The small nation of Cambodia has been caught up in the war in Vietnam, invaded, occupied and has suffered a brutal regime under which 20 percent of its population died – all within living memory of one generation. Refugees escaped when they could, including thousands who settled in Lowell.
While recovering, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. In rural villages, older women care for grandchildren, living in makeshift huts, while the parents work in cities.
Tola Nthonie Sok sees this as a great opportunity to make a difference.
“Ever since I was a kid, I had this vision of going back to help my parents’ country in some way,” says Sok, who was 8 when his family arrived in Lowell. His experiences along the way – in the U.S. Air Force, as an undergraduate leading the Cambodian American Student Association (CASA) and currently as a graduate student in UMass Lowell’s Peace and Conflict Studies program – strengthened his plans for Project Save One Khmer.
“The basic idea was to raise enough resources and volunteers to build houses in a poor, rural area in Cambodia,” says Sok. CASA events raised project money – including $8,000 at a fund-raising dinner in the community, and the project launched in summer 2012.
On a scouting trip the previous year, sponsored by UMass Lowell’s Dean of Students and Office of Student Activities, Sok and two other CASA members had established relationships with the key people who would help: a college student organization in Phnom Penh, the Youth Experience Sharing (YES) program; and local and regional officials.
George Chigas, lecturer in Cultural Studies and a Cambodia expert, was with them. He says, “Tola has a sense of personal connection and responsibility [to Cambodia] that is unusual. He also has the skills and the drive to act on his idea.”
More than 30 volunteers converged in 2012 for Project Save One Khmer: college students from YES, two grad students from the Netherlands, a Buddhist monk and an Air Force staff sergeant, who took leave to help out. YES helped gather an advance team that included the commune leader and village chiefs, who decided on the candidates for new houses.
“I decided on building the kind of house I had lived in,” says Sok. With a framework of strong poles and palm-leaf thatch for sides and roof, the house would be roomy and traditional.
“For about $500, we could provide a house for up to seven people,” he says.
Sok hired a head carpenter with two helpers, then “just stood and watched” as they set about constructing the first house, from beginning to end.
“I could see that if we used an assembly line system, it would be more efficient than one house at a time,” says Sok. He proposed buying the poles for all the houses and setting up stations – measuring and cutting, notching, loading on the power tiller to transport, measuring and laying foundations, then building the house skeletons.
“These were the more skilled jobs and the volunteers, who were mostly available on weekends, could arrive and nail palm leaves,” says Sok. “The carpenter disagreed at first, but once the system was in place and we saw the result, there were a lot of surprised faces.
“We completed six houses in nine days,” he says.
Paula Rayman, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program, says, “Tola’s project exemplifies the three characteristics of building peace through economic development – to create safe living places, create the basis for economic security and empower people to have their own voice. And it was done with small resources and with ‘Lowell spirit’.”
Sok himself kept a mental checklist of goals for the project.
“I circulated currency, buying not just from one business, but a variety,” he says. “There were eight or more vendors just for palm leaves, so I made sure some money went to each of them.”
The college kids had no knowledge of building and “were very curious,” says Sok. Through the project, all were exposed to Cambodian traditional construction methods – another of his goals.
“Community involvement was important, the spirit of camaraderie,” Sok says. “The villagers told me that had been lost in rural areas and now it was only about money.”
He got the help of local teenagers, who had little to do in the villages, by buying them breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“They were very enthusiastic and I could have 10 to 15 helpers for $60 a day, using my per diem from the University,” says Sok.
He plans to continue work in Cambodia, coordinating an annual trip for Project Save One Khmer. He hopes eventually to have a foundation to lend assistance to less fortunate people around the world.