Somnieng Hoeurn never dreamed of coming to the U.S. to study. The Buddhist monk, who turned 33 Wednesday, was content to operate his Life and Hope Association through which he and his fellow monks feed and educate poor children from the area surrounding Hoeurn’s temple, Wat Damnak, in the city of Siem Reap in north central Cambodia.
But in 2006, at age 25 Hoeurn attended St. Ambrose University, and at the behest of Quad-City dentist Dr. Jon Ryder, who met Hoeurn while on a trip to Cambodia. Hoeurn graduated in 2010. He recently received his master’s degree in public administration Harvard University and its John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is only the second Cambodian to be admitted to the Kennedy School.
From a childhood filled with hunger and violence to St. Ambrose and Harvard, a grateful Hoeurn took time Thursday to take what could be a final tour of the St. Ambrose campus. He heads home June 26 to work that would seem ominous to many.
But now Hoeurn said he has the tools to better serve his people.
“I see St. Ambrose as giving me the seeds and the soil,” Hoeurn said. “Now, I need to do my work. I take the seeds and soil and give it to my people, and then the people need to do their part.
The group works extensively with improving the lives of women and children.
“We see the children as the future of the country, and the women as the mothers of the nation.”
Hoeurn was born in 1980, a year after Vietnamese troops toppled Pol Pot whose policies of forced labor and executions coupled with poor health care and malnutrition, led to the deaths of an estimated 1 to 3 million people.
As a boy, Hoeurn saw the dictator’s Killing Fields that claimed his grandfather and more than one uncle. The murder of his father, he said, remains mysterious.
At age 15, he knew he wanted an education. He moved to Seim Reap and the temple Wat Damnak and found his purpose among the impoverished Cambodian youth. He knew that if he was hungry for food and an education, many others were, too.
Hoeurn said the Life and Hope Association was founded to provide food to local families, who in exchange allowed their children to attend school at the temple.
The mission has grown to include an orphanage, a boarding school for girls who want to continue their education beyond junior high school and a sewing school that provides young women with a marketable skill. There also is a junior high school and a language school where students can learn English, which will help them get jobs in the growing tourism industry, he said.
Of course, Hoeurn would like to see his students complete their education at the university level. However, he added, “It’s not enough for them get an education, so they can simply improve themselves. It also is what they do with that education.”
Whether the education is in business, engineering or the social sciences, the goal of education is to be able to give back to the community, he said. “It’s that quality of giving back we want students to think about.”