Cambodian women find support in Memphis

November 23, 2013 in Faith Matters, Featured Rotator by David Waters

camSince they arrived at Rhodes College in August, the two young women from Cambodia have visited the river, the ballet, the botanic garden and several museums.

“It is strange to see something in a museum from only 50 years ago,” said Bormey Sivorn, 20. “In Cambodia museums, we have things from 1,000 years ago.”

They’ve also been to Walmart (“too big”), the grocery store (“so much beef”), and McDonald’s. “I want to bring McDonald’s to Cambodia,” said Lina Hun, 26. “We need more food choices and more jobs.”

Lina and Bormey are recent college graduates and aspiring entrepreneurs from a country still trying to recover from the genocidal “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Educated people were targeted; an estimated 70 percent of all teachers died or were executed, including Bormey’s grandfathers.

Cambodia is rebuilding by focusing more resources on education, a national effort being aided for current and former Memphians. Lina and Bormey are in Memphis for a year of study at Rhodes College, postgraduate fellowships arranged by the Harpswell Foundation, whose mission is “to empower a new generation of Cambodian women.”

Harpswell was founded by Memphis native Alan Lightman, an MIT physicist and best-selling author of “Einstein’s Dreams” who now lives in New England.

“This is the most rewarding activity I’ve ever done in my life,” said Lightman, who travels to Cambodia several times a year. “It has given my life meaning and given me much more of an appreciation of what the human spirit is capable of.”

For Lightman, empowerment begins with education.

The Kingdom of Cambodia, nestled between Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, is an impoverished nation about the size of Missouri with more than double the population.

For centuries, females in Cambodia were excluded from schools. Schools are open to women now, but most Cambodians live in impoverished rural areas, and most universities are in the capital, Phnom Penh. That was a problem, especially for women.

Until Lightman came along, there were few college dormitories in the capital and none for women. Male students from rural villages could stay in Buddhist temples in the city, but women were barred.

“There are 100,000 college-age girls in Cambodia every year, and they have nowhere to go,” said Lightman, who first learned of the problem when he went to Cambodia in 2003 to help a Unitarian minister who was trying to aid a rural village.

Lightman met female college students who were living underneath the academic buildings. “That’s how badly they wanted to go to college,” Lightman said. “I was just blown away. I was so overwhelmed by their courage and determination to get an education. I don’t know anyone who sacrificed that much to go to college.”

The first Harpswell Foundation Dormitory and Leadership Center for University Women opened for 36 female students in 2006. A second dorm, on the other side of Phnom Penh, opened for 48 female students in 2009.

Harpswell residents attend various universities in Phnom Penh. Harpswell provides free food, housing and health care, leadership training, opportunities for community service and critical thinking skills to disadvantaged young women from the countryside.

“We can’t help all of the poor girls in Cambodia, so we look for girls with leadership potential who can have a long and lasting impact on their country,” Lightman said.

Since 2006, Harpswell has hosted 140 female students. So far, 60 have graduated and gone on to careers in law, business and journalism. Lina graduated in 2012, Bormey this year.

“We call him ‘Dad,’ ” Lina said of Lightman. “My family struggle. At Harpswell, we had everything we needed. Harpswell like heaven to us.”

Lina, who has five younger sisters and one younger brother, grew up in a rural area near the northern border with Thailand. She said her family ate a lot of rice and eggs. “Not so many eggs,” she said. “Sometimes we have three eggs for nine people.”

Her grandfather and other family members were among the nearly 2 million Cambodians who were killed or died in the four years after radical Communist leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.

“My parents were not educated; they don’t know much about study,” Lina said. “So I had to figure it out myself. My mother push me to study. She want me to avoid her life.”

While living at Harpswell, Lina majored in chemical engineering and food technology. At Rhodes, she’s taking classes in business and chemistry. When she returns to Cambodia, she wants to start a food processing plant.

“We need more food in Cambodia,” she said. “More than rice.”

Bormey is from Sihanoukville, a large port city in the Gulf of Thailand on Cambodia’s southern border. Its beaches and nearby islands are drawing tourists from around the world.

Bormey and her younger brother were a little better off. Their father is a police officer, and their mother is a teacher. Both of their grandfathers were teachers. Both were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

“Educated people were a threat to the regime,” Bormey said. “Nothing is more important to my country now than education. It will empower us.”

Because of her family’s focus on education, Bormey started to learn English in the second grade.

She moved to Harpswell and began attending college classes at age 16. She majored in economics.

At Rhodes she’s taking classes in microeconomics, labor economics and international relations. When she goes back to Cambodia, she wants to start her own business.

“I want to make helmets for motorcyclists,” she said. “I want to create jobs. We need more jobs than farming.”

They also need more education. There are no master’s-level courses in Cambodia. So in 2010, Harpswell began arranging one-year postgraduate fellowships at a few colleges in America.

The next year, Lightman asked his friend, Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, to come to Harpswell to talk to the students about spirituality and faith from a Jewish perspective.

Greenstein was profoundly moved by “their courage — remember, these are among the first women ever to attend college in all-male environments — and their perseverance to overcome living conditions worse than most of us can ever imagine.”

Lina, Bormey and other students he met were “literally children of survivors of the genocide who ended up teaching me more than I could ever impart to them.”

Greenstein’s trip launched a partnership with Temple Israel that continues to expand.

In 2012, the rabbi took five Memphis women to Cambodia with him — Margaret Craddock, Barbara Hyde, Barbara Holden Nixon, Mearl Purvis and Becky Wilson. They were equally moved and inspired.

“To me, the most impressive attribute of the Harpswell girls was their determination to become educated in preparation to become leaders in their communities and of their country,” said Nixon, who works for the Urban Child Institute.

This year, Rhodes College joined Harpswell’s postgraduate program. Lina and Bormey arrived in August.

“I admire how they manage to have both delightful, girlish enthusiasm combined with a deep, iron-like strength, purpose and will,” said Hyde, president of Hyde Family Foundations. “I think of them as steel magnolias. Or maybe it would be better to call them steel lotus blossoms.”

Local benefactors are talking about ways to bring even more of Harpswell to Memphis, including opening a Harspwell-like dormitory for young women.

“We realize that many girls in our community live in homes where they suffer neglect and abuse or abject poverty, all of which prevent them from doing their best,” said Craddock.

“A safe environment with many opportunities for additional enrichment could help our community nurture our greatest resource, the youth of our city.”

Memphis Cambodia has planned four public events, starting Dec. 7. Lina and Bormey will tell their story.

Meanwhile, they plan to spend Thanksgiving with Jim and Martha Boyd, who visited Harpswell last January and picked them up at the airport in August.

“When we embraced Lina and Bormey upon their arrival,” said Martha Boyd, “I felt that we were a small part of the world’s healing that day.”

Memphis Cambodia

Kathy Bates, Academy Award winning actress and Memphis native, is scheduled to speak at the kickoff event for Memphis Cambodia from 10 a.m.-noon Dec. 7 at the Malco Paradiso Theater.

The free event, the first of four scheduled this academic year, will include a showing of the new documentary film, “Girl Rising”.

The program will feature the stories of two graduates of the Harpswell Leadership Centers in Cambodia, Lina Hun and Bormey Sivorn. Both are in Memphis for a postgraduate year of study at Rhodes College.

Other events are scheduled for Feb. 8, April 12, and a date in May to be determined. For more information, write