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  • Tania Haldar

HPR Hero: PHYMEAN NOUN

Some of us may never think about it. Some of us may go through an entire lifetime wishing we could do something for others. And some of us may change the lives of many. The lives of 1,300 children, to be precise.


Meet HPR Hero Phymean Noun. A warrior. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. And yet, a hero to hundreds and thousands of children.


1971. Cambodia.

Phymean Noun was born in much happier times, four years before the KR Regime took over Cambodia. But the years that followed since 1971, changed everything. Everything was wiped out for Phymean, for Cambodia, for every ethnic and religious minority and for the very foundation upon which hope and justice stood. One of the worst mass genocides in human history in which the entire country was turned into a cemetery for around two million people, Phymean’s own family became just a drop in the ocean of pain and tears.

Amongst mass executions, diseases, starvation, almost two million people were left to die, hundreds of thousands tortured, displaced, facing deaths and disabilities and mental problems. There was no hope of a future for Cambodia. This was the place Phymean grew up, just like the hundreds of thousands of other children in the country. “There was no food, no electricity. "My dad was put in jail. The images from my childhood are still clear in my mind. My aunt, her one day old baby, all my other cousins, aunts and uncles were all killed,” says Phymean. Amongst all the executions, her mother somehow got lucky. Still, she walked day to da­y on a tightrope, keeping her identity of being educated heavily guarded.


“All educated people were being killed you see. The regime wanted to raise a nation based on fear.” Controlling the masses by forcing them out of their homes and schools to raise an agrarian nation left them lost in poverty and hunger, in darkness and death. Phymean knows only too well what it is to be a hungry child. 


Just one thing she still can’t answer. “To this day, I will never really understood why they were doing this. They were all Cambodians killing Cambodians. Young children were being taught to kill their own family. And they did. Nothing made sense.”


How does one survive being a witness to all this? Especially when that person is just a child? To the loss of one’s own family in the most brutal murders?


In a country where huge amounts of importance is put in family interdependence, how did Phymean, then barely under 5 years old, force herself to pull away from all of that?  Not just for her own self, but eventually grow up to pull hundreds of children out and away from their doomed fate? 


And so started Phymean’s lifelong struggle. She just had to live. Not just for herself. At a very young age, she was also given the sole responsibility of her sister’s little girl. Too small to be left alone, and a sense of responsibility already defining young Phymean, she would carry her little niece around everywhere with her, working round the clock. Managing to get only 2-3 hours of sleep in 24 hours, Phymean's battles were far from over.


“I would carry heavy bags of water to sell. It was going to pay for my school. I would walk back home alone at night, carrying my little niece. The roads were dark and empty, full of rocks and stones. I would fall and hurt myself every day, bleeding all the way back home, constantly scared of those dark and dangerous roads: someone could have come any day, any minute from behind and raped me.”


But she still did it. “It seemed as though I fell down a hundred times” But she got up a hundred times. Alone and scared, Phymean survived.


Years went by, and she finally completed school. Perhaps somewhere in her childhood, Phymean had realized that it is the uneducated masses who most get taken advantage of. So she just had to finish her schooling, no matter how hard it got for her. Or maybe it was her mother who left a lasting effect on her before passing away, “Even if you’re poor, you must finish your education.”And she did. She went on to finish her bachelor’s degree and then worked with the U.N. And that could have been her happy ending. Finally a comfortable job, a loving husband and two beautiful children. Away from all the miseries of poverty and filth and sadness. But just when life was finally completely comfortable for her for the first time ever, she chose to give it all up. Phymean could not fight evil as a child, but was determined to now clean up the gross aftermath of Cambodia since having grown up in whatever way she could. The after effects of the terrifying years under the Khmer Rouge still has Cambodia in deep, deep poverty. "My mission is to provide clean water, food, shelter, and education to every child."


The year 2002:

"One afternoon, I was eating my lunch by the riverside. A group of street children came up to me and asked me for some money to buy food. I told them to come back after some time. When I finished, I threw out the bones that were left over from the chicken I had for lunch. To my horror, I saw those children who had been waiting for me to give them money, run to garbage to eat the leftovers I just threw away. They sucked on the bones till they got every last piece of the meat.


I called them over and asked them to sit on the grass with me. I bought them their own chicken dish and the conversation that followed, changed my life. They had wanted to go to school, but their parents were too poor to afford it. Some of the kids I was speaking to had upto 10 other siblings. I knew immediately, that I just had to do something for these children who had wanted to, but couldn't go to school. I later discovered, these children lived in a disgusting, stinking, filthy dumpster, which was also home to hundreds of other impoverished hungry families all huddled together.


Phymean went into a deep sense of shock and pain. She could see all this from a different perspective today. She wasn’t one of them anymore, and she knew she just had to do something for them.


Phymean's desire to do something gave birth to the PIO: People Improvement Organization, Cambodia, which today serves over 1200 children a day through non-formal education and vocational training and cares for some of the most vulnerable women in Cambodia.


She knew education was the only way out for these people living and dying in the most inhumane conditions. Nothing else could save them. And for Phymean, there was no ulterior motive, no secret plan, no exchange of basics for allegiance to some community, institution or person. All she wanted, was to truly help the people of her country.


And so she approached the families living in the dumpster to send their kids to go to schools. One hundred percent of the children wanted to go. Ironically, it was the parents who didn’t want to send their children to school. How could they? The kids were all earning members, after all. Whatever little they were able to find, beg, earn was all they had. In any case, there would be no money for school.


Phymean took it upon herself to break this cycle. When she couldn’t convince the parents to send their kids to school, she gave up her own job, put in all of her own savings to start a school for the children of the dumpster. And she opened it right next to the dumpster so that they would not have to go far, and their parents would not oppose sending them this close. This would allow these kids to work by night and study by day.


The first few days were strange, not in the least of what she had expected. These children had rarely ever showered for they didn’t have money to buy water. Yes, basic necessities of life must be bought in Cambodia.


The children, filthy and stinking would all come to school only to sleep, since they would be working all night to earn a few cents.


But that was then. From then on, very slowly, things started changing.


“As word reached charitable donors, money started coming in to help me out with my school. I have been getting an incredible amount of support from charities all over to help support me with food and clothing for these children. Visitors have been coming from around the world to help, and we got more books, more teachers and more class rooms. Today we have three schools. And more and more children are wanting to come. The best part of it all, more and more parents are willing to send their children!”


13 years into Phymean’s hard work and dedication, all of her schools also act as shelter to more than three thousands children. “We help get them jobs immediately after graduating from here. And we offer skilled training for girls. I want to change the concept where girls are just meant to marry and have kids. I want to empower girls to be leaders. When you educate one girl, you educate the whole family. When someone’s husband dies here, the wife dies too. Why so much dependence on the man? I want to change all of that. I tell all the children my story. I tell them if I could come out of my horrific childhood, then why can’t you?”

Phymean’s only belief is that it is education, and education alone that can give children a bright future.


“Today the children in my school are all clean! They all greet you and smile at you. They are proof, that if you give them love and believe in them, they will change.” She looks back with disbelief at those same children who had first walked into her school many years ago for the first time, dirty, impolite, constantly using foul language, swearing and physically abusing each other and sleeping off in school, tired from working all night. Today, both parents of these children are able to go work, because my school is providing free childcare after school. Those very children shock others when they see them now! They can’t believe how different these kids are now, how they have changed so drastically.


“My mother always told me to give back. So I just wanted to help. This is my country, and I want to help my country change. “Education will change everything,” she stresses again. “Families have changed. People have changed. They used to eat only once a day, Now they eat three times a day because now the mothers are going out to work, so they can eat three meals a day.


“You don’t need to be a millionaire to help. It’s not always about the money. Money doesn’t make me smile. Kids smiles do.


All it takes is a few courageous men and women to change the system. If it wasn’t for Phymean Noun, the face of hundreds of lost children would have remained in the dark forever. She illuminated their lives and showed them the way, so never again would they have to live and die in dumpsters, their lives insignificant and unwanted in this world.

Phymean says she couldn’t have come this far if it wasn’t for her husband and children's support. We ask, what would this world do without people like her?


“You don’t need to be a millionaire to help. It’s not always about the money. Money doesn’t make me smile. Kids smiles do.


All it takes is a few courageous men and women to change the system. If it wasn’t for Phymean Noun, the face of hundreds of lost children would have remained in the dark forever. She illuminated their lives and showed them the way, so never again would they have to live and die in dumpsters, their lives insignificant and unwanted in this world.

Phymean says she couldn’t have come this far if it wasn’t for her husband and children's support. We ask, what would this world do without people like her? 


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