- NUON remembers the camp as a huge repository of misery and casual violence. Failing to qualify for asylum in another country, she joined a research project to document the experiences of her fellow camp members under the Khmer Rouge.
- In 1985, NUON and her husband opened their small house in the camp as a center for refugees suffering from depression.
- Operating at first from her own compassionate instincts and with the assistance of traditional Khmer healers, NUON later studied Western mental health therapies in Thailand.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her selfless commitment to helping war-traumatized women and children rebuild their spirits and lives in the wake of Cambodia’s great national tragedy.”
Any great public tragedy embraces within it a million small and private ones. NUON PHALY encountered this truth in a refugee camp to which she and ten thousand others fled to escape the horrors at home in Cambodia. Among the private tragedies she found there were those of women in whose minds the nightmares of war lived on and on. NUON didn’t really know how to help these women crippled by depression and sadness. But putting aside her own needs, she began to try.
NUON PHALY was just eleven when Cambodia gained its independence from France at the end of 1953. During the brief era of peace that followed, she attended highschool, started a family, and learned to take shorthand in French and Khmer. By 1972 she was a senior secretary at the Ministry of Finance. When the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in April 1975, NUON was among the multitudes of Cambodians forced brutally into the countryside. She survived the killing fields but, in 1984, fled with her family to a refugee camp on the Thai border–the way-station, she hoped, to a new and better life abroad.
NUON remembers the camp as a huge repository of misery and casual violence. Failing to qualify for asylum in another country, she joined a research project to document the experiences of her fellow camp members under the Khmer Rouge. This led her to meet many women who were traumatized by memories of war, torture, and family separation. Widows suffered horribly. Since no one seemed to be addressing this particular need, she began to do so herself.
In 1985, NUON and her husband opened their small house in the camp as a center for refugees suffering from depression. With the support of the Catholic Office for Emergency Refugee Relief and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, her modest center grew quickly to accommodate thirty-five women, as well as sixteen children whose parents were lost or incapacitated by mental illness. In 1987, she named it the Khmer People’s Depression Relief Center, or KPDR.
Operating at first from her own compassionate instincts and with the assistance of traditional Khmer healers, NUON later studied Western mental health therapies in Thailand. At KPDR she combined these approaches in a unique counseling service. In time, most of the women in her care resumed normal lives outside the center. But the number of children increased. When NUON returned to Cambodia in 1993, she was accompanied by nine widows and ninety-one orphaned children.
NUON reestablished her center and, in 1995, occupied a two-hectare site outside Phnom Penh that today boasts several handsome classrooms, dormitories, and workrooms. The Future Light Orphanage, as she now calls it, is home to some 150 orphans and the center from which NUON provides livelihood training and mental health counseling to over a hundred war widows in neighboring villages, as well as education and medical and clothing assistance to hundreds of needy children. Nuon’s center is supported by the government and by the World Food Programme of the United Nations, and proceeds from the sale of handicrafts made by the children themselves. But it is still struggling.
Although often discouraged, the ever-smiling NUON perseveres with the daily assistance and fervent support of her husband, Hem Soeurn. A small pamphlet published by the center captures the essence of her labor of love. The Future Light Orphanage, it says, “is a place of hopes and dreams.” Children in blue and white uniforms “are seen learning English. Young women are sewing and reconstructing their lives.”
In electing NUON PHALY to receive the 1998 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her selfless commitment to helping war-traumatized women and children rebuild their spirits and lives in the wake of Cambodia’s great national tragedy.
Excellencies, The Chair and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you very much for electing me as the 1998 Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership.
I feel particularly privileged, not because it is such a prestigious award, but mainly because it has been established in honor of your great President the late Ramon Magsaysay, who rendered such distinguished service to the people of the Philippines when they needed it most.
It is a great honor for me to receive this prestigious and honored award. I consider my efforts to be too small for this award; still it is very encouraging to see my work recognized by the Foundation. It is an indication that Cambodia’s women and its unfortunate, war-ravaged masses are not forgotten by the international community and still have friends who have sympathy for them and their cause. Especially, the plight of . the victims of the regime of the Khmer Rouge and their killing fields from 1975 to 1979 during which 2 to 3 million innocent people and children died from starvation, execution, and diseases without medical care and, services, and tens of thousands of women were left widowed and suffering from depression, while having to take care of many small children without support; and children who were rendered homeless and were orphaned.
It is the obsession of my life to serve the underprivileged of humanity, especially women and children, and to extend to them the recognition and the rights they deserve.
I accept this award on behalf of Cambodian women and children who have been the most oppressed and forgotten people of the Cambodian community. I have only done what I consider to be essential for the unfortunate people of Cambodia. My attempts are too small to heal the wounds inflicted on millions of my fellow countrymen and women and children; I shall always need the support of others, especially the sisterhood of women and that of the children, for the continuation of my work.
I thank all those who have promoted my nomination for this award, all those who have been supportive of my work, the kind donors and generous individuals who have made my work possible, and all the people of the Philippines for their warm hospitality.
Once again I thank you all for the honor you have done me ? a humble Executive Director of the Future Light Orphanage. I accept it on behalf of the women of Cambodia.
I re-dedicate the years left of my life to the service of the underprivileged, the dispossessed particularly the most vulnerable of them in our society – women and girls – to their health and development in the sacred memory of your great PRESIDENT RAMON MAGSAYSAY.
About twenty-five kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, lie the infamous Killing Fields, where thirty years ago Pol Pot’s crazed soldiers, many only twelve or thirteen years old, attacked the civilian population of the country. They bashed in the skulls of old ladies who could have been and perhaps were their mothers or grandmothers, grabbed babies by the feet and slammed their heads into tree trunks, hacked weakened old men with machetes-until thousands and thousands were dead. Today the spot is marked by a huge tower of skulls, glass-encased but opened around the edges, too, so that the smell of old dead bones assails whoever stands before the tower. There is a sign there that says even Cambodians themselves cannot understand why or how the youth of the country turned into such demons. The question continues to haunt them.
For Cambodia was once the most prosperous country in Southeast Asia. In the twelfth century, it was the center of the Angkor civilization, the Buddhist kingdom that stretched across much of modern-day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand and that gave the world Angkor Wat. In the nineteenth century, during the age of Western expansion and colonialism, Cambodia fell under the French, along with its neighbors Vietnam and Laos, in what became known as French Indochina. The French conducted the affairs of the country through its king and constructed an elegant colonial capital at Phnom Penh. By most accounts, the French were not heavy-handed colonizers, but they were colonizers nevertheless. Cambodians yearned to be free. They won independence in 1954 and Cambodia entered what now looks like a brief Golden Age: the country was free, Buddhist, and peaceful; Norodom Sihanouk was king; the Tonle Sap provided enough fish to keep the population well nourished; and life was simple but good.
Nuon Phaly was twenty-eight years old, married, and starting a family when the Cambodian trauma that produced the Killing Fields began in 1970. She had been born in 1942 in a village in the district of Chbar Ampeou in Kandal Province, along the road that runs from Phnom Penh to Prey Veng and then straight into Vietnam. The family had a ten-hectare rice farm. Her father had studied in the pagoda with the monks and learned both Khmer and French, eventually earning a secondary-school diploma. But he was reluctant to work for the French administration, even though his own father had been chief of police. Nuon’s mother had studied as well but only within the family. Her maternal grandfather was a carpenter for the king and had gained influence with the royal family because of his skills as an astrologer. Thus her family had a history of education and political influence on both sides.
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