“I have promises to keep. Miles to go before I sleep”
THE FINAL MOMENTS
It was 7AM on June 26th when my mother called me to tell me that my father had been rushed to the hospital. His condition was getting worse. He had been suffering for a number of years from Para Supra Nuclear Palsy (PSP) and the disease was at its final stage. I rushed to the hospital as soon as I could. We had been through this before and he somehow recovered. This time was different. As I walked into the hospital room I could tell the prognosis was bleak. The doctors told us there was nothing more they could do. We were told to make final preparations.
My mother, siblings and I held a constant vigil for him at home. Someone was always around him holding his hand, talking to him so he wouldn’t be scared and alone. It seems only when we are confronted with the finality of death that we reflect upon missed opportunities in life. In these final moments with him, I thought about all the things I wished I could have done with him. I wished I could have travelled with him more. I regretted not asking him more questions about his life. I wish I had gotten to know him better. I wish I thanked him more often for all the sacrifices he made for us.
My parents always made the right choices for their children to the detriment of their own dreams and aspirations. A few days before he passed I learned that when we came to the U.S. in 1981, my parents had a choice to continue their education at the university to become a teacher and a nurse in the U.S. or find immediate work as a housekeeper and taxi driver. They chose to the latter to support their four children. They sacrificed their dreams for the sake of their children’s futures. While my father gave up his dream to pursue higher education, he constantly instilled in us the value of education and pushed all of us to obtain more than he could for himself. And while we didn’t appreciate it growing up, his dreams and aspirations for us changed our lives in profound ways and for the generations to come. As a parent now, I can understand those sacrifices but because of their sacrifices, I will never have to make those hard choices for my family.
The weight of this discovery felt like a heavy burden. I realized how hard it must have been for my parents, especially for my father. My mother never looked back but my father always held onto that dream of going back to teaching. Growing up, I remembered he always spent his free time reading Khmer and French books and Buddhist texts. He kept books in his taxi so he could read it while waiting for passengers. Every time he visited Cambodia he would buy stacks of Khmer books and take it back with him to the bewilderment of my mother. He was an active reader, circling almost every word in every book he read, writing constant notes on the side and signing his name and date.
In that revelation, at that moment, I felt a deep sense of regret for him and another level of sorrow because he was never able to return back to the profession he so loved. I wanted to do something to honor him, honor his memory and honor his love of education. I made a promise to him that day that I would build a school in his name in Cambodia. He smiled when I told him. It was the last promise I would ever make to him, a promise that he heard and that I know made him happy.
My father passed away on July 7th, 2013.
I arrived in Cambodia on July 27th, 2013, three weeks after he passed. My mind, body and spirit was in a haze. It was all too surreal. I felt as if I was living in parallel worlds, with my spirit still in the U.S. trying to grapple all that had happened, but my body in Cambodia, living in the country my father always dreamed of coming back to. The timing of events was painfully ironic. I didn’t know where I would start to keep my promise.
On October 13th I organized a 100 Day Ceremony to honor his memory at Wat Ansung in Takeo Province. Wat Ansung is the pagoda my mother grew up in and my father grew to love. He eventually claimed it as his hometown pagoda after they married in 1960. All the elder monks, achar (laymen priests) and yey chi (nuns) knew him there and were sorry to hear of his passing. I realized during the ceremony that this was where I would build something in his honor. It was a special place to both of my parents.
I spoke to the elders who attended the ceremony for their advice. The community didn’t need a school. There was already a fairly large primary school next to the pagoda serving hundreds of students. What the community wanted was a library for the multitude of students, monks, nuns, and others in the community. My father loved reading and learning. He had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. It was a perfect way to honor his memory in a place dear to his heart.
My mother arrived in Cambodia in November. After she recovered from her jet lag we started pursuing the idea of building the library at Ansung Primary School. We didn’t know where to start so we asked two of my father’s closest friends, one of whom was his former student, for guidance. Both had worked at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYS) and had a great deal of experience with building and maintaining libraries. They were a tremendous resource. They helped us find a reputable and experienced construction company, get the buy-in and support from the school administration, provided guidance of suitable materials, and overall guidance in the project. Without their help, the project wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did.
The library started construction on January 15th and was complete on April 3rd, less than three short months. We named it the “You Soeung Sakhan” Library to honor both of our parents and we dedicated the library in loving memory of my father.
LITERACY IN CAMBODIA
As a teacher my father understood the value of education to transform lives and the crucial role that literacy plays in opening the window to the world and breaking the cycle of poverty. But for many people in Cambodia that window is closed and the vicious cycle continues from generation to generation. There are many children and adults that are still illiterate and/or don’t have access to quality books or safe places to read. Finding suitable Khmer literature for children in Cambodia is challenging, especially in the rural areas where access to quality educational materials can be scarce.
The Khmer Rouge detested education (pre Khmer Rouge era) and destroyed precious books and educational materials. They wanted people who were blank slates, pure minds free of any independent thought. They turned the National Library into a filthy pigsty and burned pages of historical books to start a fires for cooking. It is estimated that over 80% of the educated population (teacher, students, artists, doctors, lawyers, etc) died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of those that survived and were educated, like my father, left the country.
Cambodia has come a long way in rebuilding a literate populace. When the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979 the new government started rebuilding the society, reopening schools, educating students, and cleaning up libraries. In 1999 68% of the population were estimated to be literate and now that figure stands at around 77% (UNESCO). This has been an improvement but it only measures basic literacy, whereas functional literacy (the ability to read/write/calculate beyond basic skills) is still very low, estimated at less than 40%.
While these increased literacy rates have been a remarkable achievement, so much more needs to be done to promote sustained literacy (beyond basic reading) and strengthen education in Cambodia. The country still faces enormous challenges to achieving a completely literate society. A wide gap remains in male vs. female literacy, urban vs. rural areas, minority groups and those with disabilities. Access is a key challenge in rural areas. There are not enough libraries that are accessible to some populations, nor are they supplied with quality educational materials.
The new library in Ansung School hopes to provide students with a safe and conducive learning environment and access to quality educational materials to promote literacy to the community. It is our family’s hope that through this library, we can make a small contribution to promoting reading, one of my father’s passions, and to share my father’s spirit for the love of learning to the country and people he loved so dearly. While it is not the school I promised my father, I know his spirit lives on through this library and his undying love for learning can be carried on to this special place for many years to come.
THE LIBRARY IS CURRENTLY EMPTY BUT SOON WILL BE FILLED WITH DESKS, BENCHES, TABLES, BOOKSHELVES, CHAIRS AND OF COURSE BOOKS. IF YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON WHERE TO FIND QUALITY AND SUITABLE FURNITURE FOR THE LIBRARY OR WOULD BE ABLE TO DONATE ANY OF THESE MATERIALS ESPECIALLY KHMER OR ENGLISH BOOKS PLEASE CONTACT ME AT firstname.lastname@example.org OR PLEASE COMPLETE THE CONTACT FORM BELOW.