I am Phymean Noun, the founder and CEO of People Improvement Organization, PIO. I’m also the winner of the CNN hero award, Outstanding Asia Award and the World Children’s Prize. I will share with you the story about how we became what we are today.
It all begins in April 1975. I was four years old and my life, like the lives of all Cambodians, changed drastically. Soldiers dressed in black took the streets, waving their guns, ordering everyone to leave the city. The soldiers urge us on, further and further beyond the city limits. Something feels wrong.
We hear rifle shots in the distance. Those who refuse to keep going are shot. We walk for days. The Khmer Rouge has seized power and they are determine to kill every teacher, close every school and make sure that nobody access education.
My mother had to be very cautious since she herself was highly educated, having completed her studies in France. In this extreme situation, even if all odds were against it, I started to dream about going to school.
My family and I survived the horror regime of Pol Pot. But then, when I was 15 years old, my mother fell ill. When she was on her deathbed I promised to do everything I could to get an education.
After years of struggle I graduate and find a good job. I work in a nice office and have money in my bank account. Suddenly, life feels easy and fun – far from the struggles of my childhood.
One afternoon, when I’m eating grilled chicken on the banks of the River Mekong I throw the chicken bones onto a nearby pile of garbage. Out of nowhere five children pounce onto the bones, hitting each other as they squabble over the leftovers. I’m horrified. The children are fighting to eat garbage.
“Stop!” I shout, “I’ll buy you chicken.” As they eat, they tell me that they came from the countryside with their parents who were looking for employment. But there is no work, so they ended up living on the rubbish dump, rummaging through garbage for any scraps of value. “How can I help you?” I ask them. One of the boys gets up. “I want to go to school,” he says.
This incident torment me. I keep thinking about the children on the dump. They are struggling – just as I did when I was their age.
The next day I visit the biggest dump in Phnom Penh. It is as high as a mountain.
I meet children and their parents. I watch the procession of trucks that trundles down the road, the drivers taking little heed of the children along their path. The stench from the dump overpowers all the senses. It’s like coming to Hell.
I quit my executive job. I take out all my money from the bank and set up a classroom by the dump. Twenty-five children come to the school the first day. Word gets around and more and more children come over the following weeks. I go to the dump every day. For those children I’m the counselor, caretaker, teacher and role model.
It’s been almost 15 years since I set up that first classroom by the city dump of Phnom Penh. My organization has grown and gained recognition nationally as well as abroad. But none of this had been possible without support. We are proud of everything we done but everyday we see a need that we can not meet. We need your support to keep helping the poorest children in Cambodia. By making a donation you will change the future of a child and make a contribution to a better tomorrow.