Ms. Sok Eng
Coordinator, Jesuit Service-Cambodia, Banteay Meanchey
When as a school girl I was enthralled with little worldly, momentary happinesses, my father always taught me to dream big at night and wake up to live that dream the next day.He encouraged me to care for the poor, educated me in the values and virtues of life, edified me with the way he himself lived what he preached. I have been emulating him as best I can. In 1975, when life seemed good and the fragrance of happiness and freedom permeated the air everywhere, the devilish Pol Pot Khmer Rouge struck and completely destroyed my nation. I was shifted to Tropeang Thmor in Phnom Srok, Banteay Meanchey where I labored at building a dam. We were treated as less than animals; we were deprived of our rights to anything and were stripped of our freedom to everything. Justice, love, compassion and peace seemed dead and had no place. My parents, 3 sisters and 2 brothers died of starvation during this time. I survived the hardships and cruelties of this human calamity of the century.
My younger sister always dreamt of ghosts in the deep forests where we lived. She was afraid and weak. Who could dream on those deadly and frightful nights? No one had the leisure to dream. But I dared to dream. I dared to dream of freedom. I dared to hope for a nation that values the happiness of its citizens. I dared to dream of an education that communicates love, peace, equality and justice. I believe that it was God who was walking and working along with me. When the hustle and bustle of the Khmer Rouge was over, I then moved to the Site II Refugee Camp in Thailand where I started to live the dream. Fr. John Bingham S.J. taught me English and radiated the simple joys of life. He taught me to sacrifice self-interested goals for a better other-oriented life. I then knew that education is the only key to the integral development of any nation. I committed myself to teaching youngsters.
After repatriation in 1993 I joined the Jesuit Service and lent a hand in rebuilding my Cambodia through variousprojects of development, wheelchairs, education, and health. I have been continually learning and teaching. I see my country as a peaceful nation. But I fear there are still some subtle elements of the ghastly deprivation of rights to education, accommodation, food and so on. More than half of my country’s population is young and energetic. But I fear that they are misguided and are being led astray towards a fruitless future. Many villages still don’t have proper schools and if there are schools, the teachers are underpaid or the schools are in disrepair.
The Cambodian Daily newspaper of 13 March, 2014, said “Functionally literate people make up roughly 37 percent of Cambodia’s adult population, the survey found. The rest are either completely or basically illiterate.According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2000, Thailand’s literacy rate is 95 percent, Vietnam’s is 92.9 percent, and Laos’s is 46.1 percent.”
My experience is that literacy strongly affects a country’s development. As long as a country’s education is not improved, the clutches and cruelties of poverty will endure. Farmers labor tirelessly and sweat their energy out in their rice fields, but the rich reap the benefits of harvest leaving the farmers poor and sometimes dead. We run projects like ‘cow bank’ and ‘loan for farming and sugar cane production.’ I am happy that these projects enable the poor and handicapped to feel confident and live happily. “I have now 3 cows and make a decent profit every year because of your projects. You have opened for me a path to tread when I didn’t know where to head. You have supported me both financially and emotionally at times of difficulties and happiness. I am grateful for what you have been to me,” said Mr Roth Samin, a farmer in Tuol Prasat village, when asked about his opinion of Jesuit Service.
Education is the key to integral development of the nation and its people. As a teacher, I taught my students ‘to sense and taste’ in order to deepen their knowledge. The Jesuit service, Banteay Meanchey, has been advocating, encouraging and promoting good education through our educational projects. So far we have built 12 schools in villages that have less access to educational needs. We have opened 13 mobile libraries, conducted literacy classes both for the old and the young in far-flung rural areas, and provided scholarships by way of either money or rice or schooling materials to more than a hundred students a year whose parents are either landmine victims or poor. Our schools are run by the villagers. The teachers are paid by the government. Unless the teachers are committed to their work, the students are not going to learn anything.
As the old adage goes, “Teach someone how to fish rather than feeding him with fish.” I learnt this the hard way. We have been trying our best to improve the education in the villages. When we distribute scholarships, we have a set of tests to check students’ progress. We encourage the students from rote learning to experience based learning. We plant trees around the school campus to teach students to care for the environment. Each of them joins a group to take care of a plant. We evaluate the process periodically and give such incentives as stationery to encourage them. We broadcast over the radio issues like ‘women’s day,’ ‘children’s day,’ ‘environment day,’ ‘mine awareness day,’ ‘disabled rights day’ and ‘human rights day’ in order to raise awareness in the people. We encourage reading among students as well the elders of the village by our mobile libraries. Once a year we conduct a story-telling competition. The students choose a story from a book they have read from the mobile library. They not only memorize the story but also beautifully imbibe its morals. All these projects have been running a long time and have yielded the desired results.
Our children have the capacity to do well. But there are not enough means to achieve this capacity either because of the lack of facilities or because of the government’s negligence to give priority to education. And so I act through Jesuit Service to bring about a better change for my country through little ways. I am impressed by the way Jesuits deal with education all over the world. Now that they are beginning to make an educational venture in Cambodia, I believe a lot of those poor kids who cannot afford good education will get education through the upcoming ‘Xavier Jesuit School.’ Our benefactors from Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Korea have always stood with us and reminded us that we need not worry when the going gets tough. Especially ‘Camboren’ has been supporting us for the last 11 years through their generosity and kindness.
I like the mission statement of the Singapore Department of Education which spells out a type of education we would like to have here in Cambodia. It says, “The mission of the Education service is to mold the future of the nation. The service will provide our children with a balanced education, develop them to their full potential, and nurture them into good citizens, conscious of their responsibilities to family, society and country” (“Ministry of Education” 2010 paragraph 2).
I highly evaluate the educational projects of Jesuit Service, Banteay Meanchey, with its mission statement that reads, “to accompany and work with disadvantaged communities in upholding the rights, the welfare and the dignity of the poor by implementing programs that alleviate poverty, improve education and establish just relation in Cambodian Society.” I always feel boundless satisfaction and happiness. I feel very certain that the Jesuit Service is at the frontier in promoting holistic growth in Cambodia.
1. We built schools in such villages where there was no access to education. We motivated and followed up the village leaders, teachers and the students of the schools regularly in order to improve the quality of education.
2. We opened mobile libraries to enhance the students’ knowledge as well as to build up their character as socially responsible persons.
3. We plant trees on the school campus to raise awareness in young minds of caring for the environment.
4. We provide scholarships to students who can’t afford to go to school because of social or family conditions.
5. We advocate through air/radio important social issues in order to raise awareness of the rights of each and to feel with victims of social injustices.
6. We provide assistance in the hospitals for students or their parents when they are sick. In my experience many of our beneficiaries value our being with them at times of struggle more than supporting them financially.
With the opening of ‘Xavier Jesuit School’ in Sisophon there will be a rich harvest of citizens who will be socially responsible in creating a society in which the highest four-fold ideals of Meta (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), mudita ( altruistic or sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity) will bring forth peace, justice, equality and the fullness of life for all creatures. Holistic growth is important as it promotes morally upright persons. A country cannot have people who are knowledgeable but without moral values. Moral values should be inculcated within each and every individual from their youth so that these values will accompany us wherever we go. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that emphasis should not be placed merely on academic subjects but also on holistic education.