The gift of education

The support of Jesuit Mission Australia enabled Pili, born into poverty
in rural Cambodia, to transform her life and inspire others.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

By Zach Martorana, Communications Officer, Jesuit Mission Australia

As a young girl, Kimleang, the eldest of four daughters in a poor farming family in rural Cambodia, chose the nickname Pili. After seeing a little statuette of Pilar, Our Lady of the Pillar, she said, “I want to have the same name because I am also very small.”

Because her tiny village had no school, education did not seem possible in her immediate surroundings. Yet she dreamt of becoming a teacher, even though she could not read or write.

She says: “I was born in a small village in Battambang Province. My family are Buddhist and my parents were rice farmers. After the harvest each year, they would go for an extended period of time to a flooded forest area to fish, and during their long absences, I stayed with my grandmother in a different village that had a school.

“Even though my family was poor, I never gave up. Dropping out of school was never an option for me. I went to school all the time and the school wasn’t very far away. I enjoyed it because I made new friends there and I always absorbed new knowledge from the teacher.”

2006: Pili (extreme left) after Mass at the Taehen church.

When she was 14, things became more challenging but the educational support of Jesuit Mission Australia was vital. “At the time my family situation was difficult, so my parents decided to send me to live in the Taehen Student Centre to study and I literally grew up there because I lived in the Centre. However, when the school had an annual three-month vacation, my parents took me to the forest to help them there. When I was young, all I wanted to do was to become a teacher because I was always struck by how my own teacher helped many students and the many ways in which she was so kind to all the children.

“The standard of education at that time was developing and the teacher was hampered because she did not have enough materials to teach us with. Generally speaking, the students were not very good at reading and writing at that stage.

2015: Pili (bottom row, third from left) on her graduation day after completing a secretarial and computing course.

“Besides academics, I had a focus on catechism and learning English. I also took part in many activities such as learning traditional dance and attending youth meetings. For fun things, I liked to draw, plant flowers and play sports with my friends. The Centre did much more for me than just academics. When I was at home, I didn’t have the confidence to talk or share my ideas with others. I always stayed alone and I didn’t like meeting many people. But during my time at the Centre, I grew in confidence. My tendency towards negative thinking changed and I became more positive. I enjoyed living and studying with my friends and I regarded the Centre as my second home.

“I was 20 when I completed my studies at the Taehen Student Centre. Among my peer group, there were some youngsters who finished high school but only a few of them were able to continue and attend university, because their families couldn’t afford to support them to continue their studies.”

Pili’s determination, combined with her diligence at the school, caught the attention of Bishop Enrique “Kike” Figaredo SJ, a Spanish-born Jesuit priest. As the Apostolic Prefect and Director of the Battambang Education Project, he has led the Church in Battambang for more than twenty years and also founded the Arrupe Welcome Centre in 2001 for children living with a disability.

“Educating the people of Cambodia,” he says, “gives them the capacity to build their own lives and shape a better future for their country. Education is a human right. Despite difficulties, no child should be denied his or her right to have a proper education.

“We gave Pili a scholarship to go to high school and then to go to the Salesian sisters to learn how to become a secretary. Then she went to university, after which she went to the Philippines to learn about leadership and development. She has always been very focused. She understands what life is about – serving and loving others. She is incredible. She’s doing her job in a way that inspires others. She inspires me too, because of her sweet manner and beautiful way of relating to others.

2017: Pili (in purple) with some of the Taehen students whom she instructs in Khmer traditional dance.

“I have to say that from her deep suffering she has found compassion and joy. She struggled a lot with her family life and poverty. But she took all the opportunities that we gave her and now she’s our star. She does the accounting for the Battambang Education Project, as well as helping to form our students.

“We also have a leadership program that Jesuit Mission Australia supports and Pili is in charge of that. She’s so focused on accounting and transparency, yet she also finds time to encourage the students to take all the opportunities they are given. So we are not only happy with her work, we are inspired by the way in which she relates to others. By empathising with and accompanying others on their respective journeys, she ensures that other young people like her can use our programs to find their own path to success.”

The role of education for disadvantaged children is a special focus for Helen Forde, CEO of Jesuit Mission Australia. “I’m a passionate believer in the power of education,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve witnessed the many ways education can help vulnerable people break the cycle of poverty and uplift themselves, their families, their communities and even their country.

“Right now, just ten per cent of all young people in rural Cambodia will finish high school. Tragically, this means another generation will be left unable to escape the grip of poverty. But Pili’s transformational story is an inspiring example of how it is possible to beat the odds after receiving a Jesuit-supported scholarship to study from Grade 5 through to high school. Now our wonderful Jesuit Mission family has responded with great generosity to open up opportunities for more vulnerable young people who are missing out on an education.”

2023: Pili, wearing white and seated fourth from left in the second row, at the JMA Partners meeting in Cebu, Philippines. Helen Forde, CEO of Jesuit Mission Australia, is standing on the extreme left of the photo.

In addition to her career, Pili has taken on far deeper responsibility as the breadwinner and de facto head of the family. Her father died in 2022 and she is the full-time carer for her mother, who is bedridden. “I have many responsibilities within my family,” she explains. “I have taken on the role of a parent. My mother now lives with a disability. She can’t walk at all. She just lies on her bed and she can’t speak clearly. She cannot feed herself, so I have to take care of feeding her. She has been sick for nine years.

“I have to cover all the expenses in my family. One of my sisters is married and has three children, two of whom live with me. Every day, I need to take them to school before I go to work. After I finish my day’s work with Bishop Kike at the Prefecture Office, I go home and cook dinner and feed my mother. After that I go to the Taehen Centre, where I teach the students Khmer traditional dance. They are very long days and yes, I feel exhausted but when I see the smiles on the students’ faces, it makes me happy and I thoroughly enjoy teaching them.

“I think education is very important for these young people because most of them come from poor families. Because their families can’t support them forever, only education can bring them to a better future. Moreover, education helps us to be good citizens in society and to live with dignity. In my case, I wouldn’t have been able to continue studying or go to high school without a scholarship.

“When I was a young girl during my student years at the Taehen Student Centre, we had a good schedule to follow. There were very good policies in place, and I learnt many life skills. We had to get up early to clean the rooms and to clean the whole area. Studying of course was a very important part of life there. I did a lot of self-study but every night we would have group study sessions and these were very important for me because some of my friends used to help me when I did not know how to do my homework. On weekends we used to have different activities that included going to the village. On Sundays, we had Mass. We received so much support in every area of our youth and that’s why I feel as if the Centre is actually my second home.”

2023: At work with Bishop Kike Figaredo SJ.

Bishop Kike sees her as a “leader in the community.” Asked to elaborate, he says: “She inspires others because she’s not only very good in her job, she also does it with a lot of grace. In a simple way she is inspiring many others. Even though her office role is in accounting, she also manages the office hospitality. We receive many guests and she’s very good at keeping everything organised. She and her team are also organising the accounts of the diocese. But specifically these days, she’s involved in the project of education for leadership that is supported by Jesuit Mission Australia. She’s involved with the (hostel) centres, with accounting and she’s also directly involved with the students.

“Add to that her many responsibilities with her family and how she handles all of that while working full-time. She’s a born leader and a wonderful example to her family. She’s always sweet-natured and clear in her thinking. When there is a problem or conflict, she never throws the problem to anyone else. She solves them and she has a special way of resolving issues or responding to conflict in a peaceful way. I’m very grateful to her.”

Pili’s own perspective on how her life changed is simple but sincere. “Thanks to the support of Jesuit Mission Australia, I was able to break away from the pattern of missing out on a quality education.

“In my case, not having an education would have meant getting married at an early age. What Jesuit Mission has done is to give people like me a chance to create a new life through the gift of education. Without that impetus, I would not have been able to improve my life and to provide for my family. I wanted to learn, to broaden my horizons by studying hard and to improve. Now I hope to inspire others as well.”

Founded in 1951, Jesuit Mission Australia partners with Jesuit networks overseas to deliver community-led, sustainable programs that cultivate resilience and self-reliance for vulnerable communities in 14 countries around the world.

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