GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
"Since we spent virtually no money in the camps, I was able to save a sizable nest egg, money I knew I would need when we finally returned to Phnom Penh. I took my savings, some award money, and began to build the orphanage." CLICK FOR LARGE
Founder of the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate
Weaving across the globe from Cambodia to Hawaii
A Killing Fields era survivor is using her silk business to support hundreds of orphans with the assistance of the Sunrise Rotary Club of Honolulu
A SURVIVOR of Cambodia's notorious Killing Fields era, Phaly Nuon is a woman that has woven the painful bits of her life into a successful retail silk business that has expanded from her home in Phnom Penh to Hawaii's shores.
Though Nuon learned to weave silk as the privileged granddaughter of a royal fortune teller in Cambodia, she did not predict that one day she would use those shiny threads to form a business that would support hundreds of Khmer orphans, or that the micro-enterprise would expand beyond her native land.
Nuon began the orphanage with 91 children, but has since tripled the number of children, supporting them with contributions from Worldmate, the Sunrise Rotary Club of Honolulu, a thriving woven silk retail business and a 12-room guesthouse. Buyers from Singapore, France, South America and the U.S. mainland have helped expand business and increased the number of services that Nuon can provide to her orphans. The Honolulu Academy of Arts, which Nuon contacted on a recent visit to Hawaii, will be the first local retailer to offer Nuon's wares.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to expand the sales of our products," said Nuon, who has been recognized for her humanitarian efforts in founding the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate, alongside the Dali Llama, Mother Theresa and Korizumi Kurosawa.
THE SILKS, which are sold from a storefront along the tourist section of the Mekong River in Cambodia as well as in Singapore, South America and France, bring in revenue of about $3,000 to $4,000 a month, supporting some 300 children at the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate. Nuon established the orphanage in 1987 to take care of refuge children living along the Cambodian Thai border.
"I had to be strong enough for the children," said the diminutive Nuon, whose welcoming smile belies the many tragedies that she has experienced in her own life, which changed dramatically in 1975 when Khmer Rouge communist troops forcibly evacuated Phnom Penh.
At the time, Nuon was a 32-year-old professional working mother with three children and one on the way. Though she was nine months pregnant, Nuon was forced out of her home in Cambodia's capital city and ordered to make a multiday trek into the countryside to conform to Pol Pot's vision of a new agrarian order.
COURTESY OF SUNRISE ROTARY CLUB OF HONOLULU
Children of the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate get water from one of the facility's wells. Clean water is a scarce commodity in post-war Cambodia. CLICK FOR LARGE
As chaos surrounded her, Nuon strapped thousands of dollars in currency and heirlooms to her body and fled her comfortable home, along with her children and siblings, for what would become nearly two decades of horror. Along the way, Nuon's first husband died of starvation. She dug his grave and buried him herself.
ONLY TWO of Nuon's four natural born children kept starvation at bay to survive Cambodia's infamous genocide; however she managed to find the strength to live through that agony, create a successful business and open the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate.
"I work to forget," Nuon said, but it's clear from her humanitarian efforts on behalf of all the children who suffer that she remembers what it's like to hurt and to hope.
Nuon recalls that she spun a new life for herself when she used her hidden money and heirlooms to purchase Thai silk and organize a weaving cooperative among the many other women like her whom had been displaced by the Khmer Rouge and were living as refugees.
"We were all so sad and we wanted to help the children," Nuon said.
The women, using traditional Cambodian skills learned by Nuon at her grandmother's knee when Kampuchea was a more idyllic place, made silk scarves, shawls and purses to sell. By 1987, the cooperative had become so successful that Nuon was able to establish an orphanage for the abandoned and impoverished children that she encountered among fellow refugees living in camps along the Thai Cambodian border.
"They were very popular, and we made a lot of money," Nuon said. "Since we spent virtually no money in the camps, I was able to save a sizable nest egg, money I knew I would need when we finally returned to Phnom Penh. I took my savings, some award money, and began to build the orphanage."
Despite the beauty of Nuon's product, the work that she does today once would have guaranteed speedy entrance into a Khmer Rouge prison and painful death. During the Khmer Rouge regime, everyone suspected of free-market activity, foreign exposure or affiliation with the government faced almost certain death. Professionals like Nuon, who worked as a secretary and a French translator for the Societe Khmer Distillery and the Ministry of Finance, were also targets as were any of Cambodia's educators, artists or religious leaders.
AN ESTIMATED 1.5 million to 3 million Cambodians were killed during Cambodia's Killing Fields, the largest genocide in the history of the world. While the Khmer Rouge fell from power in 1979, the fighting, unrest and civil conflicts continued until 1997. As a result, orphans still represent a significant proportion of children in Cambodia. There are an estimated 670,000 or more children, approximately 9 percent of the country's young, who are living as orphans, according to the 2004 Children on the Brink report.
While many of Cambodia's orphans are lost souls doomed to wander the city streets begging money from foreigners and stealing food, Nuon's children are thriving with a little help from their friends in Hawaii and elsewhere.
Silk, the strongest natural fiber known to man, is the tool that Nuon has used to craft a new life for the many hundreds of children whose lives have hung like broken threads following years of conflict and post-war-recovery in Cambodia. She's also found that friendship is another tie that binds.
A chance meeting with Honolulu Rotarian Rob Hail helped her expand the services that her orphanage provides, led to the creation of a 12-room guesthouse that caters to tourists that want a volunteer experience, and gave her a recent foothold into Hawaii's retail market.
COURTESY OF SUNRISE ROTARY CLUB OF HONOLULU
The Sunrise Rotary Club of Honolulu, which began supporting the Future Light Orphanage of Worldmate six years ago, built the children a library. Rob Hail, founder of the rotary's foster parent program, stands outside the new building with orphanage founder Phaly Nuon. CLICK FOR LARGE
Though Cambodian adoptions are closed to the United States, members of the Honolulu Sunshine Rotary Club, along with their family and friends, provide mentorship and support to more than 100 of Nuon's orphans through an innovative e-mail-based foster parent program.
Many of Sunshine Rotary Club members visit the children each year and are in contact with the children by e-mail on a daily basis, said Hail, who founded the program six years ago as a way for Rotarians to fulfill their international mission by sharing resources with children in need.
"I visited many orphanages before settling on Phaly," Hail said. "I immediately knew that she was a very special person and that her orphanage was a very special place."
DIRK BUDD and Dan McDougal, the owners of Pet's Discount Stores Inc. in Hawaii and parents of two Cambodian adoptees, are among those who have taken up Hail's mission. The couple, who have become close to Nuon, write to about half a dozen of the children at her orphanage.
"It's quite a challenge for anyone to step up to the plate and take on the responsibility, but I would encourage anyone to do this," Budd said, adding that the program is not just about financial support -- it's about creating mentorship avenues for children.
The couple, along with Colin and Madeline children that they adopted from another orphanage when U.S./Cambodian adoptions were legal, regularly visit Nuon's program to lend support.
They also buy silk every chance they get and share the beauty of the product and its mission with others in the form of gifts, Budd said.
"We have silks and Khmer art everywhere," he said. "We just received a huge crate today. We support them as much as we can."
Through the program, lives are being transformed and each child is encouraged to study hard with the incentive that we will help them go to college, Hail said.
"This is a country that used to be a great empire, but just through history they have had an incredibly tough time," he said. "Fate has given them a tough turn, but finally these children have peace and they have opportunities."
WHILE the United Nations Development Program has said that only half of Cambodia's children currently finish primary school, Hail said that Nuon's orphans are top students at the public school where they attend classes.
The Sunrise Rotary Club has built Nuon's orphan students a library and is in the process of building an "Aloha Learning Center," in coordination with Honolulu's Metro Rotary Club, he said.
As a result of the many resources, some of Nuon's children will have the opportunity to be educated for professional fields.
"We are now supporting our first five kids in college who have grown up and are living at the orphanage," Hail said.
Other students can learn useful vocational or artisan skills through the orphanage's weaving, dancing or guesthouse programs, he said.
The orphanage is more like a village than an institution; many people earn their livings there, working to help the children achieve a better future, Nuon said.
"We employ cooks and teachers and maintenance people, weavers and sewers and sometimes musicians," she said.
While Sen. Hilary Clinton once said, "It takes a village to raise a child," Nuon knows that this is true. She's built a village and gone one better by stretching the borders all the way to Hawaii.
COURTESY OF SUNRISE ROTARY CLUB OF HONOLULU
Cambodian orphans have formed friendships with their Hawaii foster parents whom they talk to via e-mail. CLICK FOR LARGE
Letters from Cambodian orphans to their foster parents in Hawaii
Dear my lovely dad Terry, Mommy, Ciera and Hunter,
Hello dad! How are you and your family? For me, I am doing well. How is the weather in your country? In Cambodia it is hot and sometimes it is cold.
Thank you for your nice letter to me. Now, my school is taking monthly tests again in this month. I am very delighted to hear from you. Yes, of course, I brush my teeth two times a day. Dad and mom, I think of you all time. I want to tell you that I miss you all the time and love you so much. I am sorry that I didn't write to you sooner. I am really busy with my work and homework. I am so happy that you would like to visit here.
Aloha from your daughter,
Thank you for correcting my letter. I am really poor at grammar. I cannot catch up with the teacher. But I can read in English and the words well. When I study about the grammar, I always get headache. But however I will try to learn more and more about it. Dad, when you were young, have you ever told somebody a lie? As you know that the entire problems that I ask you, it used to happen with me (because I think that no one is perfect). My teacher told me that.
By the way, dad I am poor at writing and grammar. But I am good at listening and reading. Because, I always speak with the foreigners and I used to read your letters and the books every day so now I am good at it and I am good at watching movies (I am just kidding).
Every day I get up at 4:30 and I take 30mns to read a book and at 5:00 I do exercise about 3mns. I am not doing it well every day, some time I over sleep. And sometimes I feel very sleepy while the teacher explains to me. You know there are lots of English teachers at my state school love Flow's children. And they said we are good at English and friendly. And we don't like to be on that like the other students. Most of the teachers at my school are corruption, so students don't obey and respect them too much and some of them are less morality.
How is the weather at your country now? In Cambodia now sometimes it is warm and sometimes it is hot. Your house is near the beach, so you can go there and see it every day. If I have stress, I like to go to the beach to be free from every thing. If I have my own house, I will build near the beach too. Why do you move your house from Hawaii to Santababora? Can you tell me? Henry told me about it.
Oh, dad could you tell me how to make report? I want to study about it. I want to be an outstanding student!!! And I want to avoid from the entire bad things to be a good person. This is my commitment!! And I am always happy to get punishment from my teacher when I do something wrong.
I didn't finish Harry Potter book yet, you know there are lots of difficult words. And I let my friends borrow it. I don't know when I will finish this book. I must spend much time to research the difficult words in dictionary.
I would like to say good bye to you now. It's time for me to water flowers.
Please have a nice day and think of me when you are upset and happy.