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 high school, 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 life abroad.
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 so herself.
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 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.
According to rmaward.asia