Somnieng Houern

SomniengwcaptionThe Buddha said, “By birth, one is not an outcast, by birth, one is not a noble; but by action one is an outcast, by action one is a noble.” Despite growing up in a poor and abusive environment, I never regarded myself as an outcast. But I certainly knew what it meant to be in need.

In 1995, I was forced to quit formal education after fifth grade due to my family’s inability to pay the $5 bribe required for a passing grade. Despite being ignored and discriminated against as a child born into poverty, today I see that these difficulties and hardships make me stronger. I was not only hungry physically; I was also hungry spiritually and intellectually, so I decided I should join the monkhood.

My new life started in the temple in 1996. From there, I got everything I needed to continue my education and change the cause of my life. I started my education in Buddhist primary school, eventually graduating from high school and continuing to university in the USA. Along the way, in 2000, at the age of 20, I was voted by my fellow monks to become a senior leader of Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. Since that time, I have felt a great privilege and an obligation to advocate for and give voice to those who are voiceless. I see the children of Cambodia as our future; I see young girls and women as the mothers of my nation. But the problem is that so many of them now live a hidden and fearful life, with no opportunity and education.

This situation faced me with some worrying questions. What would my nation’s future look like if today’s poorest children grew up with no education? What would our future be if many disadvantaged young girls and women became mothers with no skills and lacking of education? The answer is clear: history would keep repeating itself. This is the motivation that led me to create the Life and Hope Association (LHA) in 2005. It was based on a simple principle: “to bring HOPE into LIFE through compassionate CARE and EDUCATION”. Our equation is that: “LIFE + HOPE = CHANGE; and LIFE + HOPE + EDUCATION = A GREATER CHANGE”.

With this purpose, LHA is now operating six projects including the Children’s Development Village (caring for abandoned and orphaned children), PAGE (Program Advancing Girls Education), the Sewing Training School, the Foreign Language School, the Sustainable Community Project, and the Buddhism in Society Program.

Through this time, I have also been committed to continuing my own education, and have been fortunate to be given some wonderful opportunities. I obtained my BA from St. Ambrose University in Iowa in 2010, and a Master Degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013.

Again, everything started in the temple. My life as a monk has transformed me and changed the course of my life. Giving back is the only way I can see the fruits of my education.