts and calm her emotions. Her answer said volumes about what kind of person she is and where her priorities lie. Yes, she wants ‘revenge’ but not the kind of revenge most people think of. She wants to teach every Cambodian child to read so they can learn the history of that horrible period. She wants all the Cambodian children to learn what happened so they can ask their parents, uncles, aunties and grandparents what they did during those dark years. And most of all, she wants to accomplish what the Khmer Rouge failed to do but then exactly the other way around.
Where Pol Pot implemented his warped scheme to make all Cambodians equal to the peasants by killing all the intelligentsia and educated citizens, Ponheary is realizing her inspired vision to get and keep every peasant in school in order to create a new nation of equally well-educated Cambodians. That will be her ‘revenge’ and that is her not so secret recipe for a new Cambodia.
Watching Ponheary Ly’s vision being turned into reality the next morning at the Wat Bo school, was one of the most inspiring days I have ever had the pleasure to experience.
If you plan to visit Siem Reap I urge you to make some time to do some ‘giving back.’ The Ponheary Ly Foundation would be a wonderful vehicle for that. On my website you can also see some other suggestions for making a difference. With a few hours of your time, you can change someone’s world and experience the incredible power of witnessing your giving.
Check out the full photo album of my morning at Wat Bo school:
|Education is the sweetest revenge|