Bernie & Nicholas combine
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.