Arn Chorn Pond, founder of the first community service organization in Cambodia, shared his life experiences last night in Agassiz Theater, imploring the Harvard community to engage in public service.
"There are gang kids in Providence, Revere and Cambodia," Pond said before an audience of about 50. "They are waiting for you.... Just do it!"
In his speech, which was sponsored by Education for Action, Pond explained how he used the $1,000 prize from winning a Reebok Human Rights Award to found the Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development in 1994.
According to Judith Thompson, who introduced Pond as "the most remarkable person I've been lucky enough to meet," community service in politically unstable Cambodia is a radical and dangerous idea.
When Pond returned to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh less than two years ago, he found no support for his plans. Pond brought together a group of disgruntled college students who wanted the government to clean up streets polluted with 25 years of trash, human bones and feces.
"It's [my] country, and it's yours," Pond said. "It's easy to point fingers."
With that attitude, Pond, a former Brown University undergraduate, "started picking the shit off the streets," Thompson said.
Today, more than 20,000 young Cambodians clean the streets with Pond. Members of his organization also plant trees, teach English and serve as big siblings.
Pond was among the first three Cambodian orphans to arrive in the United States. In 1980, when he landed in New York, he was but a 50-pound 14-year-old.
Pond's high school years were spent in the "cold jungle of New Hampshire." Unable to speak English, he failed all of his classes. Faced with mockery and failure, "I wanted to kill myself," Pond said.
Thompson, who Pond calls a sister, helped him survive during his high school years. "For what I'm doing, for whom I'm becoming, I owe it to people like Judy [Thompson]," Pond said.
Together, Pond and Thompson founded the "Children of War" program. The program brings children from 22 countries including the U.S. together to share their universal experiences growing up in environments marked by violence and pain.
This program allowed Pond to share his story of personal struggle, which included witnessing his nine-year-old friends axed to death by the Khmer Rouge and coping with the death of nine of his 11 siblings.
In her introduction Thompson praised Pond for his unique ability to "talk about what it means to be a human being from the position of both innocence and wisdom."
"When I spoke one time people cried, and I knew people gave a shit about me," Pond said.
After the talk, audience members enjoyed Cambodian food and were able to talk to Pond. Pond came to Harvard in part to raise funds for a computer center for poor Cambodian children he plans to build