TODAY, SOPHANY LOOKS AROUND his beleaguered country and is reminded that the crippling effects of violent conflict, sustained over generations, linger long after the fighting stops. “Those who have suffered collective trauma need great care,” he says. Sophany could see that the church in Cambodia wanted to bring hope, but sometimes, in the face of great adversity, hope needs help.
In the late 70’s, the Khmer Rouge—infamously lead by Pol Pot, a terrifying and merciless dictator—decided that the key to Cambodia’s independence was to drastically and aggressively reorganize the country around agriculture. This meant a massive forced evacuation of all major cities to the rural countryside. The people of Cambodia, displaced and under Khmer Rouge control, were suddenly subjected to torture, starvation, forced labor, and death. Many were forced to dig their own mass graves before being buried alive. Pol Pot derived his power from force and fear. By the time Pol Pot’s reign was over, the Khmer Rouge had killed a third of the population.
Living through this nightmare left the people of Cambodia severely traumatized. Any infrastructure that might have supported them had been crushed. Sophany explains, “An entire generation was left completely hopeless in an economic and cultural crisis. Their way of perceiving life was defined by the singular goal of basic survival. And this perspective has persisted, shaping the identities of communities.” Now, Cambodian families face not only poverty, but also enormous debt and no means to change their circumstances. “Nobody has the luxury of thinking about the future,” Sophany says. “The present financial pressures completely overshadow the long-term benefits of planning for a better future.” He finds this to be especially tragic. Sophany believes, “The hope of the future of Cambodia is intimately linked to protecting children through the means of education.”
In a culture that largely views children as utility, parents expect their children to abandon education and go away to work as soon as they are able. Why spend money on school, just to put off earning a living, when you can start making money right now? Unfortunately, this desperate mindset often leads to exploitation and child trafficking in work camps, domestic services, and the sex trade. Sophany believes the budding local church has the potential to pull Cambodia out of despair. “God gave me a vision,” he says. “He loves His children and wants the church to take care of them. To protect our children. To keep families together. But the church here is still finding her feet. Individual churches, made up of just 10 to 15 adults, want to help, but they are small and need to be equipped. This is how I got the idea to start Kone Kmeng.” Kone Kmeng empowers small, home churches to meet their communities’ needs, especially those of the children.
One way they do this is by promoting greater understanding of God’s heart for children. In the midst of a predominantly Buddhist culture, they teach that humans are created in the image of God and are, therefore, meant to reflect his glory—including and especially children. Kone Kmeng also works to equip churches with resources to launch new projects that improve communities, support and train pastors, and help churches that are specifically responding to the issues of at-risk children in their communities.
Ultimately, Kone Kmeng exists as the response to Sophany’s vision, to stand up against the cultural risk of exploitation and trafficking. This is hard work. Progress is incremental. But Kone Kmeng, under Sophany’s humble, servant leadership, is committed to helping children and their families begin thinking beyond the immediate present, encouraging them to dream and work for a different kind of future—one with opportunities and freedom.