Resilience: Cambodian Orphans Live, Learn, and Thrive

by Alexander Jun

Sohka lived in a small, rural village in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the only son in a struggling family of subsistence farmers. They ate whatever they could catch—fish, snakes, crabs, frogs, grasshoppers, and crickets. When those were scarce, he recalls eating only pickled chili peppers. When Sohka was nine, his parents divorced, and he never saw his father again. He moved with his mother to Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, where she married a man who later abused both of them. She sank into depression, turned to drinking, and drowned when Sohka was 12.

Unwanted by his abusive stepfather and unable to locate his biological father or any extended family in his hometown, Sohka found himself alone and wandering the streets of Phnom Penh. He eventually encountered a Christian orphanage for abandoned children and lived in a boys’ home while attending a school for at-risk Khmer children. At first, Sohka struggled academically, taking remedial coursework. But he soon caught up to grade level and even gained admission to a four-year college in the United States.

In summer 2010, I moved to Cambodia with my wife and our three young children to embark on a research journey that spanned three years. The project emerged into a narrative life history study documenting the lives and experiences of a group of underprivileged youth in Cambodia. This ethnographic approach to getting to know these individuals involved prolonged field research, in-depth interviews, and participant observations. I lived among them and immersed myself in their community, seeking to understand how at-risk youth like Sohka could summon the strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and circumstances, and to not only survive, but also thrive.

Thriving requires remarkable determination in Cambodia, a country still recovering from the impact of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that occurred in the mid-1970s. Then-Cambodian leader Pol Pot decimated much of the educational infrastructure, and arrested, tortured, and executed the educated and elite, killing an estimated 2 million people over a four-year period. Although Cambodia has made some political and economic progress, the years of suffering still affect impoverished Khmer families. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Cambodian educational system lags far behind its Southeast Asian counterparts with an adult literacy rate of just 37 percent and participation in higher education less than 2 percent. Exacerbating the problem, widespread governmental corruption facilitates the prevalence of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of vulnerable minors. Today, many young people either live in fear and abuse or end up in one of many orphanages scattered throughout Cambodia. Yet, in the midst of these grim circumstances, many orphaned Khmer students find a way to succeed.

To find out how, I aligned my approach with Don Clifton, the founder of Clifton StrengthsFinder, who asked, “What would happen if we actually studied what is right with people?” I worked with a group of orphaned Khmer youth to understand the importance of educational access and student resilience, and the motivation to survive and thrive. Unsurprisingly, my findings confirmed what educators already know—that from an early age, these orphans developed what can only be described as grit, the essence of how their experiences shaped and characterized their lives and developed their resolve to thrive once better opportunities presented themselves. However, rather than allowing such experiences to define them, these individuals reframed them and built from their gritty realities a resolve of character, a rare sort of pluck.

A Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, once spoke about the dangers of telling a single story, like the single story of suffering and poverty so many correlate with Cambodia that fails to capture the full picture. Indeed, many of the orphans’ early childhood experiences reveal harsh circumstances—poverty, abuse, grief, loss, and abandonment. However, I affirm Adichie’s perspective and submit that for Khmer youth, that sole perspective only evokes pity for the Khmer people.

Through my findings, I established a framework for college access and student resilience for orphaned students in Cambodia. I hope these life stories will aid workers and educators working with disenfranchised youth, both in Southeast Asia and North America, and argue that educators must supplement the individual characteristics of resilient at-risk students by maintaining high expectations for academic success. Service providers should offer a range of continuous services to meet manifold physical, financial, and emotional needs of orphans. They ought to embrace and affirm students’ aspirational goals for life while investing in the necessary academic and career advisement to achieve those goals and help them to reach their full potential.

Sohka enrolled in a small U.S. college with financial aid from the Christian organization that originally sponsored him, as well as institutional scholarships. He holds advanced standing as a junior, recently declared a major in communications, and is dating. He continues to stand as a young man full of resolve—grit mixed with gratitude for every opportunity he has. Upon graduation, he intends to return to Cambodia to serve the many needs in his country. I will forever be impacted by his story of resilience. It influences the way I teach my graduate students, the way I conduct research, and the way I now approach my own life’s challenges. I pray that Sohka’s story would spark an entire generation of disenfranchised youth in Cambodia to live, learn, and thrive.

Originally published in the Spring '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.