Sarong Vit-Kory, 31, founded the Tevoda Organisation, an NGO based in her mother’s home village, in January this year. Her life hasn’t been easy. She was born in a Thai refugee camp. Four years later, her family immigrated to the US and they lived in a crime-ridden Nashville housing project. Determined to better their prospects, Vit-Kory managed to buy her family a detached house in the suburbs by saving wages from her bar job. But her success was marred by sadness: in 2010, her sister was murdered and her father died this year. After achieving an MA in International Development she founded the Cambodian Tevoda Organisation, which supports young children in Baray Village in Takeo. Her goals are ambitious – “to revitalise Cambodia’s intellectual, spiritual and cultural life”. Nathan Thompson reports.
How did the Khmer Rouge and the following war impact your family?
My parents never had a wedding ceremony. They were paired-up by Pol Pot’s leaders. After the war, they fled to Thailand. Travelling on foot, they ate leaves and insects to survive. At night they saw bombs exploding for miles all around. When they came to a rapid-flowing river, my father carried my mother across because she could not swim. In the refugee camp, my mother bore three girls. I am the second.
What were the biggest challenges for your family when they immigrated to America?
We started from scratch. None of us could speak English. At the end of every week my father would take our mail to a Cambodian friend to translate. My mother was heavily affected by the war. She has post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. My father had to work hard to support six kids – the stress led him to become an alcoholic. When he couldn’t afford food for us, he stole from the markets.
What was it like growing up in a Nashville ghetto?
I was raised in public housing in a dangerous neighbourhood. But some of my favourite memories are from that time: running to the Popsicle truck in the summer afternoons and buying snacks from the corner store when we had spare change. I saw my parents’ struggles and made a commitment to make education my focus. I was in the top five of my graduating high school class. At university I changed my major five times because I found interest in too many subjects – it was the first time in my life I was not deprived.
How did you fund your education and buy your family home?
I had a scholarship and grants to pay for university. But while I was studying two of my sisters were mugged at gunpoint. It was the scariest night. At the end of that academic year I left school and made it my mission to relocate my family to a safer neighbourhood. I worked in a cocktail bar inside Nashville International Airport for three years. I saved enough money to buy my family a beautiful house - the home we thought we’d never have.
What inspired you to found the Tevoda Organisation?
After college I lived in Cambodia for a year. I became fluent in my native language and learned about my ancestors’ culture. I lived in my mother’s village and I saw there was a complete absence of opportunities for the children there. So I returned to the States to study International Development. I completed my master’s degree and founded the Cambodian Tevoda Organisation to give children an opportunity for a happier future. I named it Tevoda because that is the name of the guardian angel of Cambodia. The word “Tevoda” is also for my sister who was murdered not long before the organisation was conceived. It is one of my dedications to her soul.
What reception did you get when you returned to your mother’s village for the first time?
The villagers loved me. They adored the girl who embodied their long lost sister. The women insisted on bathing me beneath the shade of infant coconut and banana trees. My greatest memory is of a full moon night. The village had no electricity and really lit up whenever there was a full moon. The women sat with me and shared memories of my mother – their sister and cousin. They told me about her when she was a 24-year-old girl before war separated them.
What has the first few months been like for the Tevoda Organisation?
It’s been rocky. I had to decide if Tevoda should be managed from the US or Cambodia. I love living in Cambodia, but I realised that the wiser decision is to direct Tevoda from the US. One of my goals for Tevoda is to help second generation Cambodian-Americans to visit Cambodia and learn about the issues that confront the country today. Tevoda aspires to be a movement by which Cambodian-Americans can have compassion for the Khmer people – to help the Kingdom become a prosperous land.
*Full disclosure: Nathan Thompson works for Tevoda Organisation.