From Refugee To CCF
Growing up in a refugee camp in Cambodia gave Ly Sokheng the drive to give back and help others when he was older. Working for CCF has made that ambition a reality
Like the hundreds of children that CCF helps, Ly Sokheng did not have the best start in life. His early childhood, though happy, was spent in a refugee camp in Cambodia on the Thai border, where the family relied on the support from aid agencies to survive.
Site 8, as it was known, was filled with up to 30,000 refugees who had survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
This early experience has been motivation for Sokheng to give back and help others in the way that his family was supported in those days in the camp. It has led him to work at CCF, first as an English teacher and now overseeing a team in the Sponsorship Program, where he feels he can make a difference.
I also experienced hardship when I was younger, so I understand how the children feel.
Having been a refugee, Sokheng believes he can relate to the children in the care of CCF - many of whom have endured difficult starts in life - and has an appreciation of what they’ve been through.
“I know how much it helped my family in the camp to be looked after. I want to be part of CCF and work together to make life better for the children,” says Sokheng.
Sokheng has some memories of being in Site 8, located near Battambang in Northwestern Cambodia.
Pictured below, the Site 8 camp was run by the Khmer Rouge with aid agencies and NGOs responsible for the provision of refugees' needs from food and water, to shelter and healthcare.
Sokheng remembers that his family lived in a traditional house on stilts, similar to the World Housing model used in CCF housing communities. There was row upon row of bamboo houses with thatched roofs. Each one housed survivors of the Pol Pot era.
Their mother kept their humble house spotlessly clean, doing her best to make it as homely as possible for young Sokheng and his siblings.
“We were supported by UNICEF and we got an education,” says Sokheng.
“There was a school on the camp and I remember going to school and playing with some friends.”
Both of Sokheng’s parents lost family members to the Khmer Rouge. In 1991, the family was repatriated to Sokheng’s mother’s home province, Takeo.
“They were asked if they wanted to repatriate to their home province or they wanted to live in the USA,” says Sokheng. “My mother wanted to go home because she really missed her mother, who survived Pol Pot, and wanted to see her again.”
Sokheng was around seven years old when he left Site 8. After two years in the province, the family moved to Phnom Penh.
One time, I saw my mother crying. She was crying not because she felt unhappy but because she wanted to make sure that she was still able to support my brothers. And she did.
“In the first few years, it was quite challenging for my family because my father was the only one who earned money to support our daily living expenses and also our education. We just had enough,” says Sokheng.
His father worked hard all his life as a self-employed carpenter. His mother later got a job as a tailor to help support the five children, 4 boys and 1 girl (Sokheng is the eldest).
Neither of Sokheng’s parents received a proper education but they understood the value of learning and encouraged all their children to succeed at school. Giving their children a strength of purpose paid off. All five got into university.
Sokheng got a scholarship to study a Bachelor’s in social science, majoring in Khmer Literature and English, at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). To ease the financial burden on his parents, he worked part-time as an English teacher in the evenings to fund his degree, becoming the first in his family to go to university. He graduated in 2006.
“I am really proud for my parents because I still remember how hard they worked to support my three brothers who didn’t get a scholarship, and my parents had to earn to pay for their university,” says Sokheng.
When I started to grow older, I asked myself: ‘What would have happened if UNICEF did not help our family?
Since high school, Sokheng had wanted to work at an NGO.
After two years as a customer service officer in a transport company, he got a job as an English teacher at CCF.
“Starting life in a camp inspired me to help others,” says Sokheng. “When I was younger in the camp, we lived in a safe place and had enough food to eat, so we don’t get to care or to worry about anything.
“Working for an NGO really fits my values because I want to be part of social development. CCF really makes a change. I feel proud to be part of CCF.”
After three years, Sokheng left to work as a translator but returned to CCF in late 2013 and joined the Sponsorship Team. (Sokheng pictured below at CCF in 2015).
First, he worked as Sponsor Relations Officer with children and then with CCF’s grannies.
“Working with the grannies, you focus on love and care,” he says.
“All the grannies at CCF had a miserable life before. Some of the grannies were left by their children, ignored by their children, they really had a difficult life. That’s why Scott [Neeson, CCF’s Founder] initiated this program so that we can give care and love for the grannies to make them feel happy and peaceful for the rest of their lives.”
Part of Sokheng’s job involved setting up video calls with the grannies and their sponsors.
“I can see their happiness when they know that they have people who care for them and give them love because they never experienced that in their early life, they didn’t have someone who really cares about them,” says Sokheng.
Four years ago, Sokheng was promoted to be Supervisor of the Sponsorship Relations team based at CCF’s Neeson Cripps Academy. The school is located in the heart of Steung Meanchey; from the top floors you can still see the now grassy mound of the former garbage dump where many of the children, grannies and families used to work on or around scavenging for recyclables to sell.
Sokheng’s job is to lead and manage a team of 10, ensuring the office runs smoothly day-to-day, and communications between sponsors and CCF children are seamless.
“Honestly, I really enjoy working as a supervisor,” he says. “I like that I have a strong team to work with and also I feel that I am part of CCF’s success, and that really inspires me to go further.”
Sokheng, now 36, lives with his parents and younger sister, 24, who is in her final year of a Tourism and Hospitality degree. Supporting his parents in their older years is another way of giving back, says Sokheng, repaying them for the years they supported him.
“It was hard for my parents and now it is time for them to live and relax. I consider that it’s my responsibility to support them back. They are retired and I don’t want them to work because I am able to earn money and I can support them. I just want them to feel that they don’t need to worry anymore about the money.
“My mum and dad are also one of the reasons I do not have a family of my own. I witnessed how they worked really hard to give this happy life to me, so I want to give something back to them. Rather than make my own family, I want to spend this life with them.”
We need to start from ourselves first to inspire others to do something.
When he’s not working, Sokheng relaxes by reading and listening to music, mostly English songs. He’s also recently discovered an interest in cooking and plans to take some courses, aiming to one day open a restaurant selling healthy food and also teach Cambodians the benefits of healthier living.
Sokheng’s generation of educated and articulate Cambodians are instigators of change, becoming actively involved in their country’s future.
His altruism and life philosophy reflect the influence of that early life as a refugee in the Site 8 camp. The legacy of which is to be better, as a person, for the good of the majority.
“I believe that we, as people, in the country of Cambodia, have a responsibility to make sure that we are part of the solution. So whatever we do, a little thing or big thing, we will make change,” he says.
“One of my wishes is to be a good son, a good citizen of the country. I know that being a good person is an invaluable thing that you can give to your family. So I commit myself to be a better person in that way.”
Sokheng pictured below with CCF colleagues and with a student at the Neeson Cripps Academy.
There are many more chapters in Sokheng’s life story to come. For now, however, his focus is CCF and giving others the chance in life that he was once given.
“Right now, giving back to the community is something that really gives me true happiness,” he says.
“It makes me feel that I am rich, even though I am not wealthy, because I am able to give to others, I have the heart to give in any way that I can.”