Backstory: To help Cambodians is Bernie's law
Whether it's red tape or red carpet, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Bernie Krisher will stomp on it to get his way.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — You start off a meeting with Bernard Krisher looking for his halo. The philanthropist's reputation is that glowing. But the only esoteric accessory this retired journalist – whose indoor pallor and slight stoop is testament to years spent hunched over scoops on his typewriter – turns out to have is the fleet feet of Mercury. If you want to keep pace with him, you better be a long-distance runner – and an early bird, too.
Back for two weeks recently in his adopted country – "adopted" as in him being a self-appointed foster parent – the former Newsweek foreign correspondent has the schedule of a visiting head of state: Tuesday, Mr. Krisher inaugurates a new school he's started for the children of illiterate rice farmers. Wednesday, he escorts King Norodom Sihamoni – shaded under a ceremonial royal umbrella – around a free hospital for Cambodia's desperately poor that Krisher launched a decade ago. Friday, he welcomes US Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli to the groundbreaking of a dormitory for gifted but destitute children. Monday and Thursday, he exhorts Minister of Education Kol Pheng for more textbooks for rural schools, and badgers foreign nongovernmental organizations for their support.
In between, he checks on his fundraising campaign for mosquito nets for villagers at risk from malaria. And he inquires about the sale of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which he printed last year after persuading author J.K. Rowling's publisher to let him offer Cambodian kids the book in Khmer for 50 cents a copy.
At 6 a.m. one day, he's giving a pep talk to delivery boys outside the offices of The Cambodian Daily, a newsletter-style paper he's been publishing since 1993 by way of pioneering press freedom in Cambodia (the paper's first copy is displayed in the Krisher room of the US embassy here). By evening, he's headlining a gala for foreign donors at the city's fairytale-flamboyant Royal Palace.
Right now, though, Krisher has a few minutes to spare. Sort of. Between answering a reporter's questions and nibbling on a salad (he doesn't like greens, he warns a waiter in Phnom Penh's InterContinental Hotel, before reprimanding a concierge for letting a fellow guest smoke), Krisher pores over blueprints for one of his new pet projects – Bright Future Kids.
"The idea is, even for children living in extreme poverty, the sky is the limit if they're ambitious," explains Krisher, whose puckered features put you in mind of a Shar-Pei pup wearing spectacles.
His new program has just handpicked 25 bright sixth-graders from across this impoverished country to attend the capital's best high school starting in January. Staying in a new dormitory built by Krisher, they'll receive extra English and computer lessons from foreign volunteer teachers.
"For the poor, 90 percent of job opportunities are closed," Krisher explains. "But these kids are going to be movers, shakers, leaders, pushers."
Pushers, like Bernie Krisher. When informed by an assistant that the dormitory project is on hold pending municipal approval, Krisher will have none of it: "I'm not going through this nonsense of red tape; I'm gonna break the law [and build anyway] because there's a higher law – helping people. I'll call Sihanouk and Hun Sen if I must." He means, respectively, Cambodia's revered King Father, a close friend, and its strongman prime minister.
Such chutzpah is vintage Krisher. Already a precocious reporter wannabe at 14, he launched his own mimeographed newspaper in New York City, The Pocket Mirror (800 copies at 3 cents each). He then went about landing celebrity interviews: Frank Sinatra ("I went backstage after his show in the Paramount Theatre with all those girls screaming outside"); Babe Ruth ("I went to his house and knocked on the door"); Arturo Toscanini ("I lied to the security guards that I was his grandson").
Decades later, as a Newsweek correspondent, his exploits included scheming his way into the only exclusive interview ever granted by Emperor Hirohito (1975), and sneaking past burly security guards into the antiques shop of a Tokyo hotel to catch Indonesian President Sukarno haggling for a discount (1963). Sukarno took to the plucky reporter and introduced him to Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, who would become a close friend – but not before Krisher first got himself declared persona non grata by the mercurial "god king" after some unflattering reporting about the royal family. In 1993, when King Sihanouk returned home from decides-long exile in Beijing, he asked Krisher for his help in rebuilding war-torn Cambodia.
So here he is today – Cambodia's most prominent philanthropist, grousing about being "a total amateur in this."
But he's not, says Walter Kotkowski, a representative of the American medical charity HOPE Worldwide. "Bernie is a class act. A one-man United Nations, I hear, they call him," saysMr. Kotkowski, who oversees procurement for the Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE, a state-of-the-art hospital for the poor launched by Krisher.
Krisher appreciates the compliment but even more so the T-shirt with a HOPE Worldwide logo he cadges off the charity's president, Robert Gempel, who's in town for the hospital's 10th anniversary. "The king might like one shirt, too," nudges Krisher, the indefatigable asker.
Asking for things – like money – is easy, because Krisher can, and does, boast that overhead for his many projects is just 5 percent of his annual $1 million budget, which he raises by relentlessly lobbying influential friends and strangers he meets while trolling hotel lobbies and airport lounges. He donates $30,000 himself (stock dividends). Meanwhile in Tokyo, where he lives, he drives a banged-up old jalopy. "I'm stingy," Krisher notes.
Despite his missionary zeal for improving lives, Krisher remains emotionally detached, seeing lachrymose sentiment as a barrier to good old pragmatism. "I look at the big picture [of poverty], not individual stories of want and need," he says.
Still, his charity plays out in individual lives. Take Toun Phala, a 14-year-old AIDS orphan. The girl and her grandmother eke out a living tending others' rice paddies and orchards in the village of Kirivon 80 miles southwest of Phnom Penh. Along the highway to the village, cartoonish notices caution human traffickers against luring naive teens with false promises into indentured service as maids or sex workers.
Girls like Phala are prime targets of those traffickers – and, as such, are a target of Krisher's Girls Be Ambitious project, which pays parents $10 a month to allow their daughters to study. Thanks to the program Phala is now back in fourth grade.
As for the big picture, Krisher is busy soliciting enough $120 yearly sponsorships from individual foreign donors to send as many as 50,000 girls back to school across the countryside, where annual per capita income often remains under $40. The returning students will feed into 313 schools already built throughout Cambodia since 1999 by Krisher's Put a Roof Over Their Head initiative.
He launched that project on an impulse following an upcountry visit where he saw kids studying under a banyan tree in a town with no schoolhouse. To cover the building costs of individual schools, he's been enlisting donations of $14,000 from private Japanese and American benefactors, whose giving is matched by the Asian Development Bank. More than 80 former residents of yet another Krisher-sponsored project – the Future Light Orphanage – teach at the schools. "Once they graduate from the orphanage, we have jobs waiting for them," Krisher says.
Last year, a group of psychiatric caregivers from Hawaii approached Krisher asking him for help in building a new school in the ancestral village of one of their patients, a Cambodian refugee. The school was completed in October. During its ribbon-cutting ceremony, Krisher addressed hundreds of villagers gathered for the occasion: "This new school now belongs to you," he says through an interpreter. "Let your children study – the girls, too, don't send them into the fields all day to work."
Then, in his signature curmudgeonly way, he adds: "But tell them not to touch the [whitewashed] walls and leave handprints all over them."