Thursday, December 6, 2012
HACKENSACK — Cambodian immigrant Tongratha Veng described a world that the students at Bergen County Academies could hardly imagine — one where starvation and death were rampant and education was elusive.
Veng fled his home in 1979 during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, when nearly 2 million Cambodians were killed or starved to death. The 39-year-old former refugee, who now lives in California, spoke to students about his life, hoping to educate and teach them about his native country's history and its current struggles.
A student club, Bergen 4 Cambodia, invited Veng to speak to encourage support for fundraising efforts to build a school in Cambodia. Since its founding last year, the high school club has raised $2,500 toward its goal of $13,000.
Veng will speak today to students at the middle school and high school in Ridgewood, which also have Cambodia clubs.
During sessions with Bergen Academies students, Veng said he and his sisters struggled to survive as the government forced people into work camps, killed intellectuals and destroyed schools, and separated fathers from their families.
At age 5, he walked with his grandmother and a sister through mine-filled forests, past corpses and with no food to eat, to get to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Along the way, refugees ate lizards, birds and human flesh to survive, he said. During his childhood, school wasn't a priority.
"No one cared about education, because they just cared about survival and how to find food to eat," he said.
Still, Veng said, he took classes at the refugee camp and talked his way into an English-language class, hoping that he would get a visa to go to the U.S. or Canada. In 1993, he returned to Cambodia and, with his English skills, found work with United Nations programs.
But he saw how the country was still reeling from poverty, genocide and a lack of education. He started a non-profit, called the Contribution for the Development of the Economy and Community, in 1996. He moved to the U.S. four years ago, and continues to advocate for his homeland.
"I really want to encourage you and convince you that Cambodia is a country that really needs help," he told students.
The population is overwhelmingly young — in large part because so many adults were killed, he noted. Public education is still lacking, but Veng said schools alone aren't the answer because people see little opportunity or hope.
So, his non-profit is also focused on vocational training, clean water access, and loans and support for small business.
Student Matthew Hanl Park, who founded Bergen 4 Cambodia, said he hoped students would support the fundraising efforts after hearing Veng speak.
He got involved in the issue while he was a middle school student, he said, after learning that many young people in Cambodia don't go to school.
Students said Veng's life story made them feel grateful for all they have, and for their education.
"It's amazing," said Pritha Aggarwal, a junior. "We have so many people to help us and so many opportunities."