Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bernie & Nicholas combine

Almost on a daily basis I read of someone building and opening a new school in Cambodia with the aid of American Assistance for Cambodia, the brainchild of Bernie Krisher, who has built over 400 schools over here. The latest is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his family and you can read all about it in his column for the newspaper. Anything that goes to improving education in this country is fine by me, as long as its a co-ordinated approach that takes account of the local situation and needs of the community.

We start a school in Cambodia - by Nicholas Kristof

There was a special reason for the timing of this trip to Cambodia, one you won’t read about in my columns: My family has built a junior high school in Cambodia, and we just had the opening ceremony. We timed it for the Christmas vacation, so our three kids — aged 11 through 16 — could see it. Oh, yes, and so that they could see kids who are desperately eager to get an education. I’ve been visiting Cambodia for the last dozen years and have been particularly moved by the horrific sex trafficking here. One of the antidotes to prevent trafficking is education, and Cambodia is desperately short of schools. A couple of years ago I wrote about a school in Seattle that had funded a school in Cambodia through American Assistance for Cambodia. I was impressed with the organization and the way it gets extra bang for the buck through matching funds from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Moreover, in some countries, you build a school and have a nice new building, but the teachers never show up. That’s much less of a problem in Cambodia, where one of the bottlenecks truly is school buildings. So my wife, Sheryl, and I talked it over and decided to start our own school. We had just received an advance for a book about women in the developing world — “Half the Sky,” coming out this fall! — and it seemed only appropriate to use the money to support girls in a poor country. And we also wanted to show our kids a glimpse of need abroad and the way education can transform people’s lives.

Our school is a middle school a couple of hours east of Phnom Penh, and it was finally finished this month. So Sheryl and I and the kids came here as a family trip, all five of us, and participated in the school-opening ceremony. It was quite an event: Buddhist monks opened it, the deputy governor spoke, and each member of our family spoke briefly. There were about 1,000 people attending, mostly students and their parents, and they got a real kick out of seeing my kids speak. American Assistance for Cambodia is the brainchild of Bernie Krisher, a former news magazine correspondent who in 1993 started it as an aid group to support Cambodia. He has built 400 schools around the country, as well as health programs and projects to fight sex trafficking. He also publishes the Cambodia Daily, an English-language paper, and even persuaded J.K. Rowling to donate Khmer-language rights to “Harry Potter,” so that cheap Harry Potter books could encourage Cambodian children to start reading. Bernie is truly an extraordinary figure who is having a far-reaching impact on the people of Cambodia, and I’m just proud to know him.

If anyone out there wants to volunteer to teach English in the Cambodian countryside, the principal of our school said he would welcome an American teacher. He said the village would put the teacher up either at the Buddhist pagoda or in a local person’s home. If you’re interested, contact American Assistance for Cambodia to be put in touch with the principal. Of course, there are lots of other ways to help Cambodia. I met a woman volunteering at teaching English to children at the garbage dump in Phnom Penh; she loves it and finds new meaning in the project. The organization is A New Day Cambodia, run by a Chicago couple and getting rave reviews all around. (There are fewer children at the dump now than when I last visited in 2004, and one reason is the New Day school.) And I had lunch with Alan Lightman, an MIT professor who on the side runs Harpswell Foundation (and who I've featured a few times on this blog), which provides a free dormitory and leadership training for young Cambodian women who otherwise would not be able to attend university. In my speech to the new school, I told the kids that I sometimes wondered why America was so rich and Cambodia was so poor. It’s not because Americans are smarter or more industrious than Cambodians, because Cambodians are sharp as a whistle and incredibly hard-working. One of the factors, I believe, is the educational gap, and we’re just so pleased to do our part to reduce that gap.



Blogger O.B. Wright said...

Howdy Andy;
I trust that your health is better.

I had to take issue on this post as the author seems to be dealing in gratuitous aid from his enduring family instead of the simple act of helping. I have taught, and still do, through simple communication with the people around me, the English tongue.

Andy, as you know, schools can be built as high as academic mountains, but the trust of those attending must be won. Learning a different language successfully depends upon cultural inflections. I have admiration for your friend and his efforts, but I sincerely feel that his students are laughing at his want.

With all the money and grandeur's scheme to make something new, one forgets the basic society within which they live. Cambodians want to be Cambodians. They do not wish to be Europeans, and most not likely, Americans. They want to learn English so that they may speak to the Western world of what cannot be told in their native tongue. This article, sorry, rings of French Missionaries.

By your side, Andy,
OB Wright

January 1, 2009 at 3:50 PM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Hi OB,
thanks for asking, my health is considerably better at this time. I may even begin playing football again soon. We shall see, but fingers crossed, I hope I'm on the road to a full recovery.

As for the story, it left a slightly sour taste in my mouth too. I'm still not sure why, it just did. Hence my comment that building schools should be because they are what's most needed, not for example, to massage the ego of any benefactor. I sincerely hope his actions were more of the former than the latter.

This particular benefactor uses Cambodia as the backdrop for his sensational stories on trafficking as he goes under the skin of the sex trade here. I applaud, though am torn, by each of these stories from Kristof and others, as they are happening in a country I love. It is only through highlighting these horrific stories will it keep the subject on the agenda of the authorities here, though I sense there's still not enough desire to right this very bad wrong. Maybe too many people have a vested interest in not disturbing the status quo, maybe their sights are set on more profitable agenda items, maybe there's not enough hours in the day. I don't know enough about it to judge, all I know is that as long as we talk about it, it's not being pushed under the carpet. Someone somewhere is listening and I hope working their butt off to remedy it. I'm not opposed to the oldest profession in the world per se but I am opposed to child trafficking and urge the authorities to do everything they possibly can to wipe it out. I think they could do a lot more than is being done today.

January 2, 2009 at 12:08 AM  

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