The venerable Somnieng Hoeurn, garbed in an orange robe, led a group of friends and well-wishers on a meditative walk Sunday afternoon around the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport.
Lilacs perfumed the air, a bell chimed and the sounds of campus life faded away as walkers paced in reflective cadence. Afterward the group attended a farewell gathering for Hoeurn, a Cambodian Buddhist monk, who will graduate May 15 from St. Ambrose.
He hopes the hard-earned bachelor’s degree in business enables him to help his home country of Cambodia — and perhaps the world. “I also know myself that regardless of how much education I have, my education must serve the goal that my heart is being hungry for,” he said. “I want to use my education to represent the voice of the poor and powerless.”
He initially traveled to the United States in 2006, a young man far too familiar with beatings, poverty and family violence and the dangers of life in a war zone. Hoeurn attended primary school, but his biological family was too poor to pay for him to attend junior high school
“I felt ashamed, but I refused to give up,” he said.
He persevered in his desire to become a monk despite his mother’s objections. His journey to the United States, a land he never imagined himself visiting, began after meeting local dentist Jon Ryder in Cambodia.
At that time Hoeurn was overseeing inception of the Life and Hope Association, or LHA, at the Wat (Temple) Damnak in Siem Reap. The organization began in 2005 as his way of wanting to do little things with great love and helping break the cycle of poverty. Today the organization offers six projects, including the Children’s Development Village orphanage and a variety of educational and vocational training programs.
“It is true that we are all beacons of light for each other,” he said.
During his time in the Quad-Cities, Hoeurn studied for a degree in business administration while overseeing orphanage operations from his Rock Island home and providing spiritual guidance for local followers of Buddha.
“There are six LHA projects for the education of poor young children and girls, what he understands to be the most vulnerable population there. I have often wondered when he has time to study or sleep,” friend Vivian Norton said.
Edward Rogalski, former president of St. Ambrose University, hugged Hoeurn and recalled the day he met the young man — and later offered him an education at St. Ambrose. “You have accomplished much, and there‘s more to do, and you go with my love and prayers,” Rogalski said.
Returning to the United States for studies, however, almost proved impossible as he sought to get a student visa. Finally in 2008, he returned to Iowa and began his studies. His knowledge of languages proved a strong asset in hosting the Buddhist temple at the Satva Center in Rock Island — and a second temple in Des Moines.
“We are hoping there will be another Buddhist monk with the different language skills and the compassionate heart of Somnieng,” said Rita Melissano, the center’s director.