The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

Home, with hope

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You Heang Ang-Briggs and a Buddhist monk who is a pupil at the Cambodian-American Business School, which sports a familiar seal.

by William M. Briggs

When You Heang Ang-Briggs ’94 graduated, his American dream didn’t include a high paying job, life in the suburbs or a successful career. He dreamed instead of returning to his native Cambodia, to Phnom Penh, the site of painful memories of his own personal holocaust. It was there he had witnessed the deaths of his parents, family members and childhood friends through violence and starvation.

After years of running, hiding and finally living in a refugee camp, You Heang was brought to the United States. He was confused, scared and grief-stricken. Added to this emotional pain was the physical trauma of the juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which afflicted him. You was in constant pain and medicated while facing culture shock with a lack of English language skills.

It was more than enough to daunt the determination of most children. But You Heang — strengthened by our central New York family who adopted him and with an abiding new faith garnered from a supportive United Church of Christ community — struggled on. He eventually achieved the dream of a Colgate education and experienced the joys of campus life.

You Heang’s decision to seek his cultural roots after graduation surprised no one. He returned to Cambodia to work and was able to organize and start the Cambodian-American Business School (CABS), which now has an enrollment of 350 students.

When fighting resumed this summer in the streets of Phnom Penh, my wife Susie and I, You Heang’s adoptive parents, became worried about our son. Finally, via e-mail, we learned he was safe. Susie and I had experienced third world upheavals ourselves while participating in United Church of Christ mission projects and through Witness for Peace and we decided to travel to Cambodia. Our journey was a show of support and an attempt to more clearly understand You Heang’s work.

Driving into Phnom Penh, You Heang pointed out for us buildings gutted by gunfire and mortar blasts along the streets where royalists and coup forces waged battle. The Cambodian-American Business School is located two blocks from the American Embassy, in the neighborhood of the most bitter fighting. "Secure" and "comfortable" are foreign concepts in Phnom Penh, replaced these days by looting and killing.

A July 7 and 8 coup led by Hung Senn forced You Heang and his co-workers to flee under the cover of white flags to a safe house blocks away.

"I have always been helped," answered You Heang when asked why he returned to such uncertainty and constant danger. "All my life some spirit has guided me and I just had to give thanks. I felt Cambodia needed my help. I always remember a sermon my father gave on the ‘Good Samaritan’. In the United States I received a family upbringing and a good education and it just didn’t seem right to abandon my people. Perhaps I can make a difference here."

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A recent CABS graduating class with found You Heang at the far left.

Tensions remain high and violence may erupt any moment in Cambodia but classes have resumed at CABS. About 350 students attend class every day, arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. They come by foot, bicycle and motorbike to an old four-story office building where the atmosphere is intense as young and ambitious future "entrepreneurs and managers" prepare for the economic and development surge predicted for Cambodia in the 21st Century.

Students endure stifling heat and crowded classrooms to learn English, marketing, management and accounting skills. Through interactive classes and computer training, CABS students develop communication skills and find internship opportunities with local and international businesses.

As founder and general director of CABS, You Heang conducts the activities of the school as if it were a symphony. With a portable phone in one hand, he sets up classrooms, meets with parents worried about a child, then arbitrates a faculty conflict. Always the cheerleader, You Heang inspires excellence, perseverance and courage in the struggle for personal success, qualities he says he learned from his grandfather in America.

Like You Heang, CABS faculty have overcome incredible odds and personal tragedy to achieve the proficiency and skill that entitles them to teach. Everyone in Cambodia is touched by the grief and pain of the Pol-Pot years. Each noon the CABS staff share a working lunch and map out future plans and dreams. Many of the faculty live in common quarters on the top floor of the school.

During the day You Heang works as the assistant director of the Center for Intercultural Education and Development (CTED), a Georgetown University project.

His salary would enable him to live well by Cambodian standards. Instead, he pours personal earnings into the development of the school. He dreams of CABS evolving into Cambodia’s first private university center for arts, science and the study of ethics as well as business. Photographs from Colgate and his own graduation hang in the school’s hallways for all to see.

In Cambodia and at CABS the future unfolds one day at a time. You Heang and his staff face almost impossible odds but they are motivated by the knowledge that together they can accomplish their goals. You Heang’s optimism and can-do spirit have been shaped by Christian faith, family values and his experiences in the United States and at Colgate. During Pol-Pot’s rule hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were exiled, tortured or killed. Few who escaped wish to return to a land of such uncertainty and violence. Some, however, believe that hope, like resurrection, can rise from the ashes of destruction. You Heang is a symbol of hope in a parched and ruined land.

As Susie and I released two birds (a Buddhist symbol of hope) at Wat Khmer, site of the founding of Phnom Penh and the beginning of modern Cambodia, we imagined You Heang’s dreams would some day allow his native land to fly like an eagle and be peaceful as a dove.