Noun Phymean’s epic journey from orphan to refugee to financial and career success was followed by a sudden decision to give it all up to help those who need it most: children.
After decades of struggle, Noun Phymean’s life was quite comfortable by 2002; she’d worked for international NGOs, owned her own house and car, and had a savings account. But comfort can be deceptive, and one afternoon hers crumbled.
It happened at lunchtime, while she and colleagues were having a picnic lunch on the grass along the riverside, she explained last weekend in an interview during the 10th anniversary celebration of the NGO she began to assist children who survived off dumps. It was a workday in mid-April, she recalled, when about 10 ragged children approached her group and asked for money or some of the food they were eating: chicken and rice. Her response was to ask them to wait: to return after she and her colleagues had finished their lunch. She said she would give them money then. The children dispersed.
“After lunch we threw the scraps of our food, rice and some chicken into trash bin,” Phymean recalls. “The children appeared from out of nowhere. It was so fast, like they had been hiding and waiting. They darted to the trash bins and grabbed the scraps.”
“I felt such empathy for them,” she continues. “What they did would have been normal if they were animals, but they were human beings: children. They should not have been eating from trash bins.”
What she did next changed her life, and eventually thousands more. She bought the children food, but instead of leaving she started talking to them, trying to find out why they were there, asking them – for example – about their family lives. They had parents, but their parents could not afford money to feed them so they urged them to walk along streets to ask strangers for money or food. They slept in doorways or alleys or under trees – wherever they ended up. Her questions led her to understand rather than recoil from the children.
When Phymean asked the children what they wanted her empathy expanded, sparking a personal connection, when they told her they wanted to go to school. “They reminded me of myself in the 1980s. I had no parents and life was hard, but I struggled for an education. My mother had always told me that education equalled opportunity and that without it I could end up as a servant in a restaurant,” she explains.
One week later she sold her house and land for US$30,000 and started an NGO, People Improvement Organisation, to help children who survived by gathering recyclables at dumpsites. Then, she went to see what was happening at the largest one in the country: Steung Meanchey, on the outskirts of the city.
“The stench was overwhelming. I saw a truck crash over a child rummaging through the garbage. The children hadn’t bathed in weeks. What I saw was hell in this world,” she recalls.
A lifetime of survival
Phymean was a child of the Khmer Rouge, born just four years before they took control of the country in 1975. From their hometown of Kampong Cham, her family had fled to a village about 50 kilometres from Phnom Penh, in Kandal province. After the Khmer Rouge were driven to the Thai border, they returned home where her father, who could speak Vietnamese, found work with the new Vietnamese-controlled administration of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Despite the overthrow of Pol Pot, civil conflict continued and men were forcibly conscripted by the government to fight the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, which had regrouped along the Thai border and continued to represent Cambodia at the United Nations. Phymean’s older sister was afraid her husband would be conscripted so they fled to Siem Reap, her husband’s hometown, leaving their infant daughter with Phymean and their mother.
“It was not yet safe along the road from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap, so my mother and I asked to keep their baby, but my mother got sick and then died in 1987. I was only 16 at the time and I was caring for a child,” Phymean recalls.
During the day she was a government clerk, earning $5 a month, and at night she copied books by hand. “We did not have photocopy machines. If someone wanted a second copy of a book they would write it out by hand. It took me four or five days to copy a book.”
Although she was making ends meet, Phymean wanted more, specifically to learn French and English – the teaching of which was banned at the time. “I learn French and English in secret. Teaching those languages was banned so classes had to be held in secret,” she recalls.
After finishing high school in 1989, Noun Phymean began looking for her sister, and with the assistance of the International Red Cross found that she was in Kao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand. She began writing letters to her and a year later decided to join her. “I also wanted my niece to meet her parents,” she explains.
One day after arriving in the refugee camp she got a job as an accountant for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
At first, the refuge seemed like paradise. It offered everything that was banned in Cambodia, including the opportunity to learn English and French, and to become aware of human rights. The conflict she escaped, however, followed her. One month after arriving in the camp gangs of robbers began descending on it to steal from refugees bound for third countries. Gun shot sounds were common, Phymean recalls. “The gangs of thieves usually arrived about midnight and we would race to the UNHCR office to sleep. In Cambodia, life was hard, but in Kao I Dang it was frightening.”
After the Paris Peace Accords in 1992, Phymean returned to Cambodia to work for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC: first on the elections and then in the finance department. She also worked for the International Labour Organisation, the Dutch NGO Sawa and the European Union, before setting up her PIO.
About 50 children arrived for the first language and maths class in 2002, but Noun Phymean ran into resistance from their parents because they needed their children to work. Moreover, the children were often hungry, in some cases too hungry to study. Others fell asleep because they had been up late the night before sorting through garbage.
The school’s teachers had their own challenges. “Some had to leave the class every five minutes to get a breath of fresh air because of the stench from the children. Some of the kids here had never taken a bath more than once a week,” Phymean recalls. She focused on finding food for the students so they would be able to concentrate on their studies. For two years she wrote proposals and sent them to donor agencies asking for funds. None arrived so she also sold what was left of her property to pay her teachers.
In 2004, she received $10,000 from Just World International: enough to feed the children for one year. Then, the number rose to 300. The next year she was able to give students one meal a day (orphans received three). Later, she received a scholarship to study English in Canada, where she began handing out flyers about PIO to other international students and her teachers, one of who wrote to CNN nominating Phymean to be a CNN hero.
“I had no idea my teacher wrote to CNN to nominate me. When I returned to Cambodia, I saw an email from CNN. I could not believe it, so I asked somebody to read the email with me,” she recalls.
After being interviewed by CNN in August 2008, she was told she made the top 10 hero list and would receive $25,000.
She admits this made her happy, saying one thing common to the rich and the poor is the pleasure of winning a prize, no matter what its size.
The money was used to build a separate school so that the children did not have to sleep, study and eat in one building. Two more children's centres were also established in slum communities: at Borei Keila and Borei Santepheap II. In total, about 1,000 children, including 60 orphans, now receive education from PIO.
Phymean believes that child-like dreams fuel ambition, and that even the most personal ones do come true. She recalls seeing planes as a young girl and wishing she could fly away on one. She’s flown across oceans. She recalls watching a movie in Canada and wishing she could meet one of the actresses: Hollywood star Lucy Liu. When she received her CNN hero award Lucy Liu presented it.
When she talked to the children rummaging for scraps of food in a bin along the river, she remembered her own childhood, which was full of dreams, and reached out to theirs. Since then she’s given thousands of children a chance of realising their dreams, and reminded adults of theirs.