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From Communism to Community: 2 Women Determined to Change Life's Path

Phoeun in Cambodia
Phoeun in Cambodia. |

Cambodia may seem like an unusual country for a Christian global health and development organization — a former communist country that's now 98% Buddhist.

The Khmer Rouge was the brutal totalitarian regime that was responsible for the 1970s Cambodian genocide that gave rise to the "Killing Fields". Its social engineering famously turned back the clock of time and led to dire humanitarian disasters like agricultural reforms that resulted in widespread famine and death. Some 2 million Cambodians — a quarter of the population — died under Khmer Rouge rule until it fell to the communists in 1975.

Gary Edmonds
Gary Edmonds is president and CEO of Food for the Hungry.

But its failed legacy of poverty and hunger lives on.

Phoeun had been a nurse under the Khmer Rouge. When Food for the Hungry started operating in her village in 2008, it's no exaggeration to say she was given a second chance in life. At age 48, she struggled as a novice farmer to help feed a starving family of six.

The first thing Food for the Hungry does when we enter a community is not tell people what we think they need. Instead we seek community engagement. Phoeun was one of the five people voted to become a leader on the Village Development Committee that would work closely with us.

We quickly learned from the community that one of the main problems in this farming community was traditional agriculture practices that demanded hard labor but produced minimal yields. So we worked with the community to modernize crop and animal farming techniques through workshops.

A hand up really pays off for the long term. With increased yields, Phoeun and her husband were able to buy a larger piece of land and a tractor to diversify crops. From the violence of the Khmer Rouge and near starvation, she's now an industrious farmer, community leader and is passing her success on to her children.

When it comes to global health and development, success is often found in unexpected places. A former Khmer Rouge nurse becoming a modern farmer and village leader is one. It's not often that a 20-year-old attending the 9th grade would be another. But in another rural village in Cambodia, making it through grade school was unusual.

Only about half of the 200 children in this community went to school. Children were needed to help out at home. Domestic violence was a problem. The school was five kilometers (three miles) away along a hazardous road where accidents were frequent.

Trash wasn't disposed of properly and people used the bathroom pretty much anywhere. Illness caused by poor sanitation affected everyone. Diarrheal disease, in particular, is a chief cause of undernutrition in children which can lead to permanent cognitive damage called stunting. Undernutrition was further complicated by farming that produced very low yields. In a word, children were not thriving in this cycle of sickness and poverty.

Again working with community leaders, Food for the Hungry took a holistic approach to help the community tackle all these issue — from combating domestic violence and increasing health care to improving farming techniques and teaching parents the importance of education and encouraging them to keep their children in school.

Kim Sath in Cambodia
Kim Sath in Cambodia. |

Which leads us to Kim Sath, who entered the 9th grade at age 20. Food for the Hungry commits 8 to 12 years in a particular community. Once that community is making sustainable progress, it graduates. Kim Sath's community, we're happy to say, graduated in under 10 years. It looks like Kim Sath will graduate, too.

Though Food for the Hungry's program here is complete, our staff still visit Kim Sath to encourage her.

"I will study hard till I finish grade 12 to have a good job and help my family to live a better life," she tells them.

Kim Sath says she wants to attend university after high school. With new ways and resources at her disposal, like Phoeun who has become a village leader and successful farmer, Kim Sath just might do it.

Gary Edmonds is President and CEO of Food for the Hungry, a relief and development organization of Christian motivation that works in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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