A Cambodian refugee comes home and builds a new life's work, helping village women learn to weave shimmering silk scarves and independent lives.
STUNG TRENG, CAMBODIA — “They are sick of chicken soup,” Chantha Nguon grins, as around 40 chattering women sit down to a free lunch.
After fleeing war-ravaged Cambodia as a child, enduring two lean decades as a refugee in Vietnam and in Thai refugee camps, then returning to a country laid waste, it’s hard for Nguon to look a gift chicken in the mouth.
With macabre humor, she recalls the inferior birds available in the camps: “We called it ‘chicken that stepped on a mine,’” — so stingy of flesh, she laughs, meat seemed to have separated from bone…explosively.
She’s glad for the soup, however repetitive.
The fact that these few dozen village women are in a position to gripe about the fare fills Nguon with quiet satisfaction. “It’s very vulnerable to be a woman in Cambodia,” she says. Few attend school; most face poverty, early marriage, drudgery in a distant garment factory, or worse — in the sex trade. Daily chicken soup, for many, is a dream.
At the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, a small social enterprise she and her husband built in a remote patch of jungle in northeastern Cambodia 14 years ago, an open-air kindergarten teems with laughing children; the soup-cooks peel root vegetables in an outdoor kitchen. And after lunch, murmuring women amble back to their hand-built looms and resume threading together shimmering silk strands, producing gem-hued scarves sold worldwide as “Mekong Blue.”
At SWDC, employees take literacy and health classes and make a living wage. They tend to delay marriage, have fewer children than their peers, and even build their own houses, Nguon says, her eyes shining with pride. They’re a little less vulnerable, she explains, a little more free.
“I love this work,” Nguon smiles. “Now I am free.”