Any great public tragedy embraces
within it a million small and private ones. NUON PHALY encountered this
truth in a refugee camp to which she and ten thousand others fled to escape
the horrors at home in Cambodia. Among the private tragedies she found there
were those of women in whose minds the nightmares of war lived on and on.
NUON didn't really know how to help these women crippled by depression and
sadness. But putting aside her own needs, she began to try.
NUON PHALY was just eleven when Cambodia gained its independence from France
at the end of 1953. During the brief era of peace that followed, she
attended highschool, started a family, and learned to take shorthand in
French and Khmer. By 1972 she was a senior secretary at the Ministry of
Finance. When the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in April 1975, NUON was
among the multitudes of Cambodians forced brutally into the countryside. She
survived the killing fields but, in 1984, fled with her family to a refugee
camp on the Thai border--the way-station, she hoped, to a new and better
NUON remembers the camp as a huge repository of misery and casual violence.
Failing to qualify for asylum in another country, she joined a research
project to document the experiences of her fellow camp members under the
Khmer Rouge. This led her to meet many women who were traumatized by
memories of war, torture, and family separation. Widows suffered horribly.
Since no one seemed to be addressing this particular need, she began to do
In 1985, NUON and her husband opened their small house in the camp as a
center for refugees suffering from depression. With the support of the
Catholic Office for Emergency Refugee Relief and the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, her modest center grew quickly to accommodate
thirty-five women, as well as sixteen children whose parents were lost or
incapacitated by mental illness. In 1987, she named it the Khmer People's
Depression Relief Center, or KPDR.
Operating at first from her own compassionate instincts and with the
assistance of traditional Khmer healers, NUON later studied Western mental
health therapies in Thailand. At KPDR she combined these approaches in a
unique counseling service. In time, most of the women in her care resumed
normal lives outside the center. But the number of children increased. When
NUON returned to Cambodia in 1993, she was accompanied by nine widows and
ninety-one orphaned children.
NUON reestablished her center and, in 1995, occupied a two-hectare site
outside Phnom Penh that today boasts several handsome classrooms,
dormitories, and workrooms. The Future Light Orphanage, as she now calls it,
is home to some 150 orphans and the center from which NUON provides
livelihood training and mental health counseling to over a hundred war
widows in neighboring villages, as well as education and medical and
clothing assistance to hundreds of needy children. Nuon's center is
supported by the government and by the World Food Programme of the United
Nations, and proceeds from the sale of handicrafts made by the children
themselves. But it is still struggling.
Although often discouraged, the ever-smiling NUON perseveres with the daily
assistance and fervent support of her husband, Hem Soeurn. A small pamphlet
published by the center captures the essence of her labor of love. The
Future Light Orphanage, it says, "is a place of hopes and dreams." Children
in blue and white uniforms "are seen learning English. Young women are
sewing and reconstructing their lives."
In electing NUON PHALY to receive the 1998 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her selfless
commitment to helping war-traumatized women and children rebuild their
spirits and lives in the wake of Cambodia's great national tragedy.