Cambodia has known scenes of great sadness, but the spirit and optimism of the people has always meant they were able to look beyond negative moments and strive for better days. There are few examples which describe this refusal to give up as strongly as the story of Kim Ny, now a much-loved teacher.

Ny was born in Kampong Leav commune in Prey Veng, his mother’s home town. She had moved to Phnom Penh, along with Ny’s father and two older sisters, but fell ill and moved home to be near her family. After he was born, his mother sent him back to the family home in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Chhouk village.

At the age of just seven months, Ny lost the use of his legs. Shortly after, due to her illness, his mother passed away. He and his two older sisters convinced themselves that things could not get worse, when their father re-married and left them to be raised by their impoverished paternal grandfather.

Speaking to The Post, Ny, now 40, remembered with sadness his life with his elderly grandfather.

“At that time, we lived in poverty. We were always hungry, and finding enough to eat was a challenge. My grandfather was old, and we were so very young. When he became ill, we struggled even more,” he said.

However, despite his hardships, at the age of five he was determined to attend his local school, Boeung Chhouk Primary School. He spent many hours crawling and dragging himself the 3km to school each day.

Wanting to help, one day one of his classmates stopped his bicycle and offered him a ride. Unfortunately, he fell from the bike, breaking one of his arms and one of his legs.

“My bones were so fragile that my arm and leg were broken by the fall of just one metre,” he added.

He said that while he was at school, he broke at least one bone nearly every year. If he did not break his arm, he would break his leg.

Seeing the difficulties he was facing, an uncle offered to adopt him. His uncle was not a wealthy man, however, so his was separated from his sisters.

They were forced to drop out of school – at the ages of 11 and 12 – to work to support themselves. They also contributed to his uncle’s household so he could continue his studies.

This came to an end when he was 15 years old. After successfully passing grade 9, he was unable to attend grade 10. The classroom was on the second floor of the building, and he could not make it up the stairs to his classroom.

He added that this filled him with regret, because he had long ago sworn that he would study as hard as he could for as long as he could. He knew that his physical disability meant that he would need an education to survive.

He recalled looking at the stairs and making the hardest decision of his life until then. He was certain he would break more bones if he attempted to climb the stairs every day, so he was left with no option other than to drop out.

“I was really upset. Every day I would see my former classmates passing by my home on their way to school. I would sit and cry alone at the thought of what I was missing out on,” he said.

A rare stroke of good fortune

After dropping out, Ny was at a loss as to what direction his life might take. This changed in 1997, when a friend who had attended a training course at Wat Than Pagoda introduced him to an organisation called Maryknoll.

The organisation offered training programmes to the disabled, and to his delight, Ny was selected as one of 15 students for a one year course in English and computer skills.

At the end of the year, Ny was ranked first in his class. Thanks to an incentive programme offered by the organisation, he was offered a job as a typist and paid $60 a month.

He immediately impressed the organisation with his practical skills and positive attitude, and was promptly made an administrative assistant.

In the year 2000, he felt like it was time to repay the kindness that had been shown him. He rented a large property and began to take care of children from broken or impoverished homes, orphans and victims of domestic violence. He was not aligned with any organisation, but relied contributions from philanthropists he had met through his work, and visiting tourists.

He added that at that time he was raising about 30 children. He often borrowed money to keep them fed and pay the rent on the property.

In 2007, he married the love of his life, and in 2012, closed down his orphanage and opened an English school

near Pangsey Market in Tuol Ampil commune, Baset district, Kampong Speu province.

He taught his students for free, although the survival of he and his wife was once again dependant on his philanthropist contacts.

By early 2015, he was beginning to tire, after years of playing the role of a father, a sponsor, a teacher and a communicator, and doing most of the work alone. It means that he does everything alone. He made the decision that his family – by now, he and his wife had four children – to his wife’s hometown in Prey Sbat village, Trapaing Thom Khang Choeung commune, Tram Kak district, Takeo province.

There, the children of the villagers knew that he had been an English teacher, and begged him for lessons. Fearing, he was too tired for such work, he rebuffed their entreaties for several months, until finally, in April 2015, he relented.

The return of the teacher

At first, he would sit on his bed and gather the children around him. Because he had no whiteboard, he would write on the walls of the house to illustrate his lessons.

Despite the lack of desks and chairs, the number of children coming to learn kept increasing. He moved his lessons into a large cowshed on his property. Despite to mud and the smell of cattle, the students were attentive and desperate to learn. This spurred him on to greater efforts.

“It was then that good fortune found me. The father of one of my students had opened a school nearby, but unfortunately, it hadn’t worked out, and he had had to close. His son complained to him that I had no desks and chairs. The father took pity on me and donated the things I needed to create a real classroom,” he said.

His joy at receiving the tables and chairs soon turned to dismay as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the nation. All gatherings were banned, and he was forced to dismiss his students.

He was forced to appeal for assistance on social media. Videos of his teaching activities were widely shared and a number of new supporters contacted Ny, wanting to help. They included several foreigners, and some local businessmen.

These philanthropists offered him money to improve his facilities, and so he was able to replace the roof of his cowshed and build solid walls. While still hardly a purpose built private school, the building is adequate, and when the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, he was ready to welcome them back.

Ny has now been teaching for eight years, without receiving a single riel from his students, but believes that he would be wasting the knowledge he has acquired if he did not share it.

“I try to do good by teaching these children. I am happy to make sacrifices and participate in social work if it will help my country that I love so much. Perhaps by doing good I will not have a miserable life in my next life,” he said.

According to Ny, his school currently teaches English, Computers and Chinese. There are three young volunteer teachers, two teaching English and one teaching Chinese. Thanks to financial support, he was able to build accommodation for the teachers, although he would like to expand them to provide more privacy for them.

He has received the gift of a new electric wheelchair, which grants him the mobility he needs to keep the school going.

There are now 325 students enrolled in the school, all from two communes. Most of them can walk to class. Classes are scheduled from 7am to 7pm, with the students drawn from five primary schools, one secondary school and one high school.

Continued challenges

Despite the success of the school, he still faces many challenges. Occasionally, he has to sell geese and pigeons online to support his school and his family.

One of his three sons shares his condition and has lost the use of his legs, while another has a milder version of the same condition, with fragile bones. He said the condition is hereditary, so feels a sense of frustration at times.

He owns the 27m by 20m plot of land on which the school sits, and has sworn that it will remain a school for the rest of his life.

He added that if he receives financial support in the future, he would like to improve his three classrooms, as they are made from metal sheets, and get very hot and stuffy.

Oum Rim, commune chief, said Ny had been teaching children in the village free of charge for many years. Because of his volunteer work, he has attracted many philanthropists from near and far, who support him and continue to do so until today.

“Helping to teach the children of the village things like English, computers and Chinese will improve their chances at a quality life,” he added.

He said that Trapaing Thom Khang Choeung commune, like other rural communes, is an area where children need more education that public schools can provide, and he is more than happy to have Ny as a neighbour.

“Every day the children finish at the public school and head to Ny’s place. He really helps them all a lot,” he added.