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Inspirational Journey

11/27/2012

Sokchea Monn has to be reminded when his birthday is. And even then, it’s not that clear. He thinks he was born at the end of 1973, but there’s no way to tell for sure.

Monn grew up as a child of the Khmer Rouge, the ruling party that terrorized Cambodia in the 1970s, torturing and killing more than one million middle-class Cambodians. Monn’s own family was killed when Khmer Rouge forces battled Vietnamese troops near Monn’s home village.

His family gone, records destroyed, Monn was only 2 years old; his future was uncertain. But he persevered, surviving his childhood as an orphan, then bouncing from family to family — knowing that education and hard work would ensure his future.

Monn, now head of an educational nonprofit and an elementary school principal, shared his story of strife and hope for his country with Brooks community members recently.

He came to Brooks through his connection to sixth-former Andrew Lee; it was Andrew’s involvement in the Micro Investment Initiative Incorporated (Mi3) that brought the two together. Mi3 is a microfinance corporation that gives small loans to budding business owners in Third World countries.

For the past three years, Andrew has been championing the good works that small loans to low-income farmers can bring. Last summer, he spent time in Cambodia, staying with Monn, who is the founder of the Supplementary Teaching Education Program (STEP). The organization funds teachers’ salaries and school improvements. Mi3, as well as philanthropic groups from Macon, Georgia, to Germany, support STEP.

Lee found inspiration in Monn, whom he considers his mentor.

“Sokchea has taught me to give more, receive less, be humble and don’t be greedy,” said Andrew. “He’s had a great influence on me because of his character. He is extremely humble.”

A Genocide Survivor Sees Hope For His Country
Monn’s life was filled with hardship from the age of 2. He was separated from his family and sent to live at an orphanage. Two years later, he was reunited with his family, but it was a short-lived reunion. When Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia to attack the Khmer Rouge, Monn and his family fled to the jungle. His parents were killed, and Monn was forced to survive alone in the jungle. Eventually, he found his way to the village of Lveate near Phnom Penh. Throughout his childhood, Monn grew up “poorer than poor” he says, bouncing from family to family in the village. He attended school only sporadically.

Even in small doses, Sokchea knew from an early age that education was the key to a way out of living in poverty and near slave-labor farming conditions.

“I knew I didn’t want my life to continue this way, I didn’t want to grow up and have my children to continue this way,” Monn said. “So I said to myself very strongly: education is the only tool to break this poverty.”

He pursued his education to the university level, and also went to work. He studied English, and worked several jobs, finally being promoted to the position of warehouse supervisor at a Cambodian hospital.

A Flawed System
As a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, Monn saw the devastation that remained decades after the Khmer Rouge rule. Not only did he want an education for himself, but he came to see that rebuilding the country’s educational system was the only way to stabilize his homeland.

Now, more than 30 years after the genocide, the teaching industry in Cambodia is riddled with corruption. Monn explains that government-paid teacher salaries are typically very low, around just $30 a month. It’s not enough money for teachers to support their own families; in many cases, that meant teachers not showing up at their jobs every day, or they were tempted by bribes and corruption.

“So students aren’t learning basic skills, but they are advanced to the next grade anyway. Some students are in third or fourth grade and cannot read or write,” said Monn. “It was very sad to see. So I thought, how can we change this?”

Because of his own upbringing, Monn was particularly sensitive to the importance of education, so about six years ago, Monn had a pivotal meeting in Lveate with one of the teachers at the local school.

“I said, ‘I would like to teach more,’ and he looked at me very wide-eyed and said, ‘How can I?’” recalls Monn. “I said, ‘You will teach more but I will help you.’ I told him that I would pay teachers $20 a month more, but that meant he had to teach for two hours more.”

It was a deal, and it grew from there. Monn founded the STEP program to supplement teachers’ incomes — his plan was to keep teachers working as teachers full-time, and keep parents happy with the school, so that they would continue to send their children there instead of keeping them home to work on family farms. That way, Cambodian children would be more likely to learn and graduate from school.

The first year, Monn supported 17 teachers with 460 students. The next year, another 1,000 students and 47 teachers were affected. In 2009, Monn’s organization built a library — the first in the village. In 2010, the STEP School was built for elementary students.

These days, Sokchea is serving as principal of the school, and excited about a donation of laptops for his students, set to arrive soon. He’s also trying to foster exchanges between the Cambodian school and other countries. The aim, he explained during his Brooks visit, isn’t simply to offer enrichment for students, but also to bring the spotlight to his native country. He believes that helping increase the global familiarization with Cambodia is one way to ensure a genocide can never happen again.

Andrew is hopeful that he can continue to support the STEP efforts, and have the Brooks students and faculty be equally inspired.

“A desk costs about $32. If Brooks students raise just $32 and send it to Sokchea, he’ll have a student studying and reading using that exact desk that Brooks has invested in,” said Andrew.

It’s that idea of individuals helping each other on a very personal level that Monn also values.

“I believe in people, and that people want great things for their homes, for their communities,” he said. “If you find the leadership and bring people together, you will find success.”