Phum Thom, Cambodia (JTA) — Arun Sothea is a slight, soft-spoken man. He speaks both casually and simply when discussing the horrors of his past — as well as the triumphs of his present — both of which have taken place in his childhood home of Phum Thom.
The Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign in 1975-1979 — which included mass execution, hard labor, forced relocation and widespread starvation — left Sothea, now 46, an orphan. Then a young child, Sothea remembers struggling to eat under the ultranationalist Communist regime and being beaten and later imprisoned for snatching a fish from a pond.
As the Khmer Rouge began in late 1978 to lose territory and retreat into Cambodia’s thick and humid jungle, Sothea, then nine years old, walked almost 150 miles back from his forced labor camp to Phum Thom. But when he arrived, he found nobody — the Khmer Rouge had killed all 36 of his family members.
He trekked to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s then-dilapidated capital, where he lived for years on the streets. But eventually, with help from Western contacts, including a few Jewish charities, Sothea opened in Phum Thom an orphanage, secondary school and a health clinic — all while working full-time as the executive director of Sovann Komar, a nonprofit orphanage he founded that now cares for nearly 60 children in Phnom Penh.
In his free time, Sothea runs what he calls “his project” — another orphanage, this one for about two dozen children back in Phum Thom — while also checking in frequently on the nearby medical clinic and secondary school for which he also secured funding, often from various Jewish organizations.
“In 2006 a group of American Jews came to visit Cambodia,” Sothea recalled. “They heard that I am doing a lot of things to rebuild the Cambodian community after [the] genocide regime so they came to meet me.”
The Phum Thom orphanage has since 2006 drawn support from Jewish Helping Hands, a New York-based nonprofit led by Joel Soffin, a former pulpit rabbi in New Jersey and Connecticut.
“While sitting shiva for my brother in 2006, I read an article by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times encouraging people to build schools in Cambodia to keep girls from becoming prostitutes,” Soffin recalled in an email. “I raised money to build such a school in his memory and went there with 25 people to dedicate it.”
Soffin said he first heard about Sothea’s work from Jeremy Hockenstein, the CEO and co-founder of Digital Divide Data, who has a nonprofit foundation called Follow Your Dream through which his and others’ money is transferred to Sothea.
“Honestly, I don’t know about the Jewish religion,” said Sothea. “But I do know millions of Jewish people were killed in World War II and it was similar to Cambodia — millions of Cambodia people were tortured and killed [under the Khmer Rouge]. Those friends of mine feel sorry for my parents who were killed in [the] genocide regime and they need to support what I am doing to help my village. As a Buddhist, we [have] open mind for any religion who can help humanity without racism and religion.”
The orphanage has two gender-separated dorms (albeit without beds, as the children sleep on barely padded mats on the floor), a dusty soccer field, a classroom and a library complete with a few Microsoft computers (although they don’t connect to the internet).
And while the orphans, unlike many of their classmates, don’t have “fancy” motorbikes, as Sothea lamented, they have bicycles and attend school a quick ride away.
School sessions in Cambodia are largely split between morning and afternoon, leaving time for the average child to help their families make money, which often means working on a familial farm. But Sothea’s orphans in their “off time” learn English back at the complex.
The orphans, who range from young children to teenagers, come from various parts of the country, which remains among the poorest in Asia. When I visited the complex, the orphans were bubbly and keen to practice their English — while also praising my laughably poor Khmer. But mental health issues, namely depression, are prominent among the teenagers, Sothea says. Still, the home he has created for them is better than of most Cambodian orphanages.
Sothea also secured funding from Jewish Helping Hands for the secondary school — which the village previously lacked — to which he sends many of the orphans. JHH, according to their website, has provided thousands of dollars to Sothea’s projects.
“JHH paid the full cost of building the school and donates annually to keep it at a high level,” Soffin told JTA in an email. “Arun checks the school for me from time to time.”
When I visited, Sothea told me that Soffin regularly checks in and politely prods about the state of the school’s Microsoft desktop computers.
Hockenstein “and I and our donors have been supporting Arun’s kids for more than 10 years, some in college when they graduate from high school,” Soffin said. “There are now 27 left in the group. We will continue to support them, with Jeremy, until they all graduate.”
Sothea later encouraged Soffin and others to come back to the village and help construct a library for the elementary and middle schools.
“Nine of us went and JHH paid all the costs of construction,” Soffin said. “We plan to return in December to improve the ceiling and the floor.”
Sothea also found funding for a health center in his hometown, filling in another of Phum Thom’s gaps.
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, a Jewish charity based in Agawam, Mass., also supports education and health in Cambodia. Through Sothea, who served as the on-the-ground coordinator, it supported nearly 70 orphans in the early 2000s. Mary Anne Herron, the foundation’s current director of special projects, first visited Phum Thom in 2002, meeting with Sothea, some of those children and women in the village; she returned again in 2003. Herron founded, and now heads, the Cambodian Medical Clinic Foundation, one of the village’s main benefactors.
“I visited the same women the very next year when I came to the village. At [a] meeting I asked them what could I do for them,” Herron told JTA in an email. “It was at this meeting of the three that they shared with me that there were no medical facilities to assist mothers having babies and that the mothers died and so did the babies.
“The only help they received was from a midwife who assisted with a needle and thread, a candle and a pair of scissors.”
Reacting to the dire conditions, Herron in 2005 first raised $12,000 to build the clinic. After it quickly became popular — bringing far more patients per month than they had expected — Herron in 2008 raised another $18,000 to build a separate small natal clinic for women. While $10,000 of this funding came from Grinspoon, the rest, Herron told JTA, came from her personally.
It was Sothea who “took care of all of the logistics for the building of the clinic,” she said. “Again, Arun was responsible for the building of the clinic addition.” (Herron told JTA that Sothea also enabled her to give out water filters to several of the hundreds of families, which she continues to do through her local Rotary Club.)
Sothea managed through various sources to fund the clinic through 2017. But, following a crackdown by Cambodia’s authoritarian government, overseas donations dried up. Sothea handed the hospital over to the government that year; the clinic, staffers say, has since received Chinese-made drugs, which they say are less effective than the Thailand-made counterparts they used to receive. Cholera is the biggest problem, staffers say, because people do not have access to clean water and instead drink from local ponds and rivers. But despite the clinic’s struggles, it provides services previously lacking in Phum Thom.
And similarly, despite the setbacks, Sothea’s success remains as remarkable as it is improbable. In 1988, he left his hometown, which he said “was not safe” as the government was still recruiting soldiers to fight the still-not-defeated Khmer Rouge, for Phnom Penh. He scavenged and cleaned vehicles for a few years before, in 1998, securing a job as the country director of Cambodia Living Arts, an organization dedicated to preserving the Cambodian artistic culture crushed under the Khmer Rouge.
He worked in this role until 2003, when the World Learning Foundation granted him financial aid to pursue his studies in the U.S., first in Vermont and then at Columbia University.
After returning to Cambodia in the mid-2000s — with assistance from the late heiress Elizabeth Ross Johnson, whom he had met earlier through his work at Cambodia Living Arts — he established the Sovann Komar orphanage.
Sothea and his wife have two biological sons and personally care for seven orphans.
And while his main focus is his full-time job at Sovann Komar, he makes time for his Phum Thom projects, mainly because of the orphans.
“I love the orphan, because I come through the orphan background,” he told JTA. “I understand what the children need: love.”