Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Muoy You, Who Escaped Cambodia's Killing Fields, Now Teaches Self- Respect and Integrity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Muoy You, Who Escaped Cambodia's Killing Fields, Now Teaches Self- Respect and Integrity

Article excerpt

Muoy You has opened Seametrey Children's Village in Phnom Penh to help restore Cambodia's culture.

For Muoy You, "the power of education" isn't an abstract concept. She's seen it transform the life of her family.

Her father was a bicycle repairman, and her mother an illiterate street vendor. Yet her four children are all university graduates. "They're high fliers," Ms. Muoy says.

One of her sons teaches aeronautics at the University of Washington in Seattle; another is working on a PhD in particle physics at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva.

Muoy grew up poor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the Vietnam War. "We lived in a squatters' shack, but I loved learning and I did well in school," she recalls.

In 1972 she won a scholarship to study in France. It would save her from Pol Pot's killing fields, where her parents and siblings were among the 2 million dead. She spent the next two decades in exile, raising a family and working as a teacher in Africa and the Middle East.

Now Muoy wants to transform the prospects of other Cambodian families by giving children of low-income cleaners, laborers, farmers, and tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers a high-quality education.

"I don't just want to teach them to read and write," she stresses. "I want them to become professionals, writers, thinkers, artists - to make their country proud."

In Cambodia today, few students have that chance; most have access only to basic education. So upon returning home to Phnom Penh in 2003, Muoy set up the Seametrey Children's Village, a private initiative. She mortgaged a property she owned abroad, bought a small plot of land, and converted a run-down hut on it into a classroom.

"A school is just a building," she notes. "It's the resources that matter."

Courteous and fluent in English, Muoy modestly calls herself "an obscure woman with dreams bigger than herself." She started with a handful of young children - those of neighbors and acquaintances.

She ditched the rote learning that is common at crowded government schools and instead set about helping children discover the joys of learning by themselves in a free-spirited environment. "You shouldn't just stick children behind desks," Muoy explains. "You need to help them retain their childlike curiosity and spontaneity."

Word of her school spread. As more and more students came, Muoy rented the house next door to expand.

Two years ago, after the death of her architect-painter husband, she turned their airy, four-story home on the site into a guesthouse.

"I've turned hotelier for the cause," Muoy says with a chuckle. The income "helps us sustain the school without the need for handouts," she says.

Parents pay according to their means. The poorest pay nothing; some pay small sums they can afford. Expatriates and better-off locals pay the full monthly fee of $290. …

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