Muoy You, who escaped Cambodia's killing fields, now teaches self-respect and integrity

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

Tibor Krausz
Muoy You has expanded the small school she founded in her native Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after returning from exile. Her mission: to help restore the country’s professional class, ravaged by Pol Pot.

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.

"A school like this would have been beyond our dreams," says Ang Kim, a tuk-tuk driver whose two young daughters study in Seametrey. He can't pay, but he volunteers as a security guard on Sundays.

Currently, the school has 80 students, from toddlers to teens. They learn in small groups from nursery through primary school. Whether from dirt-poor villages, urban slums, or well-heeled Phnom Penh homes, they're treated alike – and are expected to treat one another alike, too.

A poor farmer's son is best friends with a rich rice merchant's son – a rare friendship in a country with a rigid social divide between rich and poor.

"We have to break down social barriers and emphasize our common humanity," Muoy insists.

A key part of the curriculum is moral education. Muoy and her teachers, many of them foreign volunteers, urge the children to value ethical behavior as its own reward.

"Be gentle and nice, Samreth!" Muoy chides a lively 4-year-old when she sees him scuffling with a little girl on the school's shady, well-equipped playground.

"She pushed me first!" Samreth insists.

"Shouldn't you be a gentleman and not push back?" Muoy tells him. The boy agrees, then scampers back to play.

Samreth studies at Seametrey with his older sister. His grandmother, who sells sugar-cane juice and helps out at the school, gave birth to the children's mother the very same day in April 1975 that the Khmer Rouge set about driving the entire population of Phnom Penh into the countryside to become slave laborers.

During the ultra-Maoist movement's brutal four-year rule that followed, teachers and intellectuals were systematically eliminated in a policy that would tear apart the moral fabric of the society.

Cambodia still hasn't recovered.

"Seametrey is a visionary project [aimed at] regenerating Cambodians' self-respect and integrity," says Elia Van Tuyl, a retired businessman in Palo Alto, Calif., who runs the Friends of Cambodia charity. "It seeks to attack poverty by addressing its psychological, educational, and cultural roots."

After just two years at Seametrey, young Samreth now speaks fluent English. "He's a bright boy with leadership and oratory skills remarkable for his age," Muoy says.

"I'm very happy for my grandchildren," says Tes Kamsan, the boy's grandmother. "They'll have a much better life than their mother and I had."

Muoy is certain of that. She points to a flowery vine in her garden. From its pot the plant has climbed all the way up to her fourth-floor balcony.

"That is my analogy for education," she explains. "Place children in fertile soil, and they'll blossom and flourish!"

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