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Indelibly Ambrosian: Ven. Somnieng Houern Seeks to Serve a Nation

November 2012 | by Craig DeVrieze

Cambodia is a country scarred by the ravages of a half-century of war, a nation still haunted by the unshakable shadow of "The Killing Fields."

It is a country where more than a third of its 15 million people live below the poverty line and where 80 percent survive through subsistence farming.

It is a country where more than half the population is under the age of 20, where fewer than 20 percent of school children advance beyond the American equivalent of junior high, where one of five children are victims of sexual abuse and where the number of street children and orphans is growing by an estimated 20 percent each year.

Cambodia is a country Venerable Somnieng Houern plans to transform one under-fed, under-educated, under-loved child at a time.

The first child he saved? It was Somnieng himself.

Randy Richards didn't see it at first.

It was masked by a ready smile. An easy laugh. An inquisitive and unpretentious openness to making new friends and experiencing new things. It was cloaked in a willful innocence that Richards now will concede he mistook for a childlike lack of worldliness.

Ed Rogalski, PhD, meanwhile, couldn't miss it.

Then president of St. Ambrose University, Rogalski saw the gentle, congenial Buddhist bearing of the 25-year-old Cambodian monk who sat before him in the spring of 2006. Yet, he also couldn't help but see the steel-hard determination, the mission-driven dedication within the spirited young man whose remarkable story soon would become indelibly Ambrosian.

It turned out a man can be childlike and wise beyond his years. Ven. Somnieng Houern '10 was proof.

Richards '71, PhD, the professor of philosophy and business management who mentored Ven. Somnieng to an SAU bachelor's degree in business in 2010, now knows both sides well.

"He is a person of intensity or this stuff wouldn't get done," Richards said. "You can not accomplish what he has accomplished haphazardly."

What Ven. Somnieng so far has accomplished has dramatically changed the lives of thousands of underprivileged Cambodian children and families.

Before serendipitous circumstance brought him to St. Ambrose, Ven. Somnieng already had spent five years as second head monk at the Wat Damnak, a Buddhist temple in the city of Siem Reap in north central Cambodia.

There, he founded the Life and Hope Association as an organization that provided food to local families who, in exchange, allowed their children to attend school at the temple.
In short order, the association grew to include an orphanage for up to 40 abandoned children; a boarding school for girls eager to extend their education beyond junior high; a sewing school that provides otherwise unemployable young women a marketable skill; a modern junior high school; and a foreign language school to teach Khmer families the English-speaking skills that can lead to employment in the city's growing tourism industry.

Since Ven. Somnieng took his St. Ambrose education home in 2010, the association's reach has been extended to more than 1,400 children and its operation has grown considerably more efficient and successful, he said.

More is to come.

In September, Ven. Somnieng began his pursuit of a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard's prestigious and exclusive Kennedy School of Government.

He is believed to be the first St. Ambrose graduate to attend the school whose roll of alumni includes scores of CEOs and national and international leaders, among them current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

"The admissions committee was impressed by Somnieng's commitment to promoting fundamental social change in Cambodia," said Matt Clemons, the Kennedy School's director of admissions. "His history of non-profit initiatives was impressive and the committee felt that he has the potential to be a truly transformational leader in the future."

A Boy Transformed

In 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge armies unleashed a genocide that claimed between 1.7 million and 3 million Cambodian lives over a period of four years. More than 1.3 million corpses later were discovered in 20,000 mass graves that came to be known as the Killing Fields.

Somnieng Houern was born in 1980, one year after invading Vietnamese troops chased the barbaric Pol Pot from power.

He grew up poor in a rural village in Siem Reap Province, often hungry and frequently scarred by the domestic violence that remains endemic to the Khmer culture. Both parents left home before he was 2 and he went to live with an adoptive family.

As a boy, he saw the Killing Fields that claimed a grandfather and more than one uncle. The murder of his father in the late 1980s remains shrouded in mystery, but his family chose not to seek answers, he said. "We forgot and forgave and started a new life,'' said Ven. Somnieng.

It was in his 15th year that Somnieng's world was turned inside out and the intense determination he would bring to St. Ambrose a decade later was awakened.

That year, his exam to gain entry into the equivalent of American high school was rejected because his mother, with whom he had reconciled a year earlier, lacked the $5 bribe a local official demanded. The teen-aged Somnieng spent months shamed and angered, hiding from friends. He ultimately decided he would find a path to education by joining the temple in his hometown.

"I really didn't know what to do," he said. "But I knew that I wanted an education. I think I was strong and determined. Whenever I faced problems, I could find a solution."

A year later, he moved to Siem Reap and the Wat Damnak. There, Ven. Somnieng found his purpose, impoverished young Cambodians found a champion, and a great Ambrosian story found its beginning.

‘My Second Birthplace'

By 2005, Ven. Somnieng had risen to the rank of second chief of the wat. The Life and Hope Association had been launched. Young lives were being changed.

He began the association because he knew he had not been the only Cambodian child who grew up starving for nourishment, education and hope for a better life. "You come to the point where you ask yourself how many other children, how many other people, have no place, have no opportunity, have no food?" he said. "And what can I do?"

While Ven. Somnieng was providing that opportunity, chance brought Bettendorf, Iowa, dentist Jon Ryder to Wat Damnak.

While on a mission trip to Cambodia, Ryder sought Buddhist instruction from an English-speaking monk in the region. Only Ven. Somnieng fit that profile. Over a week's time spent together, a friendship developed that ultimately would lead the young monk to a small, private Catholic university in the middle of America.

"Dr. Ryder was taken by Somnieng and thought it would be a good idea to bring him here on a cultural exchange," remembered Richards, himself a practicing Buddhist and an acquaintance of Dr. Ryder's. "They needed a connection to do that. I took up the cause."

Ven. Somnieng spent spring 2006 on the SAU campus, auditing and speaking to classes and meeting with faculty and students. In the process, he saw the value of a U.S. college education. "I think it occurred to him that this was a place where he could further his vision of what he wanted to accomplish in Cambodia," Richards said.

A meeting with Rogalski was arranged.

"What impressed me was the unusual promise he demonstrated for a man of his age," the president emeritus remembered. "He was worldly already in so many ways, having done some things that take a lifetime for some people to accomplish."

Visa issues delayed Ven. Somnieng's enrollment for nearly two years, but in 2008, he officially became a St. Ambrose student. And St. Ambrose forever became a part of him.

"Before coming to St. Ambrose, I knew I had a good heart," he said recently from Cambridge, Mass. "But I did not have the ability, the managerial skills, to run the Life and Hope Association effectively. That is why I tell you St. Ambrose is my second birthplace, the birthplace of my knowledge, the birthplace of my skills."

More than just a validation of the work he has done for the poor of Cambodia, Ven. Somnieng said his admission to the Kennedy School is a credit to his St. Ambrose training.

"St. Ambrose is very important to me," he said. "It has changed me and it has changed Cambodia. Without St. Ambrose, I wouldn't be able to be where I am today. The Kennedy School takes only successful people and people of potential. I could show them this kind of potential because of what I learned at St. Ambrose.

"I am very grateful and fortunate to be part of the St. Ambrose family."

His fortune is St. Ambrose's as well, said Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, the university president. "While St. Ambrose may have changed him, he changed us by his life, his determination, his gentle compassion," she said.

‘I Will Do Every Day ..."

A Buddhist monk using Skype is a jarring juxtaposition, but it is clear by now that Ven. Somnieng doesn't play to type.

And so his image appeared-shaved head, familiar orange sarong-on a St. Ambrose computer screen in late summer.

His smile was ready. His laugh was easy. He seemed inquisitive, unpretentious, open. But hours later, in a telephone interview from Cambridge, the steel-hard determination, the mission-driven dedication to lifting his people out of poverty poured forth in a passionate, earnest and decidedly intense rush.

Ven. Somnieng did pause once, briefly stumped, when asked to explain those two dichotomous personas-the joyful innocent and the impassioned servant. And then he laughed because, in truth, he said, the easy and the steel-hard are complementary. They work in tandem to drive this man who will strive to change a nation.

"It is just the joy of what we can do. It's the joy of the good things that we have done," he said. "You do it from your heart and you enjoy doing that. And then the people who receive from you also feel the same way."

Ven. Somnieng's life narrative already is remarkable but more compelling chapters may lie ahead.

"I think this story is yet to develop," said Rogalski. "He has such unusual promise. He has aspirations to change his country for the best. Not only for the better. For the best. And that's a lofty aspiration."

While the Kennedy School is known to build political leaders, monks in Cambodia historically have stayed above the political fray. Ven. Somnieng has done that so far himself, even rejecting entreaties at the provincial level to apply for a party membership card.

He also has rejected requests from politicians seeking bribes, even though a small amount of currency-$50 to $500 from an LHA budget that steadily is growing due to donations from the West-might have helped win approval for opening a college at the temple.

The college is an important goal, but Ven. Somnieng said he cannot sacrifice principle for expediency. "I do the good thing for the good thing," he said. "I'm not doing a bad thing for the good thing."

That philosophy is owed in part to the Buddhist belief in Karma, a concept he believes brought Dr. Ryder to the Wat Damnak and led the him to St. Ambrose.

"The Christian belief is that God will bring us together," Ven. Somnieng said. "And I accept that. It's just a different way of saying it. If you do good things, God will bless you. Right?"

Human suffering, however, isn't ended by fate, Karma or prayer alone. It takes the considerable will of man. And Ven. Somnieng's steely determination to do good for the children of Cambodia is intense and unwavering. Memories of his challenging childhood may drive this Ambrosian toward a place in Cambodian history.

"I cannot run away and I will not because that is my home, that is my land, that is my country," he said. "I want to be part of rebuilding Cambodia. I want to see where Cambodia will be in the next few decades. I want to see how much I can do for her.

"It is my obligation. I see the suffering. I see the problems. And I come from the suffering. I don't know how much I can do. But, until my last breath, I know I will do every day.''

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