By Iman Morooka and Daniel Calderbank
Path Heang pictured at UNICEF country office premises in Phnom Penh
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Chansereypich Seng
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 9 December 2016: Seventy years ago, UNICEF was founded to meet the desperate needs of children whose lives had been torn apart by World War II.
UNICEF started working in Cambodia in 1952 and established its first country office in 1973 at the height of the country’s civil war but had to cease operations in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
After the fall of this regime in 1979, UNICEF returned to Cambodia to provide emergency assistance and address critical health, sanitation and aid distribution challenges.
Today, UNICEF Cambodia has a wider focus on the realization of children’s rights through cooperation with the government, NGOs, communities and development partners.
On the occasion of UNICEF’s 70th anniversary, we interviewed our colleague Path Heang, Chief of UNICEF Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Zone Office, to hear about his family’s incredible journey of survival, loss and resilience during the turmoil of the Cambodian civil war years and the aftermath of this conflict.
Path was just six when the Khmer Rouge regime took power in 1975. His whole family was separated and sent to different labour camps.
One of seven children, Path lost his older brother who died in combat and his youngest brother to sickness.
He was sent to a labour camp where he worked with other children in the rice fields and looked after cattle.
Despite the strict regime and great risk to his own personal safety, Path managed to maintain contact with some family members.
“I used to escape during the night, sometimes to go home where my grandmother and younger brother were staying, to take food back to them. I would dig the ground in search for food like cassavas to feed my younger brother,” he said.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, child labourers were freed from the camps and parents were able to search for their children.
“It was risky because fighting was still happening,” Path said.
“I can’t remember the details of how it happened, but all surviving members of my family managed to reunite again. We went back to our home village in Takeo province and started rebuilding our lives.”
He said his first encounter with UNICEF occurred in the early 1980s at a time when the education system was virtually non-existent due to the Khmer Rouge’s four-year enforced closure of all education facilities and the killing of teachers and other educated members of society.
Path Heang speaks to children during an influx of Cambodian migrant returnees near the
Thai-Cambodian border back in 2014 to assess their situation and their needs
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Vanna Seng
Path described this dark period in the country’s history.
“We had nothing then, including schools. Not many teachers and people who can read and write had survived the Khmer Rouge time.
“My father, who had been educated at a pagoda school in his childhood and knew how to read and write, decided to put together a team and start a school for children in my village.
“We didn’t have a school building or a proper classroom as children do today – just a communal structure, with a roof but no walls.
“We didn’t have any school supplies. Plywood coated with some black colour was used as a writing board and we used chalks made from mud which were hard to use.
“Until we started receiving learning and teaching supplies from UNICEF [we had little to work with]. UNICEF gave us pencils, notebooks, erasers, blackboards and good quality chalks.
“These were the first proper school materials I ever got to know. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought then that one day I would be working for UNICEF.”
Path’s father was active in making sure that his newly established classrooms received essential learning materials supplied by UNICEF.
He would take an ox cart to a central location where he would collect the UNICEF materials packed in boxes and bring them back to the site where they were needed.
Path said: “Inside the boxes, there were instructions written in English of how to use the items. But no one knew how to read English.
“I collected those instructions and tried to learn how to read them. A few people in the community knew some basic French and they helped me read certain words.
“This was my first ever exposure to English and it instilled in me the desire to be fluent in the language.”
This early exposure to learning was a revelation to a child denied the basic right to education.
“My teacher opened my eyes to what’s out there and what could be of me in the future,” Path said.
“I remember how my teacher told me that if I study a foreign language, I could become a diplomat who would be posted in another country, to represent my own country. This motivated me to learn and put me on course.”
After finishing primary school, Path went to a district junior high school which was supported by UNICEF with teaching supplies and curriculum support.
His education continued after junior high with the completion of a teaching diploma at a teacher training college in Takeo province.
By this time, the development of the country’s educational system and school management systems started to take hold and Path took advantage of this and maximised his learning potential.
“While attending teacher training college, I started learning French through a private tutor,” he said.
“After two years of learning, I became fluent. I then started learning English, but I had to do it in secret because studying foreign languages wasn’t allowed then.
“There was one English teacher in the whole province who taught eight students in an abandoned building under the moonlight. We got caught though and my friends and I went to jail for it.
“By the early 1990s, the UN transitional authority was in place and studying foreign languages wasn’t banned any more.”
Mr. Heang Ouch, UNICEF staffer Path Heang’s father, who established a community school to
teach children in his village after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Photo provided by Path Heang
Path passed his university exam and went to study English in Phnom Penh where he obtained his bachelor’s degree of education in the English programme. Afterwards, he was awarded a scholarship through the Rotary Foundation and received a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Queensland in Australia. He was also selected International Alumnus of the Year in 2008.
“I never became a diplomat in the end, but I became an international civil servant working for various United Nations agencies,” he added.
Path recognises the valuable support of others who helped him achieve academic and professional success at a very difficult time of transition and rebuilding following the civil war.
“I am thankful to my father and the other volunteer teachers who taught me as a child. Without their commitment, passion for education and big hearts, my generation wouldn’t have been able to receive any education.”
After returning from Australia upon finishing his master’s studies in 2004, Path secured employment with international organizations including the World Bank, the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Development Programme.
He then set about securing a position with UNICEF. He said: “I was interviewed for a job as a child protection officer in 2005, thinking I would accept the job even for half the salary.
“But I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until 2008 that I joined UNICEF for the position of adolescents and youth programme specialist. It was a dream job.
“I told them at the job interview that I would never leave UNICEF for as long as there’s a job for me there!”
Path’s tough childhood experiences in the aftermath of conflict and transition of the nation have given him extra motivation to contribute to UNICEF’s mission to create better opportunities and safer, healthier living conditions for children in Cambodia today.
Path Heang high-fives children in a village near Phnom Penh during a field visit.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Iman Morooka
He said: “I didn’t have books as a child until UNICEF came.
“Most children today have those things, not only thanks to UNICEF, but thanks to the government and other development partners’ efforts.
“UNICEF has been in Cambodia for the good and the bad times, to make this country stronger.
“It makes me happy to see children enjoy their rights and what they are entitled to. To have health care and go to school and for their parents to know what’s good for them.
“I think about my youngest brother who died of diarrhoea, only because my parents didn’t know what they should do.
“They took him to a traditional healer, who told my parents that my brother shouldn’t drink any water, although he was thirsty and begging to be given water.
“I’ve been grieving for a long time for the loss of my youngest brother. It makes me cry every single time I recall this memory.
“One thing that is crystal clear to me is that no more children anywhere should die of simply preventable reasons such as diarrhoea.”