JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The vision and efforts of Bernie Krisher have helped hundreds of needy children in Cambodia. Krisher met with some Honolulu volunteers earlier this month to garner support for his Cambodia relief efforts. CLICK FOR LARGE
Ex-journalist's mission: educate Cambodia
Hawaii leaders have played a key role in building schools for the third-world children
STORY SUMMARY »
Retired American journalist Bernie Krisher, a Holocaust survivor, has enlisted the aid of Hawaii's movers and shakers and retirees to join him in building schools for Cambodia children, who still live in the shadow of the Killing Fields.
In the years after infamous communist leader Pol Pot killed 2 million Khmer people in the 1975-79 genocide, Cambodia has struggled to rebuild without the aid of all of the trainers, educators, artists and entertainers who were among the first to be executed. Last year, only one out of every two Cambodia children completed primary school, but Krisher hopes to change that with the 355 Khmer schools that he has built largely with U.S. and Japanese aid.
During his most recent visit to the islands, Krisher networked with Gov. Linda Lingle as well as Hawaii's business and community leaders and secured funding for six more schools.
FULL STORY »
Last year, only one out of two children in Cambodia completed primary school.
Trying to change that statistic in a post-Holocaust nation is much like trying to grow a garden in a kudzu patch -- often small seedlings emerge only to be choked by the unrelenting vines.
The United Nations Development Program estimates that 90 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, more than a third live below the poverty line and many are dying of preventable diseases. Each year, about 30,000 Khmer children die -- that's one of the highest childhood mortality rates in Southeast Asia.
In the years after infamous communist leader Pol Pot killed 2 million Khmer people in the 1975-79 genocide, ignorance is the vine that ate Cambodia. Luckily, retired American journalist Bernie Krisher, himself a survivor of another Holocaust, knows something about gardening in adverse circumstances.
Krisher believes the Khmer children, who live in the shadow of the Killing Fields, are the seedlings that one day will make Cambodia's economy and community bloom. That's why he's come out of his retirement as the former Newsweek bureau chief for Asia to help build 355 schools for Khmer children. He's getting by with a little help from business leaders, high-ranking friends who include among them the likes of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and folks from Hawaii and around the globe.
Earlier this month, Krisher stopped in Hawaii during a five-week fundraising tour in the United States. During his most recent visit to the islands, Kri-sher met with Gov. Linda Lingle, Hawaii business leaders and other movers and shakers, securing funding for six more schools.
"The people in Hawaii are very generous," Krisher said. "There are many retired people here who have had a good life like me. If you are enjoying the fruits of what you gained in terms of prestige and finance, you are looking for ways to give something back."
Krisher, who was on his third visit to Hawaii and has worked with more than 50 donors from the islands, described kamaaina as among "the most hospitable people" that he's ever had the fortune to meet.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bernie Krisher, second from right, shared a laugh earlier this month with Rose Marie Pritts, second from left, and Dr. Heather Catell, right, when they met with some Honolulu volunteers to garner support for his Cambodia relief efforts. Krisher's agency, American Assistance for Cambodia, has built more than 300 schools, including 16 funded by Hawaii residents. CLICK FOR LARGE
"Where else in the world do you land and they put a lei around your neck?" he said.
But, more importantly, Hawaii people opened their hearts and their checkbooks to Krisher's primary cause, shoring up the health, education and, eventually, economic prospects of Khmer children so that the emerging country can meet its development goals. On this trip, donors -- many from Hawaii's business community -- pledged roughly $78,000 to bring the total of Hawaii-funded schools in Cambodia to 16.
Krisher's business partnership with Hawaii started three years ago when he met Jerry and Vanny Clay, who were touched by the plight of the children they saw while on a trip to Vanny's home country. Vanny, who now teaches French at Punahou School, was one of the lucky Khmer nationals who were studying in France when the Khmer Rouge began terrorizing Cambodia.
"I wanted to show my husband Angkor Wat," said Vanny. "While we were looking at the beautiful sights, we noticed that there were children wandering around. When I asked why they didn't go to school, they said there were no schools."
That's been the status quo in the wake of Pol Pot's quest for a completely agrarian society, said Douglas Gardner, the UNDP resident representative and UN resident coordinator for Cambodia, during an interview last October in Phnom Penh.
"The country lost many of its trainers -- the school teachers, the professors, the artists, the entertainers -- and that continues to strike at the development of young Cambodians," he said.
While searching for a way to help the children of her homeland, Vanny learned of Krisher and his efforts to empower Cambodia through its children. A dialogue eventually led to Kri-sher's first Hawaii donor trip.
"We invited other couples to a reception at my husband's law firm and they were all convinced that this was the way to help children," Vanny said. "We don't push people -- it's from their heart if they want to help."
The Clays and other prominent Hawaii business people and citizens, like Andrew and Marty Roach, who first met Kri-sher in the 1960s in Asia, have not only become school donors but also his unofficial ambassadors in the islands. Others, like Rose Marie and Richard Pritts, who formed a network of sponsor donors to fund a school, have even made or are planning to make trips to Cambodia to extend the connection and cement business partnerships.
For many business leaders in Hawaii, it's also been a way for them to follow Krisher's example and enhance their retirement.
"Cambodia is kind of an orphan nation and it arouses a lot of sympathy," said Dr. Bill Cody, a retired psychiatrist who along with Heather Cattell, a psychologist, donated a school garden that feeds 370 school children.
The need to help was more personal for the Roach family, who built Krisher's No. 266 school and named it the Monique Brousseau School after their adopted Khmer granddaughter.
"Because of my granddaughter, I'm really trying to help as much as I can," said Marty Roach. "When I look at her, I think here is this bright child from a Cambodian village and there must be lots of children just like her."
Krisher's seemingly boundless energy, which provided the genesis for his creation of two nonprofit organizations, the American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia, has produced results beyond his rural schools project. Krisher's organizations also have resulted in a free hospital, a free press, empowerment programs to help girls stay in school and a special academic program for Cambodia's brightest students.
"Helping Cambodia find the power center and get things accomplished has satisfied my ego as journalist," he said. "Being a journalist taught me to find the points where you can get something accomplished. I know how to identify the people to go to and how to get things done."
While some are amazed that Krisher has accomplished so much in his retirement, his powers of persuasion are the stuff of legends. One of Kri-sher's schools bears the Kissinger name because it was donated by Walter Kissinger, Krisher's longtime friend -- who also happens to be the brother of Henry Kissinger, who as former President Nixon's secretary of state and national security adviser played a key role in the United States' decision to bomb Cambodia in the 1970s.
"They were worried about the reaction Cambodian people would have to a school with the Kissinger name," Krisher said. "I told them that it would be OK. The people would love it and they did."
Krisher also pulled a minor coup of his own when he managed to convince J.K. Rowling's' publisher to translate a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" into Khmer.
"I discovered that Cambodians stopped reading after Pol Pot," Krisher said. "Kids want to learn English and computer skills, but they've never heard Shakespeare or Dickens. I thought that I would like to publish one book that would get kids to read."
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" fit the bill because of its universal appeal for all ages, he said.
"It has ghosts, and Cambodians believe in ghosts, and it has a kid who triumphs over evil, and so far the Cambodians have not triumphed over evil," he said.
Krisher understands old ghosts, and the role that hope can play in rebuilding a life.
"I think he's driven because of his background," Roach said. "You know he was a Holocaust survivor. He was on the last train out of France and escaped to the United States where he got a good education. Now, he's trying to do the same for others."
In this stage of Krisher's life, it's more about supplying the missing link, he said. It's about what comes after you've managed to triumph over evil and reach your dreams. It's about realizing that life, even in rural Cambodia, has its own complexities.
"There's a missing link when the United Nations Development Program or the World Bank talks about poverty reduction," Krisher said. "Earning $2 a day instead of $1 a day might feed a family or put a roof on a house. It might help them manage their life a little better, but it won't help them reach their potential -- for that they need to go to school."